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What would you consider a red flag when interviewing at a startup?
July 22, 2014 3:49 AM   Subscribe

I was recently recruited for a mid-level role at a young startup (tech in development for several years; company has existed for about a year). My gut feeling about the product and the tech is that it's viable. The market is there, and I myself would use the product. This is not the case for 80% of startup products/ideas that I see. I'm not so sure how I feel about the founders or the results of the first interview.

We spent a lot of time talking about the company culture and the founders' ideas about entrepreneurial life in general. Very little time was dedicated to a discussion of objectives or actual needs that the role would fill, and no time to remuneration or the company's current finances.

My concern is that I am being recruited primarily because I have language skills that are applicable to the company's leading market. Beyond that, the founder who interviewed me doesn't seem to have an idea of what else I could bring to the role, even though I have extensive marketing, business development and sales experience.

I'm wary of being put in a "language-skills" box and taking on default roles that come with that. Those roles are often not well-paid or valorized in small tech companies.

If you have startup experience, what would be some dealbreakers for you when deciding whether to accept a role or not?
posted by Occam's Aftershave to Work & Money (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Trust your gut, and assume you're going in for the experience & to build your resume, NOT to get rich quick. (You almost certainly won't.) Compensation should be fair even assuming 0 payoff from stock.

Startup culture is not about building a team for the future, it's about building a team to bring the product to market now. You are being recruited as a role player.

I've worked for several start-ups; I've enjoyed the energy and the sense of building something new. I've never made a penny on the stock.
posted by mr vino at 4:00 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Are there any women? How about anyone who isn't white (perhaps especially relevant, depending on what you mean by "language-skills".) What do they do? Is it important? Do they seem to matter?
posted by dekathelon at 4:35 AM on July 22 [7 favorites]


If the job seemed otherwise interesting, once they've made an offer I'd ask to go in for another meeting to 'solidify your role' and see if they address your concerns. If they want you, they need to make you feel 100% valued for the skills you want to grow and develop, not because you speak a second language.

Interviews aren't auditions, they're opportunities for both sides to see what the fit is. Always ask the important questions, if you're afraid that it will put them off, well that's GOOD, because if so, then it's not the right job for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:41 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


There are two women for ten men, all white. (They are also based in Western Europe, if this matters.) The women have the support roles.

I have 5 years of tech startup experience under my belt and arguably have skills above and beyond being the resident language expert.

My main concern here is that we spent very little time discussing current product and market, and concrete short- to mid-term objectives for the proposed role.

I'm confident about the product and tech, but something else isn't sitting right with me. I can't put my finger on it and wonder if I'm being paranoid because of fallout from previous experiences.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 4:46 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


If they make you an offer, is there any reason you couldn't arrange another meeting to answer these questions prior to making a decision? If they refuse to do so, then I would suspect that your answer should be no.
posted by HuronBob at 5:09 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


If they make you an offer, is there any reason you couldn't arrange another meeting to answer these questions prior to making a decision? If they refuse to do so, then I would suspect that your answer should be no.

Sure. That's the next step.

To clarify, I'm interested in hearing about other people's specific dealbreakers, even if they don't seem to be related to the situation at hand. Collective wisdom and all that.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 5:48 AM on July 22


You spent very little time discussing current product and market, but you only had one meeting. A lot of the interviews I've had were "culture first," proceeding to more 'crunchy' facts-and-figures topics in later interviews.

If they made you an offer after this one meeting, I'd definitely be worried. If this is just the first round, I'd withhold judgement.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:04 AM on July 22 [5 favorites]


Just wanted to add that I've never, ever regretted listening to and following my gut. Even if after due diligence you still can't seem to determine why this job isn't sitting right with you, please don't ignore your own intuition. Often I can't pinpoint why I feel uneasy, but 9 times out of 10 there is a very valid reason. I've learned that when I ignore that nagging feeling, I usually find out later why it was sounding the alarm bells, and then it's too late. Trust your gut!
posted by Falwless at 6:05 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


If they made you an offer after this one meeting, I'd definitely be worried. If this is just the first round, I'd withhold judgement.

While they didn't make me a specific offer (that'll be the next meeting), the interviewer told me "you're in."

What tickles my hinkometer is that he wants me as a go-to "native", when that's only about 10% of what I can bring to the company. It didn't seem to matter that I had other relevant experience in two different functional areas.

It was an offer, but without being specific. Kind of like "hire you first, find something to do with you later." Making that offer like that (and accepting it) would go against what I consider due diligence on both sides.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 6:22 AM on July 22


I'm in the middle of sort of this situation myself. I can do engineering/quant analysis work but don't want that to be my full time gig. But those skills are sufficiently in demand that most companies I talk to basically want to shove me in that direction. When I refused, most of them lost interest, but the ones who were left were good fits.

I came into a company on a job description that was focused on one specific aspect of my experience (the quant analysis piece) but got assurances from every involved that as long as I got some of that kind of work done I could foster a broader research portfolio. I also got a change in title to reflect this understanding.

I would definitely not accept anything without having a conversation about the "native" piece being only a small part of what you do. They might not be able to promise you exactly what you want, but if you can get to a place where they at least acknowledge your broader skillset and your desire to use it I think that might be okay. But if you still feel weird, like maybe they're just being nice to you because they're so desperate for the language skills you have, then walk away. Perhaps try to get it in writing / baked into the title in some way as a way to build confidence that they're serious.
posted by heresiarch at 6:33 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Here is what I would do in your situation.

First, I agree that some companies, start ups and nonstarter ups, sometimes do not interview well. As in they don't understand that it's a two way street. It depends as to reasons you want/don't want this job, but sometimes I have given the company that can't present themselves we'll a chance... After doing the initial work yourself.

So what I have done in similar cases is if I am offered the job or it looks like they will, I ask to meet with a colleague who will be at the same level. I ask that person 1) similar questions 2) concerns/deal breakers 3) things that you want. So in your shoes, I would ask if a person with different skills has the freedom to do x or y or whatever (some companies do, some do not ).

In your case, I would Also meet with a higher up person, but you drive the questions.

Fwiw, I had a company act the same way and did meet with a potential colleague. I felt that I learned more about the job that way and their strengths and weaknesses. I took the job and got what I wanted out of the experience, but I would not have done so based on the first interview.

typing on tiny iPhone and can't edit apologies
posted by Wolfster at 7:01 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


I can't find the reference now, but I read recently how startups need these three things (and are often lucky to just have one): the right technology(ies), the right people, and the right market.

You were interviewed for #2, and for #1 you mention it is 'viable', and you acknowledge that #3 is there.

I've had only one startup experience (for only 1 year, it didn't turn out very well, and still struggles along) and for a high-risk situation it could be that #2, the people involved, may be the most important of the three. (If you have the right people, they will develop or acquire the right technology attacking the right market.) My experience with friends who have caught the 'startup bug' is that they typically bounce every few years from one startup to another, and their overall compensation takes a different trajectory (downward). Mainly due to the overvaluation of an equity stake...

You don't mention whether any executive recruiter (i.e. 'headhunter') was involved, in which case the compensation piece is considered separately through them, including negotiations.

So to answer the specific question of a dealbreaker: if you don't feel comfortable with the people involved, that you can trust them with one of the most valuable things you have, your present (and future) earning potential.

Of course the 'right market' will have intense competition, the 'right technology' will have other alternative approaches that others will be developing, but the 'right people', well that's a limited quantity of those folks.
posted by scooterdog at 7:16 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


If you're not comfortable, don't take the job. You don't have to have a concrete reason to say no. Bad vibes are as good a reason as any not to take a job. If there's something you can't put your finger on, but you just don't think it would be a good fit, really, that's all you need to say no.

This is your career, and if you don't think that this job will serve you well in that respect, keep looking.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:08 AM on July 22


Sorry if I missed this, but I'm still confused by "language skills" and "native." Are you speaking about code or of actual spoken language?
posted by elwoodwiles at 8:28 AM on July 22


when that's only about 10% of what I can bring to the company.

This sounds a bit self-important to me, especially since it sounds like you failed to ask any sort of meaningful question during the interview and just let them dump out whatever they thought was important.

It is possible that this company doesn't need/want/find-impressive the other 90%. If you want your employer to fawn over you and tell you how amazing all of your skills are, turn this job down. If you actually have 10x more to give the company than realize, presumably you'll be able to show that to them. If they agree that that's the case, they'll obviously take advantage.

For me, red flags in tech start-ups are personnel growth without a focus on good management, too big a focus on "perks" that could easily be taken away (free lunches, ping pong tables, etc...) rather than guaranteed compensation, and not having a concrete plan in place to address technical debt. There are a bunch of other situational things or things specific to different tech stacks, but those are three big ones.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:38 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]


This, sounds a bit self-important to me, especially since it sounds like you failed to ask any sort of meaningful question during the interview and just let them dump out whatever they thought was important.

Nope, didn't fail to ask meaningful questions. I didn't receive solid answers to the ones I did ask.

When I asked about the short-term objectives for the role, I didn't get an answer because the interviewer was "making it up in [my] head at the moment." I am trying to decide whether this is a red flag. There are arguments for being able to make your own role in a fledgling company, or coming to the second interview with a role and job description you've created yourself.

Good call about compensation versus perks. This is not something that had crossed my mind. As it happens, there are lots of perks tied to the culture. I asked about compensation - enter a big digression concerning stock for employees.

And no, I'm not looking for someone to fawn over my skills. I'm not going to engineer, market or sell the next Google. What struck me as odd was that they're looking for a "native" (language/culture) to the exclusion of things that would add something concrete to their bottom line over the short term. And that they don't currently have those people.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 10:56 AM on July 22


Their primary target audience is one that the company currently has no representatives from? That does not sound promising to me. Why are they targeting a group they aren't a part of? It sounds very presumptuous.

Being evasive about compensation could mean they don't know what would be fair to offer you (which is just a matter of negotiation) or they don't have the means to do so (which would not be surprising for a start-up). If you can identify which, that may help ease your concerns.
posted by Lifeson at 11:08 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


I think your instincts are correct about not wanting to be the "native" who is the cultural go-to for a big market. By starting the business well before hiring someone with your qualifications, they're showing that whatever culture/language skills you have are not vital to the foundations of the company.

My experience has been that those "band-aid" job roles ("Oh, we're SO glad you have these skills! We have gaping hole in XYZ process/product and it's been left undone for years!") are frequently set up to fail because the real reason for that gaping hole in process/product is structural, complex and persistent, not something that can be solved by one individual, unless you are gifted in office politics. That said, every office is different, and depending on the size of the startup and how assertive you can afford to be, it could be a great experience.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 11:35 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


When I asked about the short-term objectives for the role, I didn't get an answer because the interviewer was "making it up in [my] head at the moment." I am trying to decide whether this is a red flag.

Yes, that is a red flag. It is not too difficult to come up with some base ideas before you interview someone, unless you really have no idea what you're doing.

Based on previous experience, I would run a mile in the opposite direction. Once you're working there, you'll be pigeon-holed into that 10% and you will just be endlessly frustrated that they refuse to acknowledge the 90% (because they don't really know what they're doing).

But the biggest issue is - what will happen when something goes wrong - how will they deal with it? If they can't come up with short-term objectives, how are they going to manage really serious issues?

Been there, have the t-shirt - this is really not a path you want to be going down.
posted by heyjude at 2:31 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


What I've done in similar situations is to just say, "Look, you don't want to hire me to do X. You don't need me to do Z. You need a person who can Q and can V. I think if you run through what we've talked about, you'll see the wisdom in that. So don't hire me just because of the little sparkle I have for skill Z, which is peripheral to where the company is right now. It'd be a mistake. There's a job here you didn't advertise and it's QV+LMNOP. Hire me for that."

They're usually incredulous, but if they're offering a job you don't really want, then it's worth a chance to just make your own job and see if they agree. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:34 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


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