Startup interview questions

    Common startup interview questions suck. This article will provide you with an ironclad startup interview process that will increase your chance of hiring A-players and being successful. After reading this article, your interview process will be 10x better.



    What type of person succeeds working in start-ups

    Before we go through the startup job interview, it's important to start with what you're actually looking for. What makes a great startup employee? Only when you know what you're looking for can you craft startup interview questions that help you find the right people?

    Jason Lemkin famously said that the first 50 employees in your organisation should be pirates or romantics. These are candidates for reasons that don't make sense live and breathe startups. They are the candidates who actively leave restrictive environments and, freed from shackles, step in as owners. They want a startup environment and the company culture that goes with that.

    As startups get significantly more glamour and press than mature companies, it's easy to think that a large number of the working population work in startups. That isn't true. In 2020, European tech start-ups employed 2 million people. This is 1% of the working population.

    In the old days, only weird people worked at startups. It was so quirky.

    Although it's easy to romanticize the huge amount of ownership and freedom that startups can provide their top talent we forget that ownership comes with total accountability and freedom comes with a total lack of rules. Uncertainty leads to anxiety and few people are cut out (or want) that kind of stress.

    The right candidates should have the following personality traits and it's important to keep an eye out during your recruitment efforts. You have a unique company culture and it's possible to build a startup team who see's your opportunity as a dream job.



    Finding A-players is exceptionally difficult and takes over 70 hours end to end. Berg Search is a talent-as-a-service partner whose sole aim is to find A-players for growth companies.

    For as little as £1,000 per month, you get access to an army of recruitment professionals who can immediately ramp up to any role you’re hiring for. 

    Find out more


    What are you looking to discover with your startup interview questions?

    We recommend an interview process designed to answer the following questions:

    Past career success

    • Does the candidate show an upward trajectory in their career?

    • Does the candidate's career steps between each company make sense

    • Does the candidate's proudest moments lead to strong positive outcomes for their company?


    Startup values (behavioural interviewing)


    Technical skills

    Do they have the technical skills to do the job (we won't go into detail in this article) but we have already provided the following interview questions:

    Management excellence (when interviewing managers)

    • Can they empower their team?

    • Can they communicate well?

    • Can they manage performance well?



    Kicking off the startup interview

    Before diving in, it's really important to start any job interview with rapport building. If the candidate isn't comfortable they won't show you their natural selves and they won't have any fun. And isn't that what being a startup is all about?

    If you are a natural conversationalist, spend five minutes having a natural conversation. If you need to use a question, we love 'tell me about something that you're totally passionate about outside of work.'



    Resume deep dive

    The best type of startup interview questions aren't interview questions at all. It's more of a guided conversation through someone's history, asked in a way that surfaces the things we want to know.

    Take the three most recent roles that the candidate has, and go through each one of them with the following question set.

    1. What made you join company X? - We want startup employees who make active choices around the companies that they work for, people who own their careers and not the other way around.
    2. What were you hired to do at the startup? - This is a calibrating question to understand what the company expected of them
    3. What were some of the highlights working at the company? - We want to see that the highlights match what they were hired to do. A lot of answers that sound great aren't actually great. If the greatest highlights aren't directly linked to business impact, you may not be speaking to an A-player.
    4. Tell me about something that didn't go to plan at the company? - This is the ultimate question for locus of control. Those with an internal locus will naturally gravitate to stories where they made mistakes. Those with an external locus of control will gravitate towards issues where others are at fault.
    5. Who was your line manager at the company and what would they rate you out of 10? Why? - When asked through the eyes of someone who may provide a reference, you'll get the truth.
    6. What made you decide to leave company X? - Same reason as question one




    Interview questions that focus on the most recent experience

    By this point in the interview process, you should have a clear understanding of past success and you may have learned about some of the candidate's values by how they answered your interview questions.

    Good startup interviews don't ask interview questions for the sake of talking but are asked to discover something about the person, their broad skill set, personal qualities, values and experience.

    Once you've received a satisfactory answer to an interview question, you don't need to ask again!

    The next step is to fill in the gaps, using their most recent experience (or last three years) as the frame.


    Internal locus - the best startup value

    Startup companies need people with an internal locus of control. It's beyond vital! If you weren't able to clearly ascertain locus of control in your initial set of interview questions you must ask again.

    Why is it important?

    • Individuals with an internal locus of control actively seek solutions to challenges, believing they can influence outcomes through their efforts. Without the belief you can influence outcomes, start-ups wouldn't exist.

    • Internal locussed individuals bounce back from setbacks more effectively. They view failures as learning opportunities and persist in the face of adversity. As those within startups can attest, failure is common!

    • Internals are more persistent in their efforts to solve problems because they believe that their actions lead to outcomes and if they don't push to get something done, nothing will get done

    • As they believe in their ability to make a difference, individuals with an internal locus are more motivated to set ambitious goals and work diligently to achieve them.

    • An internal locus of control is linked to lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. These individuals experience fewer feelings of helplessness and are more likely to seek social support.

    • Internals are usually information junkies and make more logical decisions because they feel that more and better inputs create better outcomes.

    • Research in organizational settings has shown that employees with an internal locus of control perform better, show greater job satisfaction, and have higher levels of career advancement.

    Want those values?

    Ask the following interview questions:

    • "What was your biggest professional mistake at MOST RECENT COMPANY and what did you learn from it?"

    • "Tell me about a recent project that didn't go as well as you hoped"

    Its a tough question but the internally focused individual will focus on their own mistakes while the externally locused person will give you an answer where others are partly to blame for the fault.



    Interview questions for humility



    Humility in a team member shows up as a lack of excessive ego, or concerns about status. They are quick to share credit, praise others freely, and sometimes even forego credit due to them in the interest of celebrating the team’s collective win. They demonstrate strong alignment towards the team’s goals, and prioritize collective wins over individual ones. Humble team players are self-confident, but not arrogant. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

    What’s the last thing you learned and applied professionally, what was the impact?

    • We want to see evidence of READING SOMETHING, WATCHING SOMETHING or WITNESSING SOMETHING, then trying this in their day-to-day

    • 🚩If the answer is wishy-washy or simply, I saw this in the news or something that clearly wasn’t implemented, they are not humble.

    • Knowledge workers (eg software engineers) are required to do this as standard and so asking them this question may not tell you how humble they are, it is probably more a showing of if they do their jobs properly.

    Tell me about the last time you apologized to a colleague/subordinate.

    • This should be an extremely clear story. If they candidate has to really press to think of an occasion they probably haven’t apologized to a subordinate recently. That doesn’t make them immediately not humble!

    • Humble people accept they will make mistakes.

    • This question also shows good EMOTIONAL SMARTS

    Can you tell me about someone at a similar level who is better than you in an area that really matters to you?

    • The question speaks for itself. You want a candidate to demonstrate a genuine appreciation for the people who are even more skilled. Humble people find this question easy while ego-driven people will struggle to answer this question.

    Tell me about a time when someone gave you critical or constructive feedback?

    • More relevant for seniors than juniors. Juniors probably always get this feedback, however, seniors can ‘decide to not receive it’.

    • Senior professionals set the culture of their teams and those who don't set up an environment where they can receive constructive feedback are probably not humble.

    Describe a work situation that brought out the worst in you. Why did it bring out the worst in you? What did you learn?

    • Is the person able to look at their behaviour objectively and figure out a time when they weren't at their best? This question is excellent for emotional intelligence.



    Interview questions for hunger


    Hungry people are always looking for more. They are intrinsically motivated, diligent, and have a strong desire to do more by going above and beyond. Hungry people do not have to be pushed by their managers to perform; they are constantly looking for more responsibility and thinking about the next step and the next opportunity (for the team). This is exceptionally important for many startups where hunger is one of the key advantages that you have. Note that this work environment isn't for everyone.

    Tell me about the hardest you’ve ever worked?

    • Compare this to other candidates. You want to see well, and truly hard work and you want to see an element of understanding that these things happen.

    • There will be a degree of joyful sacrifice and the candidate will be grateful for the experience.

    • A startup environment is a hard-working one!

    Describe for me a time when you were disappointed in your performance.

    • Hungry people have an urge to outperform. Expect disappointment in achievements that other candidates may be proud of

    Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to achieve something great

    • Similar to the first interview question, how above and beyond is their above and beyond?




    Interview questions for emotional intelligence

    The capability to conduct oneself in a group situation and deal with others in the most effective way. Emotionally intelligent people ask good questions, listen to what others are saying, and stay engaged in conversations intently. Smart people exercise great judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and are fully aware of the effect their words will have on the team. Nb: this is much more important for larger orgs than smaller orgs. When more people are involved in decision processes, the ability to politic to get the right outcome is sometimes as important as the idea itself.

    Tell me about a difficult colleague you worked with and how you improved the working relationship.

    What would your friends say is your most annoying habit?

    What kinds of people annoy you the most and how do you deal with them?

    Describe a time when you were able to anticipate a land mine and plan your upcoming actions accordingly.

    Give me an example of a time you used your political savvy to push something through for approval.

    Tell me about a time when you were unable to successfully navigate through a political situation.

    Describe a situation where, because you were aware of the nonverbal dynamics of a person or group, you adapted your communication and turned the situation around.



    Finding A-players is exceptionally difficult and takes over 70 hours end to end. Berg Search is a talent-as-a-service partner whose sole aim is to find A-players for growth companies.

    For as little as £1,000 per month, you get access to an army of recruitment professionals who can immediately ramp up to any role you’re hiring for. 

    Find out more


    Startup interview questions for the management team

    Management is all about the move from doing to delegating. A great manager understands the stages of each person's personal development and adjusts their approach for each of their team members to create the maximum output. They empower the team to do their best work, hold their team to account and most importantly take all ownership for the mistakes of the team when communicating outside that team.

    There are many facets to great managers but given startup interviews can't be five hours long, we feel that the following three aspects are the most important to assess.


    Startup interview questions that discover if they can empower their teams.

    What is your philosophy behind a high-performing team?

    • Important to dive into each point, and get examples of this philosophy in practice.

    • We must connect the philosophy to the outcomes.

    What metrics do you use to determine if your team is doing a good job?

    • The important thing he does is to press and move from hypothetical examples to actual ones. EG, what did metric X look like in the last X months?

    Tell me about the highest potential person you've had the opportunity to work with. How did you support their development?


    Startup interview questions that discover if they are good communicators

    What type of communication approach have you found most helpful to communicate to a team?

    Tell me about the two most opposing personalities you have on your team and how you communicate with each

    How does your own manager know what your team are doing/delivering?


    Startup interview questions to determine if they can manage performance

    Tell about the last person you let go. How did you identify they were an underperformer, walk me through what you did?

    Describe your procedures for evaluating your direct reports?

    How do you ensure best practices are shared amongst your team? Can you give an example?

    • If one person does something really well, the manager should create an opportunity for others to learn

    Tell me about a time you needed to implement a new (or significantly raise an existing) performance standard for your team. What was the standard? Why did you need to raise it?

    • Add: How did you communicate the change? How did the affected employees respond when they were told? Were people able to meet the new performance standard? If not, why not?

    Give me an example of a time you had to tell a direct report that you were dissatisfied with his work?

    Walk me through the last performance review you gave

    • There is a difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it.

    • Here we see exactly how they work with their team