5 Questions To Ask Your Next Startup Employer


5 Questions To Ask Your Next Startup Employer

It’s not quite a saying yet, but you haven’t worked in startups for long enough if you haven’t come across a shockingly bad employer. Take a look at some of our other articles to find out the reasons why.

One of my favourite explanations is in the story that follows:

Not long after I joined a startup I realise the founders were narcissists. They would waltz into meetings 45 minutes late. They wouldn’t read the agenda or acknowledge the preparation done by the staff. And then they would make big decisions completely out of context. ‘We need this feature. Customers want that product We don’t need to ask them why. I know them better than anyone.’

I began to wonder why this was happening. Early employees said the company and founders have been so customer focussed only a couple of years earlier. And in my interview one of the founders had described the MVP and pilot in such great detail with such emphasis on user experience, that it convinced me to join.

Then I went to a party and met a person who is now one of my mentors.

He was a retired partner from McKinsey, one of the top tier global management consultancies. We got talking because we worked out we were the only 2 Australians in the room so quickly bonded over cricket, beer and fearsome spiders.  I then mentioned my particular predicament at work. As is customary for an Aussie, his answer was straight and to the point and yet gave me one of the greatest insights I’ve had into founder mentality.

‘These 2 founders left their jobs in investment banking, set up a company, and within 3 years it’s worth £200 million? Or course they think they can walk on water.”

And there it was. The amazing and rapid success of the startup had changed the way the founders made decisions. After being right about something in such a big way, they convinced themselves that any decision they made was correct and they forgot about everything else. They didn’t put anything down to other people’s hard work or even a little bit of luck. They literally couldn’t believe they could be wrong about anything. That big early success had turned out to be the undoing of the company because it led to a shift in leadership style.

Good or bad?

Is it possible to flush out the bad employers from the good ones even before you start at a company?

When you’re practising for interviews you’ll find lots of advice about the questions you should ask prospective employers. What is the company’s long-term vision? What is the culture like? What is the single biggest challenge facing your department.

And these questions are all useful to ask when interviewing at a startup. But to make sure that you choose a startup that hasn’t lost its way here are 5 additional questions you should ask the founders of a new businesses:


How do you ensure customer success is aligned with company success?

Ask this question to find out if they are still thinking about the customer, or if the focus is just on investment or exit strategy such as IPO.


I am interested in taking this professional qualification? Will you cover the cost?

Startups won’t have large training budgets like bigger companies. However, they should still be willing to invest in human capital. If a startup seems reluctant to spend any money on your development they not be committed to upskilling their staff because the founders think there is no need.  


How many of the first 10 employees are still here full time?

There are many valid reasons for people to leave companies. However, if a lot of early employees of startups have left it may indicate that there is a problem and the company has changed its focus since it began, or the founders are too difficult to work with. Employees of startups tend to get share options so to walk away means they would have had very good reasons to.


How does the share option scheme work? Is it aligned to KPIs?

This will help you work out not only what the financial reward is for joining a startup but also if people who perform well are rewarded. If everyone is entitled to share options, whether you contribute to the company’s success or not, then you may find that when you join the company is carrying a lot of dead weight.


Can I have a job description that includes objectives?

You may think it’s unnecessary to ask this in a job interview but many startups don’t think it’s important to give employees proper role profiles. However, a well-written job description will give you a good insight into the company culture, the vision, and strategy, how your performance will be measured and how your role fits into the company structure. Once you have a job description do not be afraid to ask if something does not make sense or if there is not enough clarity about what you will be expected to do.

An interview is a two-way process. Employers will use it to find out whether you have the skills, experience, attitude, and potential to do the job. But it’s also your chance to find out whether the employer is going to offer you what you need to succeed in your career.

And remember, if you are offered something, make sure it is in writing and included in your employment contract.

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