Interviewing FoundersJan 16, 2022
5 tips for early-stage exec hires
If you’re ambitious, you work hard and you love building, chances are you’ve got what it takes to work in an early-stage startup.
The challenge is finding the right one, and the key is always the founder(s).
Here are 5 tips when interviewing founders:
1. Interview the founder
Yep, that simple. You interview the founder. Interviews are 2-way processes but so often I see people make them a one-way process.
Go prepared with questions for the founder, that are deeply relevant to their company, their stage and the founder’s role. Your job is to lighten their load so you need to quickly get into deep conversation about how they see you doing that, whilst also sharing insight on how you see it working.
If it’s not a 2-way free-flowing conversation it’s not going to fly.
2. Get the lowdown on other founders and execs, past and present
Maybe you’re meeting with the founder and CEO, but there’s likely another founder, or if not there might be another former founder.
You need to meet those people whether they were past or present, and get the lowdown on the company and the founder.
Ideally, the founder you are meeting proactively makes the introduction.
If they don’t or even worse if they do not proactively highlight a recent past founder, and the story of their involvement, that’s a major red flag.
Speak with all founders, all execs and former founders and recent former execs and get the lowdown on the company.
Ultimately you have to network hard around the company to get a full picture.
3. You need to get to know the founder personally
You are likely going into battle for multiple years, hopefully. So you need to find a way to get to know the founder(s) personally. At the bare minimum, you should be going to dinner with the founder, and they should offer it.
If that means you have to catch a flight, you catch that flight.
Ideally, you’ll quickly get into a conversation about family, because startups are all-consuming and there is no escaping that your work will crossover onto family life.
The best founder experiences I have had are when the founders have invited me to meet their family and spend time with them as part of the serenade.
On my side, I make it crystal clear my decision is not just my decision, it’s one that I’ll run by my wife and kids because they will be impacted.
If none of this is proactively offered, major red flag.
4. Work with the team
Find a way to spend time working with the executive team on something that is meaningful to the company.
It could something as simple as sitting in on a few sales calls, but ideally, it’s something more fundamental such as helping them establish a repeatable sales process based on the notes and recordings of founder pitches.
What I’m looking for here is partially substance, but more importantly, I’m observing if this group can work together well. Do they enjoy working together to solve problems? Is there are natural energy and cohesion between everyone in the room?
Many candidates see this as giving away valuable knowledge for free, that’s a bad attitude in my opinion. You really need to know if you can work together well, there’s no better way than getting in the weeds for a few hours.
5. Have them expose the cap table
Now this one is tough, but it’s so important. The cap table is the breakdown of who owns what stake in the company, and for whatever reason, founders are very protective of this information.
What you’re looking for here is that the founder and founding team that you are speaking with and would be working with have a majority stake in the company.
Why is this important? Well, if they don’t then how do you know they run the company?
In early-stage startups I want to see founders as significant majority stakeholders, around 80%+ mark post-seed, and 60%+ post series A with control of the board votes.
If that’s not the case or you can’t get insight on the cap table, then you’re flying somewhat blind, and that for me is a red flag.
Bonus insight: Don’t be wowed by the investors
Look, investors are important, who are they, how much operational experience do they have and are they looking to lead the next round are all good things to uncover.
However, most investors are used to wow you, to close you. In fact, founders often employ investors to do what is actually termed a “closing call.”
Their job is to get you to say “yes” to joining the team, after all their job is to help assemble to the executive team.
Investors are important, but just ensure you are rational with what you hear on that call.
Good luck everyone! 👊🏼