Building a Great Interviewing Process


How to Avoid The Most Common Traps

At Matrix, we believe a data-centric approach to interviewing for startups improves the quality of your hires and reduces the risk of making costly hiring mistakes.

In hiring workshops we put on for our portfolio founders with Burton Advisors, we outline how to develop a structured interviewing process early on to help you find and hire the best people.

In working closely with many founders to help with hiring, we’ve seen the interviewing traps founders often fall into. Here are the most common mistakes we see, and how to avoid them.

Use Live Problem-Solving Questions — Carefully

For intellectually or analytically demanding roles, problem solving or “business case” interviews can be a powerful tool in your arsenal. For engineering hires, technical problem solving questions are invaluable, and may comprise a significant percentage of your time with the candidate (especially for more junior-level hires who have less career history to discuss).

Yet real-time problem solving questions have drawbacks. They are best used when you can afford a few “false negatives” — sometimes an otherwise capable candidate may go off-track or get flustered, leading you to reject a potential strong performer. To ensure your problem-solving interviews are as predictive as possible, Burton advises ensuring the content is highly relevant to the job you are actually expecting them to do. “Don’t ask someone to solve a random brain teaser, unless you’re hiring a VP of Solving Brain Teasers. Focus on problems that look like what they will face on the job.”

Burton shared some additional best practices for problem-solving interviews, both technical and non-technical:

  • Choose a problem that offers multiple paths to the solution. Your candidate will be more likely to find a solution, even if it’s not the best one, and you’ll learn how they evaluate tradeoffs between potential solutions.
  • Keep the discussion interactive, and encourage the candidate to talk through their logic. Avoid “black box” questions that don’t allow you to see the candidate’s process.
  • Offer “safety nets” or “nudges” that allow the candidate to get back on track if they stumble. This improves the candidate experience, which is important even for those candidates you may not choose to hire.
  • Set up the discussion in phases, allowing the candidate to showcase different aspects of their thinking. A common break out is (1) Diagnosis, (2) Solution Design, (3) Solution Implementation.
  • Use a checklist or other measurement system for your problem-solving question to help you gauge candidate performance objectively.

Staying in Sell Mode

When you’re a small startup with limited resources and a low profile, you might find it tempting to jump into sell mode during your interview. But telling a candidate all about your company won’t help you determine whether he or she is right for the job.

Unfortunately, you can find yourself in sell mode before you even realize it’s happening, Burton explains: “You and the candidate walk from reception to your interview room. There’s 30 seconds of chit-chat, and the candidate asks about the product you just launched. You tell them more about it, and suddenly you find yourself in pitch mode, talking about how amazing everything you’re doing is. But what you’re actually doing is saying, ‘You are clearly awesome, and I’m here to impress you.’ You’ve put them on a pedestal.”

The power dynamics of human interaction can make transitioning back to the interview somewhat tricky.

“It’s hard to say, ‘You know all this amazing stuff that I told you about our company? You may not have access to that. So let me elevate my pedestal and now interview you.’ It’s an uncomfortable, rapport-breaking moment.”

Instead, preempt any shift into a sell conversation. Tell the candidate you’ll create a separate space to go through all of their questions at the end. Be friendly — say that you’re excited to tell them all about the company — but that you’re going to start off just by getting to know them.

Hiring for An Ambiguous Future

Startups frequently face the challenge of hiring for today’s needs vs. hiring for the future, and end up bringing someone on for a role that really doesn’t exist yet. For example, you may know you need a strong individual sales person to generate your first non-founder-led sales, but you also hope this person can transition into a sales leader as the team scales. You hire for tomorrow’s need, and end up with a frustrated new team member who was ready to build a team. How do you accommodate this when it comes time to evaluate candidates? Burton recommends splitting the facets on your target document into “Table Stakes” and “Nice To Haves.”

Table Stakes are those facets of the role that are absolutely essential for your near-term needs. Nobody gets through your process if they do not rate well against those facets. Nice To Haves are a “bonus” — it’s great if the candidate rates well against these longer-term facets, but it’s not required. If you have two candidates, one who meets the Table Stakes, and one who is great on the Nice To Haves but marginal against the Table Stakes, hire the first one. And if both candidates are marginal on the Table Stakes? Continue your search!

All too often startups see hiring as a relative game — in other words, they are looking for the best candidate out of the five they’ll be seeing in a given week. This is a dangerous approach — if none of your candidates rates well against the results and competencies on your Table Stakes list, go find another five candidates, even if some of those you have right now look solid on the Nice To Haves.

Avoid At All Costs

While obvious, these are worth calling out. Be careful in the frantic pace of interviewing your entire team does not make these mistakes, which can otherwise kill a great interviewing process:

  • Discussing a candidate within earshot
  • Letting your schedule overrun forces a candidate to wait
  • Picking up your phone — don’t even bring it into the room
  • Frowns, scowls, glares, and other ambiguous or negative body language — consider having your colleagues “shadow” you in interviews, and ask them about the impression your body language creates. Is your “curious” face in fact a scowl?

Make Data Your Foundation

My partners and I have seen firsthand that the best companies make hiring a priority. And, more than that, we’ve observed that the most successful founders are those who are prepared to create and implement a high-quality, data-driven interview process. The results can make all the difference — as there is no single factor more critical to a startup’s success than getting the very best people on your team.

For more on interviewing, check out: Hacking Interviewing: Collecting the Data You Need

Follow us on Twitter: Dana Stalder, @dcstalder and Matrix Partners, @Matrix Partners.