In the United States, the corporate landscape is ever-growing and changing based on consumer needs. As companies seem to only get bigger, it’s understandable how a working professional would not want to be just another cog in the corporate machine. This is one of many reasons why startups are so attractive in concept to the workforce, especially young professionals who are just beginning to build a resume. The unmitigated potential to rise through the ranks is often one of the biggest reasons former employees choose to dismiss the risk associated with working for a startup. But before you sign paperwork to become part of a unique mission or vision, there are questions you should have prepared for an interviewer with promises of free lunches and an “exciting work environment.”  

First and foremost, there is no such thing as a one-sided employment interview. A prospective employee should use the interview as an opportunity to ask just as many questions of a prospective employer regarding how well they will fit into the corporate structure. Before submitting to an interview with any startup, it’s important that a candidate do their research and come prepared with inquiries regarding many aspects of a startup’s mission, vision, and culture.  

What is the nature of your current cash flow, and what contingency plans do you have in place should funding evaporate?  

Young professionals especially will skip this question, either because they’ve never applied for a startup position, or because they don’t expect to understand the answer. However, there is typically information available about a startup’s capital on the internet before asking in the interview. Additionally, the interviewer’s ability to answer this question is directly relevant to the culture of the startup. Even if the interviewer is not a C-level executive, they should be equipped within reason to answer any and all questions a prospective employee might have regarding the startup’s trajectory. Failure to answer this question to the candidate’s satisfaction could be an indicator that the startup is only focused on recruiting bodies for the organization.  

What are the onboarding and training procedures associated with this position?  

The idea of receiving little to no training may sound ludicrous to both experienced and novice professionals alike. However, the quality of training in the early stages of a startup can be wildly inconsistent across the board. There are some professionals who will feel comfortable with being thrown in the proverbial deep end and learning to swim on their own, but that is why it is crucial to establish the training protocol during the interview so the candidate can determine whether or not they will be able to thrive in the workplace.  

What level of input will I be required to have in decision-making?  

Some startups are looking for problem solvers, while others are looking for staff who can support the decision-makers in their vision and strategy for the company. Regardless, it’s important to know what is expected of you regarding your professional opinion on day-to-day operations. It is just as important to know what level of value that opinion will be given by management and how flexible they are in weighing diverse perspectives amongst their staff.  

What is my projected rate of compensation, and how much flexibility is there that compensation?  

One of the biggest red flags in a recruitment advertisement for a startup is vagueness regarding the compensation, especially if it boasts other perks for the job such as free lunches, employee lounges, or merit-based incentives to inspire employees to reach for the stars. This is a common tactic used to get candidates through the front doors of the startup in order to give them the flashy elevator pitch from inside the allegedly exciting workplace. While it’s true that some startups do offer legitimate perks in addition to adequate compensation, candidates must be on their guard and be prepared to ask detailed questions regarding salary.  

What can you tell me about this company’s values, and what is your execution plan for maintaining those values?  

Once again, this is a question you should ask in any job interview, and the interviewer’s ability to answer this question to your satisfaction are crucial to your decision of joining a startup. A company’s values—startup or otherwise–should always be made crystal clear for all employees, and therefore any employee should be able to answer. Those values must also be intrinsic to day-to-day operations, and must be part of every decision made within the corporate structure. It will impact how management builds trust within their teams, how employees are affected in their long-term tenure, and how well a startup will eventually reach its projected potential. If the interviewer is not able to clearly explain the startup’s values, it’s a enormous red flag that says you should look for employment elsewhere.