Startup Hiring

Startup Hiring 101: A Founder’s Guide. Part 14 - Designing the interview

Steve Bartel

Steve Bartel

CEO and Co-Founder

Posted on

April 5, 2024

Welcome back. This week we’ll cover more thoroughly how you can design an interview loop.

A well-designed interview loop serves two purposes: (1) it gives you a clean signal on the candidate’s skill and values, and (2) it provides the candidate confidence in your team and approach to team building.

Below are a few best practices to help you design a thoughtful interview loop specific to your team. These best practices are from Viet Nguyen, our first Head of Customer Talent Advisory. His team advises hundreds of Gem customers on how to recruit effectively. Before Gem, Viet spent the past five years recruiting leadership at several great startups, including One Medical, where he led tech recruiting.

High-level best practices:

  • Do the research and define what you need - It’s difficult to make a hiring decision if you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s even harder for others to help you evaluate candidates if you can’t articulate what you’re looking for. If you don’t take the time to document what you’re looking for, you’ll be shooting for a constantly moving target.

  • Design an interview loop representative of your team’s values - If your team is practical, creative, and/or collaborative, make sure you use your interview loop to highlight that for candidates.

  • Evaluate the whole person - As you’re defining what you’re looking for, make sure to include all the skills and personality traits required to be successful—an interview loop incorporates ways to assess these qualifications.

  • Know how you’re going to evaluate the results - Similar to designing an experiment, you need key performance indicators (“KPIs”) to measure successes and failures objectively.

Define what you need

It’s important to take the time to define what you’re looking for before you start recruiting for many reasons:

If you’ve never hired for a role or hired in-general before, the best way to develop the necessary context is to leverage your network. We suggest identifying 5-10 experts — people who have hired for the role before or people who are currently/previously in the role and learn as much as you can from them. Another option is leveraging your investors to make introductions to experts from their networks.

Your interview loop will say something about you

We’ve all been through interviews where the interview has nothing to do with the job. This is often the by-product of either (1) not knowing any better or (2) not having the time to do better.

Design the interview loop to sell candidates on your team’s culture and values. At Gem, we care deeply about practicality and collaboration. So rather than doing a standard set of whiteboarding engineering interviews, we decided to go with something more bespoke to Gem.

Our onsite interview is a one to two day event where engineering candidates spend time working on a project with another engineer on the team. When we were building the founding team, candidates did this interview with the founders.

This interview structure allows us to evaluate and showcase what we care about — practicality and collaboration. To see exactly how we did this, check out how Gem interviewed our founding engineering team.

Know what you’re looking for

You must take the time to write down what you’re looking for before designing the interview process. This list of hard skills and personality traits will guide you on how to design the interview process. Having a reasonably well-defined list will make it easier for you to crowdsource ideas from your network to evaluate the respective skills.

If you’re able to answer the following questions at least, you’ll be in good shape. Let’s call this your Spec doc.

  1. What are the two to three personality traits (e.g., collaboration) we care about?

  2. What are two to three hard skills (e.g., an expert in Machine Learning) we care about for this role?

  3. Are there any experiences we require for the job (e.g., experience working on small, nimble teams)

We suggest two to three because you don’t want an exhaustive wish list instead of a list of requirements. Coming up with several items will also force you to prioritize the things that are important ruthlessly.

Extra Credit: Define the bar or what ‘good’ vs. ‘great’ look like. If you’re able to define these things, it will make debriefs a lot more structured.

Building the Interview Loop

You’ll typically see candidates through 4 or 5 stages. For example:

1. Initial sell conversation

The goal of this section is to sell the candidate on the opportunity. You can learn more in our dedicated guide to the initial sell conversation.

2. Remote screen #1

The first remote screen tends to focus on the candidate’s background, experiences, and any particular personality traits you’re looking to evaluate. This is where you will want to dig deep into the candidate’s motivations and the personality traits from your Spec doc.

Sometimes founders and hiring managers have a hard time pivoting from the sell conversation to the first screen. Proper framing really helps here — “Up until this point, our time has been focused on us sharing information with you. If it’s OK with you, I will shift gears and start getting to know you a little bit. Sound good? I have a few standard questions I’d like to go through to get to know you better.”

3. Remote screen #2

This second screen tends to focus on technical or practical skills. This interview should map to the hard skills in your Spec doc.

For engineers, this is your standard coding screen. For Sales candidates, you might have them role-play their current product demo. For Design, you might have the candidate in for a portfolio review.

This interview is important because it’s the first time you’re evaluating the baseline skills required to do the job. If this interview isn’t properly designed, you’ll end up wasting everyone’s time, bringing non-qualified candidates onsite.

4. Onsite Interview

In previous interviews, you could get a broad view of the candidate’s hard skills and personality traits. The Onsite Interview will be used to dive deep into each of these areas. We suggest choosing three to four focus areas from your Spec doc you care the most about and/or feel like you’ve gotten the least amount of signal.

5. Offer

To decide on whether to extend an offer, you’ll run a debrief. You’ll also do a mix of formal and back-channel references.

Remember to design a thoughtful interview loop that is representative of your team.

Pro-tip: Ask candidates for feedback on your interview process and continuously iterate.

Interview Focus Area

Run an interview pre-brief

Once the interview panel is defined, it’s critical to get all of your interviewers together for a pre-brief to align on the role, so everyone’s prepared and knows what they’re looking for.

Your goal with the pre-brief is to make sure everyone understands:

  • A high-level overview of the role.

  • Which focus areas each interviewer is responsible for.

  • How they will evaluate each focus area, including specific questions and what “good” looks like.

Without a pre-brief, you run the risk of interviewers missing an important focus area, or asking the wrong questions, or asking duplicate questions, which can lead to the wrong signal or lack of signal and waste lots of time.

As part of the pre-brief, we also recommend creating a slack channel for every interviewer on your loop to make it easy to coordinate on candidates, debriefs, and the loop itself (especially if you’re remote). At Gem, we have eng-hiring, design-hiring, product-hiring, etc.

Up Next

In part 15 of our hiring guide for startups, we’ll continue our deep dive into the interview process by discussing best practices for interviewers.

In the meantime…


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