Turning Tables in Tech Startup Interviews

This is a sample questionnaire that mid-career product professionals who are in a high demand-supply tech job market might benefit from.

That is, if you are a top talent living in an urban area or if you’re in a first-world country.

This might be especially useful while interviewing at Series A or B startups where as a candidate you have not many options than base your judgement on super favorable public information about the company online or extreme opinions from forums like teamblind.com. Not to mention, we are in a VC super funding bull market where even tortoises can fly.

Of course, there are opportunities you want to dive in without too much analysis because there are a few reliable proxies:

  1. You’re confident about the founding leadership based on their past successes
  2. The market they are working on is huge and is surely going to give you impactful responsibilities vs. pre-product market fit opportunities
  3. You have strong preferences about your next move

But often, it’s quite hard to even have a gut feeling about the opportunity.

If you are just starting out in tech or have the proverbial “dream company” on your mind, this is certainly not for you. Your odds are better with your Twitter and LinkedIn game. Skip to the section with Questions for Startup Recruiter Phone Call.

As you might already know, the initial 30-minute recruiter phone screen is not always useful or any different for the candidates. You will be asked to send your latest resume, location, visa status, salary expectations and other details. A great recruiter will make sure to tell you things that will uniquely interest you based on your previous experience. A not-so-experienced one will simply spray the same message to all candidates and pray for a response. It’s one of those crucial conversations where you easily lose getting a true sense about the company and the opportunity in the most inexpensive way.

I get at least 10-15 messages from recruiters and recruiting agencies every day. I’m eternally thankful to the universe for giving me such first-world problems. But it becomes exhausting to go through several companies carefully when you’re only passively looking out for opportunities. So I’ve been sending out this questionnaire to inbound interview calls (those I did not initiate application for) I received via LinkedIn or email.

I’m surprised and delighted that almost 90% of recruiters based in the US have been candid and forthcoming in responding to my questionnaire. Some of the outcomes of doing this were recruiter skipping the phone screen and a few more rounds, and moving me straight to a call with the hiring manager. There were also recruiters who were super impressed that I did this.

I shared this survey to get some feedback from a Facebook group. Of course, there were a few who did not want to take part in this survey or felt this was not a good idea.



Some might surely find this offensive because they may see this as a way of flipping the power equation. So it’s important you communicate this survey is going to be useful for both the parties. Trust me, no recruiter ever wants to invest their time in a flaky candidate who disappears halfway through the interview loop because of some miscommunication.

It helps as a way to:

  1. Have meaningful conversations in the initial phone screen
  2. Reduce your call by 5 to 10 mins and focus on next steps
  3. Give recruiters an opportunity to understand what’s important to you in a way you’re most comfortable discussing
  4. Most importantly, notice hidden red flags early before you invest your precious time in the interview loop

When recruiters have tools, processes, dedicated teams and high standards for recruiting, this is the least you can do to get most value out of the initial conversations.

Here you go!

This is a non-exhaustive list of two-way questions.

I must caution you.

Pick what’s most important to you before you go ahead with an annoyingly long list.

Use this at your discretion. Don’t use this to replace the first conversation but as a way to facilitate it better.

If you think I could make this better with other questions that have helped you during the interview process, do drop them as comments.


Respected Recruiter, thanks for reaching out!

As a candidate, I have a ton of questions about the opportunity and the company, and I want to be respectful of your time. Having your inputs here would help us have a more meaningful conversation during our phone screen.

All responses to this questionnaire are completely anonymous and confidential.

Link to the company you’re recruiting for:

How does my experience make me a good fit for this opportunity?
If there was anything in specific about my profile that caught your attention, I would love to learn about that.

What aspect of the work culture is the company improving today?

What stage is the product at today? 

  1. Pre product-market fit stage
  2. Initial scale
  3. Rapid growth stage after achieving product market fit
  4. Profitable stage
  5. Describe in your own words:

Why are you recruiting for this position now?

  1. Replacing a PM who left/ is leaving
  2. New position
  3. We just thought you’ll make a cool colleague

What’s the size of the product team today?

How many PM hires are you planning for this year/ quarter?
A number or percentage increase would help.

What’s the annual employee churn for the company like?
An approx percentage would help.

What’s your timeline to fill this position?

  1. By this month
  2. By 2 months
  3. No specific timeline
  4. Other:

How many people who identify as she/her work at the company?
A number or percentage would help.

What’s the mode of work at the company?
My current location is: <x> Open to any location in: <x>

  1. In person preferred
  2. Flexible with in person and remote
  3. Fully remote
  4. Hybrid
  5. Other:

What is one of the coolest things about building product for the company?

Would you be fine if I decline to participate in take home assignments based on the company’s current or future product?

  1. Absolutely!
  2. No, this is a part of our interview process
  3. I can discuss with the hiring manager and let you know

Are you willing to sponsor work visa?
I do not require visa sponsorship for <country> at the moment. Curious in case there’s a need for it in the future

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Maybe
  4. Other:

When was the company’s latest 409a valuation performed and what was the valuation?
Use this sparsely when you’re not confident about their information

Indicate approx. base salary budgeted for this position
My preference for base pay is between the range <x> and <y> but I’m quite flexible around those numbers for the right opportunity.

It’s not always a great idea to give away a number because it limits your negotiation which most companies want you to play anyway. But if you do have a number and the recruiter pushes you to specify it, go with a range.

Here’s a sample questionnaire which you can modify based on your role. By all means, go ahead and quote me in the survey if you feel a little apprehensive doing this. I certainly believe there’s a huge market in hiring platforms catering to high-demand talent I wouldn’t be surprised if this form inspires a product in the future that becomes mainstream.

If you feel this is something you do not want to try, here are a few prompts and questions you can ask during your phone screen conversation.

Questions for Startup Recruiter Phone Screen


Take the call with the attitude that “I’m interviewing your company as much as you are interviewing me”. These pointers are mostly relevant to recruiting in the USA and maybe in parts relevant to India.

Prompts

I have a tonne of questions and I want to be very respectful of your time. So I just want to dive into a few now. Maybe we can explore the rest as we move along the process?

Note: A really good recruiter will usually be prepared to cover these common questions from PM candidates. In fact, recruiters might even proactively share information.

This will give you signals on if they would move you to the next step of the interview. If they are not impressed with your profile, they would try to cut the call soon and suggest you reach out to them via email. If they’re really impressed, they’ll go out of their way to talk about the company.

  1. Why is this position open and for how long? Is this a new position or is the team replacing an existing PM?
  2. I went through LinkedIn but I’m not sure if the numbers are accurate. What’s the size of the current PM team? What are your hiring goals for the PM org in the next quarter?
  3. If the recruiter hasn’t reached out for a specific team/ role, especially if it’s a big co: Are you looking out for a specific team or will you match me with a team in the process?
  4. Or, I know you reached out for a specific role <>, I was curious if there were other opportunities aligned to my experience
  5. Just to get a sense of the culture, do you have concept of peer feedback or a 360 feedback? If so is it anonymous or transparent?
  6. How is the performance of managers measured?
  7. What is your employee turnover? A rough percentage would do (if they hesitate)
  8. How do you see a successful PM evolving within the role over the next 1-5 years?
  9. How is the company operating in the pandemic? Is there a back to office plan anytime soon?

I have a couple of more questions but I think it’s best reserved for the product team and the hiring manager.

Other specific questions you might want to ask depend on how open the recruiter or what stage you are at the interview process. Since most big companies have some of this information public or just a few searches away on teamblind.com, you might want to reserve these for smaller companies or stealth startups.

401k Match

What is the 401k match from the company? Is it in cash or in stock? If stock, what is the vesting for the stock?

Health Safety Account

Do you have an HSA? What is the employer contribution?

Performance Reviews

  1. When do performance reviews happen? e.g Jan to Dec, Jul to June
  2. How long should I be in the company to be eligible for the performance review?
  3. What are the ratings like?
  4. How many times in a year can promotions happen?

Stock refreshers

  1. Are there annual stock refreshers or is this a fixed % of stock?
  2. When are they given?
  3. How long should I be in the company to be eligible to get refreshers?
  4. What’s the vesting schedule like?

Questions from recruiter you should be prepared to answer

Why are you looking for a new role and why this company?

Tell me about your work experience

What are your top three skills?

Are you familiar with data tools?

What are your career goals?

What’s your expected salary range?

Are you actively interviewing? Where are you in your interview loop?

Tell me about a product you worked on

Did you have direct reports?

When can you join?

What’s your work authorization status?

Remote or in-person?

Of course, I haven’t covered some key areas which is one level above talking to recruiter. How do you choose a startup to interview with? Here are a few insightful readings on that:

How To Choose A Startup to Work For by Triplebyte

Choosing The Right Stage Startup To Join by Be On Deck

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