Aug 17, 2021 • 14M

How To Interview Your Candidates In 4 Rounds

Part 2/3 in the newsletter series on hiring.

 
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Mistakes of experienced founders and practical tips on how to avoid them: hiring, sales and going global.
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👋 Hi, I’m Robin. I’m helping founders like you make better decisions in less time. I do this by sharing knowledge from interviews with European founders in my network.

The first series of this newsletter is about the greatest bottleneck for startups: hiring.

Send me your questions, and in return, you get practical answers straight in your mailbox. Don’t forget to subscribe. 👇

Tip: Most founders forward this newsletter to their HR manager.


In a nutshell, what can you learn from this?

On average, the procedure of a candidate going from application to contract proposal takes three weeks and consists of four interview rounds.

  • Round 1: Exploratory Interview - Schedule a 30-minute phone call with the interesting candidates to discover a cultural fit; 

  • Round 2: Skills Interview - Put the candidate’s knowledge to the test. Create a scorecard by listing relevant characteristics and associated questions. By giving each characteristic a score, you’ll be able to compare candidates;

  • Round 3: Culture Interview - Check if the candidate gets along with the people they work with daily. Involve 1 or 2 people from the team to ask questions and evaluate their experience; 

  • Round 4: CEO Interview - As the CEO of your company, you are the guardian of the company’s culture, values and norms. Use your experience and follow your gut feeling. 

  • Bonus round: Reference check - Call the candidate's previous employers to double-check if your gut feeling is right.


Yep, that’s me reading this newsletter out loud for you. So you can listen to the audio version and save even more time 🙌

At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount of questions I got from startup founders about hiring. But then I came to think about it. And it makes sense. One mishire costs you a lot of money, while the right hire can make you grow faster! 

That’s why I’m on a mission to collect the best hiring advice from startups and turn it into a practical newsletter series consisting of 3 parts: 

  • Part 1: Where To Find More Candidates 👀 (read it here)

  • Part 2: How To Interview Your Candidates In 4 Rounds 👂(Today!) 

  • Part 3: How To Onboard and Offboard Employees 👋 (Next newsletter)

Part 2: How To Interview Your Candidates In 4 Rounds 👂

In Part 1, we talked about how to write a compelling job description, where to find more candidates, and whether you should hire a recruiter. 

Today I want to talk about something interesting I discovered about the recruitment process of startups. 

On average, the procedure from application to contract proposal takes three weeks and consists of four interview rounds.

  • Round 1: Exploratory Interview

  • Round 2: Skills Interview

  • Round 3: Culture Interview

  • Round 4: CEO Interview

Let's dive into each of these four rounds. You can use these insights and best practices from other startup founders to improve your recruitment process. So you can avoid the mistakes they made before you. 

Round 1: Exploratory interview

Most founders don’t care about specific diplomas. Instead, they value experience. Many even claim that the right experience helps your startup skip a few steps and grow faster.

Our most important hiring criteria is experience and knowledge in the field. Because in a startup, you don’t have the time to train your new employees intensively. They need to start helping your company grow as soon as possible.” 

— Jeremy Bonnevalle (Co-founder at Fourcast)

Candidates with an interesting experience get invited to a 30-minute phone call - not a video call to avoid bias. The goal? To discover if they fit your company culture.

You want to see if candidates have the right motivation and attitude to work at your company. This is also the ideal moment to check some practicalities, like salary expectations. 

In the first interview, we always ask candidates how much salary they have in mind. If their salary expectations don't match with what we have to offer, we stop the interviewing process right there.”

— Annelies den Boer (COO at Speakap)

Usually, someone from your team calls with the candidate. This person could be the team lead or the HR Manager, for example. Not a recruiter. Your employees are probably better to determine whether the candidate matches your culture.

A few questions you could ask the candidate: 

  • Why us and why you?

  • What gives you energy and drains energy during the day?

  • What is your most proud achievement?

  • What are your strengths/weaknesses?

  • What are your salary expectations? Or you could share your salary range and see how the candidate reacts. 

Round 2: Skill interview

So, you had a 30-minute call with a candidate. And they match your company culture. Perfect. Now, let's see if they have the right skill set too. Typically, you do this in a 1-hour meeting. 

Most founders create a scorecard to rate candidates following these four steps:

  1. List 5-7 relevant characteristics,

  2. Describe what the score of 0 and 10 looks like for each characteristic,

  3. List 3-7 interview questions per characteristic to see how they perform,

  4. Create a final table with two columns: all characteristics to the left, all scores to the right.

Here’s a concrete example of an interview scorecard:

Example of an interview scorecard

To evaluate the skills of a candidate, we create an interview scorecard. While creating the scorecard, think of your expectations for the job right now and for the next 12 months. Because their job will look different in one year from now.”

— Wouter Vermeylen (Co-founder & CEO at Yesplan) 

Some startups ask the candidate to take a test or to prepare a business case during this round. This interview round tells you more about their skills and their way of working and attitude. Because let’s be honest, those things are equally important. 

“In the early days we really needed people, so we ended up with random profiles. Sometimes we didn’t like candidates or had a bad gut feeling, but we still hired them because they had the right skill set. That was our biggest hiring mistake: you will have to start over in six months or one year anyway.”

— Olivier Delangre (Founder & CEO at Amoobi)

Round 3: Culture interview

Okay, the candidate matches your company culture ànd has the right skills. Let's see if they are comfortable around the people they will be working with daily. 

The department's lead conducts this interview in most cases, but other team members are often involved. This has many advantages.

As the candidate has met his future teammates, the integration in the company will be smoother once he gets started. And your team members will be happy to accept them as their new colleague as they have been part of the decision. A win-win. 

“We start within the department where the candidate will function the most. There must be a human-fit and a capabilities-fit there. The lead of the department in question is best placed to have this conversation.” 

— Thomas Van Maele (Founder at Harmoney)

Round 4: CEO interview

Once the person passes the cultural and skill tests, it’s your time to shine.

“Guard the culture by doing the last interview round yourself, as a founder.”

— Pierre-Olivier Danhaive (Founder & CEO at Verbolia)

So, what’s your job as a CEO during this final round? As the final gatekeeper, you have to make sure you don’t accept a candidate too fast.

You’re the one determining norms and values, and you want a candidate to match those. Use your gut feeling and your experience. 

During the last interview round, I take the candidate out for lunch (In non-covid times). I like to see the person in a situation that they aren’t used to. It helps to get to know the people a little bit better.”

— Olivier Delangre (Founder & CEO at Amoobi)

And, they aren’t the only ones who like to do interviews outside of your standard meeting rooms.

We always create a very laid back atmosphere during our interviews by holding them on the sofa. When you see the candidate at ease, they act more naturally. The atmosphere of the interview can make the candidate expose himself better instead of sitting face-to-face in a meeting room.”

— Pierre-Olivier Danhaive (Founder at Verbolia)

Bonus round: reference check

“After we found a great candidate that survived all four interview rounds, we do one or two reference calls with their previous employers.”

— Olivier Delangre (Founder & CEO at Amoobi)

What should you check for during a reference call? Here are some possible questions you could ask: 

  • How would you rate the candidate’s work? What was their greatest accomplishment?

  • Did they work better alone or in a team? How did they support their colleagues?

  • Did they take direction well? 

  • Do they have good communication skills? Are they good listeners?

  • How did they get along with their coworkers? 

  • Is there any area where they would need more support in their first 90 days?

  • Would you rehire them? If no, why not? 

  • Do you think the candidate can do the job we’re hiring?

Making the job offer

Once you have done all the necessary checks, it’s time to offer them the job. 

The key question arises. What wage should you offer in your contract proposal? I found out that some founders keep it simple while others do complex salary benchmarks. 

In the beginning, most startups have no structure or process. That’s why some founders asked how much the candidate earned in their previous job and matched that salary.

However, they told me, this often caused trouble later on. The employees felt unfairly rewarded. Here’s a clever solution to prevent that from happening: 

“If someone performs better than other employees, do not just pay them more than their immediate colleagues. Instead, reward their talent by dividing your employees into categories like junior, medior or senior. Pay all colleagues within each range equally.”

— Annelies den Boer (COO at Speakap)

One reader had a valid concern, though: 

“How can I convince more people to work for my startup instead of working for a big multinational that offers a higher salary? What's in it for the candidate?”

The answer is flexibility, growth opportunities and responsibilities. According to the founders I talked to, these are the main reasons their employees chose to work for them. As a startup, it’s much easier to offer this compared to larger companies. Use this to your advantage in contract negotiations. 

But what if none of the candidates makes it to the final round? 

Don’t worry when you have zero qualified candidates after all the interview rounds. Just stop the hiring process and start over again. In the end, we found a good candidate in a second attempt. Don’t compromise on hiring the wrong talent because you will regret it later.”

— Olivier Delangre (Founder & CEO at Amoobi)

The key take-away? Never settle for less if your gut tells you otherwise. It will cost you more in the long run. 

So there you have it. Four interview rounds in three weeks on average. From application to contract proposal. Now that you know how to recruit new employees, we can discuss how to onboard and offboard them.

Tune in to the next newsletter to discover how other startups do it!

  • Part 1: Where To Find More Candidates 👀 (read it here) 

  • Part 2: How To Interview Your Candidates In 4 Rounds 👂(this post) 

  • Part 3: How To Onboard and Offboard Employees 👋 (read it here)

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Applause for these incredible people.

Again, I’m super grateful for the people who helped me build this newsletter. That’s why I want to give an (imaginary) loud applause for, especially Monica. And also, PJ, Jesse, Ilse and Jaan for helping me make this post possible.