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Interviewing at Startups vs. Big Companies

Interviewing at Startups vs. Big Companies

I’m in the business of interviewing. As a technical recruiter I used to conduct as many as 20 phone interviews a day, and I currently lead recruiting at Shake. I’ve also been interviewed a number of times, both at large companies and scrappy startups. There are a few key differences between interviewing at large companies and interviewing at startups. Here are some tips.

Before Your Interview

Do Your Research

Corporate - You should find out what you can about the company you’re working with. This should include company history, philosophy, and approach (whatever you can find in publications or on their website). You should also have a working knowledge of both the product or service and their target customers or users. If the job you want requires any particular tools, methodologies, or languages, try to see what the company uses and be ready to discuss if and when you’ve used it in the past (or if you haven’t, why not, and what you do know about it). Also try to get to know about the company culture, especially the team members, if that information is available. All of this information should help you have more thoughtful discussions and questions when interviewing. It may not push you over the top, but not using the product or missing the company’s key mantra might cost you the job. If you think you might get too nervous or forget, you can bring some prepared questions with you to the interview on a notepad or on your phone.

Startup - The culture or team research is especially important for startups that tend to highly value cultural fit (or the now infamous beer test).  You should also try to find anything quirky on their website or social media accounts that you can reference. It will show that you’re paying attention and that hopefully, you have the same interests.

Know the Ws

Corporate – You should know the who, what, when, where, and why of your story. An interview is a short amount of time to convey who you are to someone else, or a group of someones. You should know how you are going to describe who you are, what you want and what you can do, when you are looking to start and why this company or opportunity is right for you. This is a great opportunity to match some of your experiences or goals to items in the job description or the company’s public information. For example, if a company is using a technology that you are looking to gain more experience with, this might be a great learning experience for you. You should also spend some time thinking about why you are right for the company. Why do you work for this role and what separates you from the other candidates being considered?

Startup – Nothing different here — still know why you care about the opportunity and why the company should care about you.

The Day Of


Corporate – Dressing for an interview can be really stressful. I’d suggest having an outfit picked out ahead of time to allow yourself to relax before you go in. For larger companies, business or business casual is usually appropriate. This can range from a suit to slacks/a nice skirt and a button down. In this environment, it is usually safer to err on the side of formal.  

Startup – For startups or nontraditional workplaces, this can be a harder call. Usually you want to aim for business casual to casual. A good barometer is usually what you would wear on a first date of coffee or drinks. For example, jeans and a button down or even a cool t-shirt usually works. If possible, try to find out what is usually worn and go half a step more formal. If you’re interviewing at a casual workplace where jeans and t-shirts are the norm, maybe add a button up or blazer over a t-shirt when you come in for an interview. It will show you care about making a good impression (plus you can always take it off).


Corporate – The tone of your interview (vocabulary, posture, and familiarity) should also match your surroundings. In a more formal or corporate setting the tone is usually more reserved, especially for positions where presentation or work choice might be important, including business development, customer service, or reception.

Startup – In more casual settings like the startup world, you usually are on a first-name basis and more casual. This can allow you to have a more familiar tone and you should feel free to throw in interesting facts or anecdotes from your own life. Again, the beer test is important!

After your interview

Follow Up

Corporate – If possible, you should follow up after every in-person interview. This used to be done by sending a handwritten card, but now is usually done with an email. Your email should be addressed to your interviewer (or whatever contact person you have). Feel free to ask that your message be relayed to anyone else who interviewed you (mention them by name). You should include a thank you for the time or consideration, anything in particular you enjoyed doing or learning while at your interview, and any questions that you didn’t get to ask or thought of after your interview.

Startup – Still send an email but don’t be afraid to have a little flair. Maybe add a P.S. about something fun or silly you discussed.


The key to a lot of this advice is to get out of your own way. You want to do as much as you can before, during and after the interview to make a good impression so that your qualifications and personality can shine.