A friend of mine is interviewing for a marketing position at an EDA startup. I’d better leave everything anonymous to protect the innocent. He (or maybe it was she) asked me what good questions to ask would be.
There are two reasons for asking questions in an interview, when you are the candidate. One is that the type of questions you ask reveal that you are already thinking about the important issues affecting the company. And the other is that you genuinely want to know. In most cases, the questions serve both ends. In fact most questions you ask should help you decide if the company is going to be successful and whether you have the right skillset to improve those chances.
When you interview for a position at a startup, it is important to realize that you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. The point of working for a startup is that the stock they give you will be valuable (otherwise go do something else) and they need to convince you of that. When you interview at a big successful company it is much more of a case of them interviewing you. After all, if you’ve done your homework, you should know what makes them successful. Most of that information is in the public domain.
The most important question I like to ask is why the senior people in the company believe it will be successful. Since they work there, presumably they do but sometimes that have a hard time articulating why. The answer needs to be more than just having good people or good technology. The market that they sell into needs to be large enough and homogenous enough for their (or any) product strategy to have the possibility of being successful.
Another thing I like to ask are: what is the one reason people buy your product? Of course, just like John Bruggeman was pointing out on Tuesday, if they don’t have a good answer then there is all the more upside from doing a great job at marketing (if you are interviewing for a marketing position). But typically, if most of the company is engineers, they’ll have too many answers to this question rather than too few. Avoid the fine art and bicycles problem. City Slickers marketing is finding out the “one thing” and becoming focused on delivering that. If customers are all buying for different reasons, it is not possible to build a repeatable sales process.
A third question is to ask, which is good in non-startups too, is “If I got the job and was starting tomorrow morning at 9am, what would be the most important things to get working on?” They may not be the most important strategic things long-term, but if there hasn’t been any marketing before there is usually a backlog of urgent stuff: the customer presentation is hopeless, the website hasn’t been updated in ages, the company logo sucks, engineering needs a decision about which standard to support, or whatever.