11. April 2012–
Arthur Maas chased his dreams (and his German girlfriend) across the Atlantic. But what does the native New Yorker make of the startup scene in Berlin? And what does a guy who has "been to more job interviews than bars" feel about what makes a good interview experience? Read on and learn, Berlin startups...
Three months ago, I moved to Berlin from New York City to follow my dream of working in a tech startup. Most people scratch their heads when I say that because NY has a booming tech scene. My German girlfriend may have influenced this choice, which is a common reason for moving here from what I hear.
Reasons aside, I’m happy to be here and have hit the market with gusto looking for a job in sales, marketing, and/or community management. In other words, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. In the process, I’ve embarrassingly been to more interviews than bars, and have noticed some trends that I’d like to share.
Move aside Ashton Kutcher, Jack Dorsey, and Techcrunch. The international symbol of tech startups should be the espresso machine – at least in Berlin. Maybe I’m alone, but I judge companies by their espresso goods. This caffeine dispenser is as crucial as large monitors, a public display of real-time metrics, or a sea of Macbooks to a startup’s success.
I think you can tell a lot about how a startup views itself from its espresso machine. Are they scrappy and bootstrapping with a machine that screeches out latte macchiatos? Or, are they polished and confident with VC backing and promising growth? It is the mismatches of performance and espresso machine quality that give me pause.
The wait can diminish the wows
About half of the time, when I arrive at an interview, I’m ushered into the interrogation room, asked if I’d like some water, and then left to wait for five to ten minutes. If I see a receptionist, the wait is almost guaranteed.
I get it, hiring is not always a priority, especially at more established companies. But, I love it when I arrive at an interview and the interviewer is ready to go with my CV in hand. This shows professionalism, respect, and competence – all are what I look for in a future boss and colleague. It is understandable if an interviewer is late or delayed, though it takes away from the wow factor I hope to feel at an interview.
The pitch – passion without delusion
Most interviews start out with the small talk, what are you doing in Berlin and what are you looking for, blah, blah, blah. Then comes the pitch about what the company does (even though I already know from online research), and why it is the best place to work.
In this part, I look for a big vision combined with energy and passion about current projects. I also want to see the connection between today and the beautiful future when the company pleases millions of users and prints money. This is much harder to do than it sounds because the path in between is almost always unknown.
Some startups I’ve been to seem delusional about their current place in the market, not that I’m an expert. Mostly everyone has a bright future in mind. It is a big warning sign if the two don’t connect. On the other hand, it’s great when I leave an interview feeling confident that the company I just spoke to will be huge one day.
Note to start ups: don’t oversell your current market position. Startup job-seekers like me want to solve problems so it doesn’t help if you pretend like you don’t have any.
The style – friend or tormentor?
Interviews can range from informal and chatty to bullying in intensity. Both have their charm. Developers tend to be friendlier than the more business-minded performance marketing types.
I’m fairly new to the internet scene; I don’t hide this by any means. It’s pretty easy to discover this through a series of tough questions. Sometimes, I think people are looking at how I manage stress or where my knowledge breaks. Both are fair to test. Maybe this is cultural, but the interviews that are only serious and high stress don’t necessarily show me that you mean business. I want to like you if I’m going to spend more time at work than anywhere else. Show me you’re human please.
Questions – what makes a good one?
Connected with the high-stakes interview questions are odd questions I’ve gotten over and over again. Why do you want to know my favorite website or internet business? I think any fan of the internet would not be able to answer that honestly with one company.
Also, the question, “What would your ideal job be?” is too open. If I were out to sell my services at all costs, this question is very easy to answer such that it describes the job offered perfectly.
On the flipside, I always feel like I catch people off guard when asking the equity question. To me, joining a startup is a risk that I enjoy taking. All too often I hear the story about how I should lower my salary expectations because it’s a start up.
I’m more comfortable doing this if I think the company will be successful one day. I’m not naïve to think that this is guaranteed, no matter how hard everyone works. But messages matter, especially at the beginning. Being open to employee equity-sharing is a way to further convince me of the long-term vision, and bridge the salary gap – even if only symbolically.
I’m sure that much of my criticism comes from cultural differences, and I hope it does not come across as arrogant. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has the audacity to start a business and the passion to work beyond measure to make it successful. I’ve seen this in every Berlin startup I’ve encountered. Also, I haven’t had a bad interview yet in Berlin. There have been many awkward moments and I wrote this with the intention of suggesting ways for everyone to improve.
We’ve all had strange and inspiring interviews, on both sides of the table. Please share stories in the comments so we can all learn to hire and interview more effectively.