Questions I'll Ask Your Startup

Mon, Jan 9, 2012 - 1:49pm -- Isaac Sukin

I talk to a lot of startups. I have a lot to say about what (not) to do if you are on the hiring side of this exchange, but for now I'll cover the minimum set of information you should be prepared to discuss if you want to hire a developer for your early-stage company. This is the first real interaction you'll have with a potential coworker. If you struggle with convincing someone to join your company, you can bet you'll struggle with convincing someone to buy your product or service, so you should be prepared with the information a potential hire will want to know. These are questions I will pretty much always ask you about your startup in an interview, and they're pretty similar to what a VC would want to know. When I say "I" below what I really mean is "any developer" but it's more convenient to write in the first person.

What does your company do? What is your vision?
This is your elevator pitch. A good answer will explain what product or service the company will deliver to the user in no more than a few sentences, starting with a problem and concluding with your solution. You can also include a scenario or use case for why someone would use your product and why you personally find it compelling. Do not get sidetracked into technical details about how you're going to build it or why it will work yet. Don't describe it as "revolutionary" or "a really big opportunity" -- developers will judge that for themselves.
How is your product is different from existing solutions?
You can include this as part of your answer to the previous question -- you should note any similar companies or direct competitors and explain why people will buy your product/service instead. You are probably not creating a new category of product/service, but if you are, explain why people are dissatisfied with the status quo. If I surprise you by naming a company that does exactly what you want to do, you should tell me that you haven't heard of that company before, write down the name, tell me you'll look it up, and then explain why you have a unique advantage anyway. Why hasn't anyone done this before? Why is now the right time to introduce your product/service?
How do you expect to make money? Why is your product/service compelling enough that people will give you their money?
A good answer will start by explaining the main thing your customers or clients will pay you for, make it clear why you think people will want to pay for your product/service, and then note any other smaller opportunities for customers to give you money. I want to understand what it is that people are paying for, how it relates to the complete product/service you're offering, why people will change their behavior in order to use your product, and what market segment you're targeting. This is your pitch to a customer; make me want to buy your product. If I'm not convinced by your answer I will hammer you on it because if I have no interest in the product and I think other people aren't going to be interested in the product then I'm not interested in working for your company. If it's not obvious that the market is very large, tell me how big you think it is and how much of it you think you can grab.
What have you accomplished so far?
Are you still in idea stage? Have you received venture funding? Have you won awards? Built a prototype? Let me know what progress you've made or be honest if you just have an idea and you're trying to make it into reality.
Have you talked to prospective customers? What was their feedback?
You just told me how you think you can make money, but have you actually asked anyone if they really would give you their money? If you haven't, that's okay, but unless I'm really sold on your idea you're going to have to get back to me on that. You can't just build a product and expect that people will want it exactly as you built it. You should be gathering feedback at every stage. Talk to the people who would be using your product as well as the people responsible for buying your product (they are often different in B2B companies). If you are going to be supported by advertising, explain why your data and user base will be valuable to advertisers and how you think you can build a network.
Why is your current team the right set of people to execute this vision?
Explain each of your backgrounds, what you're bringing to the company, and what each person's role is. Also explain why now is a good time for each of you to do this and tell me how much you're committed to making it happen. If you have several business people and you're trying to hire a developer to build a technology company, you're in trouble. In a pre-sales company whose core product or service is technology, you'd better have good reasons why each business person is useful, and you should usually be prepared to offer significant equity.
What are your next major goals and over what period of time do you hope to accomplish them?
Show me that you've thought about your roadmap and you have serious goals on a realistic timeline for the company. Then tell me how those goals relate to me and the work I would be doing for you. Let me know how strict your dates are and if they are arbitrary or correspond to any events.
Why should I want to work for you?
Assuming I have other opportunities, why should I choose to work at your company? A good answer to this question starts with clarifying why it would be fun to work on your product/service with your team and your resources. Emphasize the impact I would have on the world and on the direction of your company. Briefly mention compensation -- ideally "competitive compensation and equity" or just "appropriate equity" if you can't afford a salary. If you want me to work for you, finish by saying why you think my experience and interests makes me a good fit. If you're not sure yet, this is a good time to ask about me.

Having asked these questions many times, it seems somewhat obvious to me that startup founders should have at least thought about the answers. However, what's obvious to you is amazing to someone else, so I hope this helps people. I have a lot of other advice about startups that I've built up as well, so hopefully I'll follow up this post with some of that.