Small Firm Interviews: What You Need to Know – Installment 1

A few weeks ago, a DePaul student mentioned she was interviewing at a small company and expressed some concerns not about the job opportunity but the firm.

In talking with her, I realized that start-ups and small firms bring an entirely different context to the job pursuit. There are issues regarding financial stability, job stability, ownership, management transition, and many others. In most cases, interviews are held with the business owner so there may be an opportunity to address this context directly.

In the interest of helping the many new DePaul graduates and others who are pursuing jobs with such companies, I’ve assembled a list of questions that may be helpful if and when one is interviewing with business owners. Furthermore, I’m confident that being armed with these questions will give job candidates an advantage over their peers; some business owners are likely to be impressed that an applicant is aware of the unique context of a small firm.

Because the list of questions is quite lengthy, with some brief explanations of each, they will be covered over the course of the next few months. So keep checking back on the Coleman Center’s web site.

Disclaimer: Most start-ups and small firms are privately owned and, therefore, some owners may not be comfortable answering some of these questions (since it’s their business, they have the right to not answer). One should always use caution, judgment, courtesy, and professionalism, not only in asking these questions, but also in responding to the answers.

1. Can you please tell me about the ownership? The number of owners, whether they work in the company, and their roles? Small firms can have owners who are passive investors, family members, or other employees. Getting an answer to this question may give you some insight into how major decisions are made within the company.

2. How financially sound and stable is the company? A major reason for the failure of small firms is undercapitalization, not having enough capital to launch and grow the company. A second reason is poor cash flows. Either or both of these issues can not only affect payroll (although most will do anything in their power to meet payroll, including tapping into credit cards or skipping owners’ pay), but also how well the company is managed and whether it can grow. In getting an answer to this question, look for non-verbals; if there is apparent discomfort on the business owner’s face; that is not a good sign.

3. How well are the company’s operations systemized? Is there an operations manual, standard operating procedures, or a training manual? These questions will give you some insight into whether the firm has documented its policies, procedures, and processes. That further tells you what your training may be like and whether the business is over-dependent on particular people. Furthermore, it may give insight into how consistent the owners’ or managers’ decision-making process may be. If an owner smugly responds, “No, we don’t need those manuals, it’s all in my head”, that may be a sign of a business that’s over-dependent on ownership.

4. Besides the duties of this job, what else might I have to do? In small firms, employees must be flexible and adaptable. If a co-worker goes on vacation or leaves unexpectedly, or there is a sudden change in the volume of business, the owners may ask you to take on additional or different duties. And this may happen without having given you the necessary cross-training. They have been doing it since the day they started the business, and typically most of the employees have done it as well. So if the response to this question is “Nothing”, consider it a word of caution.

5. Can you please tell me about yourself – your personality, work behaviors, preferences, etc.? What are you like at work on a day-to-day basis? Entrepreneurs and business owners are passionate creatures. And passion brings out the good, bad, and ugly in people. Sometimes, that creates an energetic environment and that energy becomes contagious, inspiring everyone on the team. Other times, that passion can create confusion which can also become contagious, stifling everyone around you. Because the company is their “baby”, business owners may appear to get hung up on small details, change their minds in the pursuit of perfection or opportunity, and sometimes rely on their instinct over logic to make decisions. So the more you can find out about the person, the better off you will be.

The second installment of this list will be posted in the new few weeks. Meanwhile, please comment here with your thoughts, experiences, or questions.

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