Small Firm Interviews: What You Need to Know – Installment 2

Last month, I began this series for students and alumni to be better equipped when they interview at small companies and start-ups. I believe that using questions like these will separate candidates from the masses and give them a better understanding of what life might be like in a small firm. After all, the trends seem to be pointing in the direction that entrepreneurial ventures will be even more important in our new economy.

Data shows that most new jobs in America are created by small companies. Anecdotally, young professionals seem to be growing tired of the scandal, profit-orientation, and lack of meaning in large corporations. Students across the nation are exploring entrepreneurship in growing numbers. And the media keeps stressing how entrepreneurs will be the ones who bring us out of the recession.

Yet as more people move towards employment in smaller firms, there has been little discussion of how those employers compare against their larger counterparts, and how small firm careers differ. This series is meant to explore one of those areas for the benefit of job applicants – questions to ask when interviewing at small firms. The first installment of five questions can be found at

1. Can I talk with other employees?

An appropriate question for any interview, this one is partially designed to see how the interviewer responds and partially to learn what it’s really like to work there. If you see any hesitation beyond mere surprise at the question, that may be a sign that the owner is concerned about what employees may say. But if you are successful in speaking with employees, you will be able to gain insight into the owners-as-managers, what the expectations are, perhaps what the office politics are, and how satisfying the work may be.

2. What is your vision for the company?

This question is designed to learn about the long-term plans for the business and whether you believe it fits with your own ambitions. I believe that every ambitious and successful business owner has a vision. So if you get any hesitation from the owner after you ask it, or s/he gives you a long, drawn-out answer, take note – you may have caught the firm during a difficult time or you are speaking with a “reluctant” entrepreneur. Conversely, if the owner gets a sparkle in his/her eye and talks with passion, you’re listening to someone who may present unique growth opportunities for you.

3. Why did you go into business?

The “reluctant” entrepreneur is typically someone who goes into business without ever planning to: being laid off for a period of time and then using the business as a means to make money; or following the lead of a persuasive friend/colleague to go into business. The non-reluctant ones often want to build something bigger than themselves, create change in their marketplace, or challenge themselves by pursuing what they believe is a great idea. Which one would you rather work for, the one who was pulled into entrepreneurship, or the one who pushed himself towards an opportunity?

4. What are the people like that I might work with?

The best analogy I can make is that working at a small firm can often become like being with your family than working at a company. You need to be prepared to experience the more genuine side of people since you may not find the protocols, politics, and posturing that is more common in large organizations. As a result, don’t be surprised if the owners give you insights you may not expect or use the word “family” when answering this question. Of course, depending on your own family members, that may or may not be a good thing. ;-)

5. What have been some of your biggest challenges in running this business?

Every business owner deals with challenges such as poor cash flows, understaffing, new competition, etc. It’s not always a good idea to disclose such issues (which can create anxiety or concern among employees) so don’t be surprised if the owner politely refuses to answer, or dodges, this question. If you do get an answer, try to assess how genuine the answer seems or whether the owner’s humility is demonstrated. Furthermore, if the owner dwells on the question by offering a lengthy answer with excessive detail, it may be a sign of how much the challenges affect him/her personally or that the business may currently be experiencing some difficulty.

Feel free to comment here with your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. I also welcome specific questions you are curious about asking as a job candidate, or if you are a business owner, what you believe job applicants could/should ask.

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