Even in the startup world, where a talent gap means tech employees are in high demand, a solid resume is no guarantee of employment. Why? Because personality, cultural fit, and first impressions matter. The interview is your first and possibly only opportunity to stand out. It’s your chance to show an employer all the virtues that differentiate you. But I’ve found that many candidates struggle to move from simply repeating what’s on their resumes to actually demonstrating what makes them uniquely qualified.
I’m the founder of Nestio, a startup that helps landlords and brokers market and lease apartments. Over the past six months, our workforce has tripled, to around 40 people, and we’re still growing. These days I’m spending a lot of time in conference rooms interviewing prospective candidates, from engineers to salespeople to a new director of marketing. While on paper most can do the job, in reality some clearly stand above the rest.
In my firsthand experience, I’ve noticed several traits that set apart the candidates we ultimately hire from the ones we don’t. Of course, this list is not definitive and these things may appear obvious. But a CareerBuilder study that surveyed over 2,000 hiring managers identified similar characteristics in top employees. In other words, there’s a reason that companies like ours are paying attention to these characteristics and hiring the candidates who possess them. What are they?
They’ve done their Googling. This is just common sense, but I’m amazed at how often this step is skipped. We’ve had candidates come through our doors who have asked questions that reveal they don’t know who our target customer is or even what our platform does. So much about a company — and the people doing the hiring — can be found on corporate websites, LinkedIn, or aggregators like CrunchBase. When a candidate drops a reference to NYU, knowing that’s where I went to school, it leaves a strong impression. It’s easy to say in an interview that you pay attention to detail, but this is a concrete demonstration that you actually do, and it catches my attention every time. Bottom line: Don’t ask anything of your prospective employer that you could have easily found online.
They show they’re coachable. Great candidates don’t just have the capacity to do the job; they also prove they’re willing to be coached so they can get better at it. A candidate’s ability generally shines through in a strong CV and a thorough reference check, but coachability often needs to be teased out. Anybody we’re hiring for a sales position, for instance, is asked to provide a mock pitch — because I’m interested not just in the tack they take but in how they handle my feedback. If candidates get defensive, that’s a bad sign. Feedback is how we improve. And if they spend the whole session talking and never ask a question? Even worse. It’s not enough to be thirsty for constructive criticism; the top candidates show they can internalize it and even apply it within the interview. At the same time, a candidate’s accounts of previous positive mentoring experiences, whether on the giving or receiving end, go a long way toward showing coachability.
They bring a startup spirit to the table. There are many advantages to working for a startup over an established company, including more responsibilities and more opportunities for upward mobility. However, deluxe benefit packages aren’t usually among the perks. Candidates who show that they’re willing to hustle, improvise, and find a way to move the needle — even if it means getting creative — always catch my attention. Those who are more concerned with org charts, formal procedures, and blue-chip perks, like a matching 401(k) or unlimited vacation time, may not be the right fit. But for the right candidate, the returns in terms of learning and growth potential can be enormous. I know a candidate has startup spirit when they ask me where I think the company will be next year and the year after that, and want to learn more about how they can grow alongside us. Even when applying to established firms, there can be value in demonstrating a startup spirit. Larger companies are increasingly placing emphasis on bringing intrapreneurs (employees who see opportunities for growth and innovation within existing organizations) into their ranks.
They act like they’ve already got the job. Good candidates come in with a solid understanding of the role and why they’re a match. Phenomenal candidates act like they were hired weeks ago and have already gotten started. We had one sales hire put together a whole plan of what prospects he’d go after, why, and what his pitch would be in each case. It was hard to say no (and we didn’t). While this isn’t applicable for all roles, providing a 30-, 60-, or 90-day plan with specific suggestions of what you’d do in your first few months shows exceptional initiative. Of course, be sure to embrace feedback and acknowledge your own limits. You don’t want to unilaterally impose your vision right out of the gate.
They’re true to themselves and to your values. At Nestio, we have certain core values — things like courage, grit, altruism, and collaboration — but we never explicitly test for them. Would anyone really say they don’t have grit, for example, or deny being altruistic? For candidates, demonstrating values alignment is definitely a “show, don’t tell” exercise, so you want to take clues from the language in the job ad and prepare personal examples that speak to it. When an ad asks for a “team player,” a specific account of a time when you showed an ability to collaborate and produce results goes a lot further than just saying you love to work with others. Just don’t try to fake it. Honestly appraise your values and see whether they fit into the company’s.
They follow up — but can take a hint. You never lose by showing you really want the job. I’ve had candidates, winning and losing, who’ve followed up with cupcakes and cookies. I also remember somebody who waited three weeks to follow up and then wrote simply: “So did I get the job?” (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.) What I’d recommend is sending a short, sincere thank-you note immediately following the interview — and then listening. Don’t follow up repeatedly if you know the employer is still interviewing for the role or vehemently argue for your candidacy after being told they’ve gone with someone else. There’s a difference between being eager and being aggressive.
The interview is your opportunity to show you’re a fit for the company. Exhibiting the traits above won’t mean anything if you’re not genuinely qualified. But I think they might just help you leave an impression and stand out from a similarly well-qualified pack.
Caren Maio is founder and CEO of Nestio, a residential leasing and marketing platform.
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