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The Truth About Job Interviews With Entrepreneurs: Your Employer's Mind May Be Far, Far Away

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Here's the deal: You heard about a nearby hot start-up company from a friend, applied online, and three days later got an e-mail for an interview. Last night you spent an hour researching the company and the job you're angling for. They liked you online; now comes the moment of truth: Will you impress enough in person to be invited back for a second interview, and eventual hiring?

You're about to find out that interviewing at some small, fast-growing entrepreneurial firms can be a fast, flaky and unsettling experience.

A harried receptionist greets you when you enter the building a few minutes early; soon you're escorted into an office for The Showdown. But, yikes! -- it's the president's office. You're interviewing with the boss herself! Suddenly you're a little sweaty. No room for error. Just breathe, and focus on the questions. Just say the right thing in crisp, telling responses.

"Good morning," the boss says as she gestures towards a chair and looks at her watch. "Thanks for coming in." She has an automatic smile and a mountain of paperwork on two desks and a row of file cabinets behind her. This doesn't look like the meticulously organized HR departments where you've interviewed before. You wonder: Isn't there a more relaxed, focused HR exec you could interview with instead?

Apparently not. This company is too small to have its own designated HR person, or even a part-time one. So far, the boss is doing the hiring herself.

"Ms ... Smith," the boss says, shamelessly glancing at your resume. "Tell me why we should hire you."

Gosh, a little small talk would have been nice. Where's the polished corporate culture? This exec seems to be in a hurry.

What you really want to say is: I need a shorter commute than the 45-minutes of traffic angst I deal with every morning and evening.

Instead, you schmooze a little. "I've heard such good things about your company's growth and prospects," you say. "I'd like to contribute and have a chance to grow with the company."

The boss' eyes narrow; she pulls an apple from a container on her desk and begins munching away. She thinks to herself: We need help in customer service, bad. I don't have time to go through most of the resumes on my desk. This woman's Facebook page didn't have anything egregious and in person she seems OK. Why not size her up quick and take a chance? Could get her on the phones by tomorrow morning if I'm lucky. After that, what I really need is a fulltime HR person. I don't have time to do this myself any more. But the cost...

Then the boss snaps out of her reverie, sits up straight in her chair, and asks cheerily: "Tell me about your customer interface experience with your current employers."

You smile and chirp confidently: "Well, first we had a 7-day training course in Dayton, then we had supervised internship at the Atlanta office for a month, then I went to a fulltime customer support position at headquarters in St. Louis. I've been there ever since, two years now. But I'd like a new challenge."

The boss thinks to herself: More money, less commute. Can't blame her. But she's a big company girl. Can she hit the ground running and carry the ball for us? Does she have what it takes to succeed in a start-up environment?

Just then the merchandise manager comes in. "Typhoon off the Philippines. The third wave of goods will be at least three weeks late," he says.

"Oh no. I knew we should have shipped the first half in a smaller container three weeks ago," the boss replies. The merchandise manager grunts his agreement and disappears from the doorway. The boss looks off in space for a moment and then realizes someone is still sitting in front of her desk. A ... prospective employee. Oh yes, Ms. Smith is still here. The boss forces a smile.

"Tell me about your problem solving ability," the boss says with that obligatory smile still plastered across her lips.

You're a little surprised by the easy questions, but you give her what she wants -- though you're wondering why she hasn't asked technology questions. You answer: "I try to solve each problem right then on the phone and make the customer feel he or she is the most important call I've made that day. I know how important repeat business is. It's a sale and cash flow with no marketing cost."

Not bad, the boss thinks to herself. But what is really on her mind is how she is going to get out of the building by 5 p.m. to pick up her 3-year-old from day care, since her husband has a late meeting. And her bankers are coming at 2 p.m. to review the new loan request. Lots to do before then.

The boss finishes her apple and then twirls a pen in her right hand. Well, Ms. Smith talks a good enough game, she thinks to herself. But you never know with this interview process. You can bust your tail for a dozen interviews, hire the top-ranked one, and still end up blindsided by a dud. Maybe better to just jump in and go for it.

"Very nice, Ms. Smith," she says to you, the ever-hopeful applicant. Then she shocks you: "When could you start?"

Your eyes bug out a little. "Two weeks..." you stammer.

"I was thinking more like next week."

"Well, I would have to give the usual two weeks' notice," you reply.

"One and you're hired," the boss says.

"I guess I could do that..."

"Well then, we'll see you one week from today," the boss says. "As you know, the job starts at $42k a year. Benefits kick in after a 90-day probation period. We'll e-mail you details tonight."

A little startled, since only 30 minutes have passed, you walk out the door and notice several people lined up, still waiting to talk to the boss. These start-up companies sure must be different, you think to yourself. She didn't even notice the tailored new suit and matching briefcase I bought just for the occasion. You drive home in a daze, wondering if you're going to miss the predictability of your current job with a boring big company.

"How'd the interview go?" a manager entering the boss' office asks the harried CEO as he plunks down a few printouts.

"No idea," she answers. "I've learned the hard way that if you don't know the person well, you have no idea what will happen after a hiring. So, might as well just hire the promising ones on the first date, throw them in the pool and see if they can swim."

The moral of this story? Despite the advantages of technology, landing a job at a good start-up company can be a long, tedious process, or it can be a quick flash of opportunity if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. No two start-ups are the same and there's no predictable interview process. Start-ups are often too new, or moving too fast, to have developed their own corporate culture. Hence there's still no substitute for persistence and casting a wide net. Do that and your hiring day will come.

Frank Farwell is founder and past president of the WinterSilks catalog (www.wintersilks.com). His book, "Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road," was nominated for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year Award. Its Appendix lists the attributes of an ideal product for building a winning business. The book is sold in most English-speaking countries, and at Amazon.com, or frankfarwell.com.