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We got eight Indian startup CEOs to tell us their one killer interview question for new hires

By Itika Sharma Punit

From business plans to work culture, Indian startups have done most things differently from traditional companies.

Even when it comes to building teams, most entrepreneurs are now looking beyond conventional qualities such as qualification, experience, or success at previous jobs.

Like their unusual job titles and offbeat workplaces, these entrepreneurs’ interviews of prospective employees are different too—no more “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” or “what is your biggest weakness?”

Instead, they ask about petrol consumption, losing debates, and horoscopes.

“When do you give up on a teammate?”

For Vijay Shekhar Sharma, CEO and founder of mobile wallets startup Paytm, a candidate’s decision-making skill is key.

His most important question to an interviewee is: When do you know it’s time you give up on a teammate and ask him to leave? And how do you reach that decision? Sharma believes this is one of the hardest things to decide on in a startup and asking this question helps him understand a candidate’s “journey towards taking tough decisions.”

“Why are you talking to us today?”

Richa Kar, founder and CEO of online lingerie retail startup Zivame, thinks it is necessary to understand a prospective employee’s reason for wanting to work at her company.

“I think it is very important to judge a person’s motivation for wanting to work with us. This question does just that,” Kar said. ”When you are creating a market, you want people who are as excited as you in the entire process of creation. That way, everyone co-owns your vision for the company.”

“Do you believe in destiny or free will?”

It is essential that employees realise they are responsible for their actions, says Paras Chopra, founder and CEO of Wingify, a Delhi-based enterprise software startup. So, a question he asks in several interviews is: “Do you believe in horoscopes?” He follows this up with: “Do you think we have free will?”

“We are looking for individuals who have a strong internal locus of control and believe that the end result is a cause of their own actions,” explained Chopra, who has opted to keep his seven-year-old startup bootstrapped despite the funding boom in India.

“We believe such people display a higher sense of responsibility and judiciousness when taking important business decisions, compared to those who believe overtly in external factors like luck or competition affecting their performance,” he added.

“Sell me the water bottle”

Asking a candidate to sell a bottle, a glass, or a pen is one of the oldest tricks during interviews for sales-related roles. “It helps me test their level of empathy,” said Rajiv Srivatsa, co-founder and COO of online furniture retail startup Urban Ladder.

The answer to this question highlights a candidate’s “creativity, presence of mind, and most importantly the ability to understand the customer.”

“How much petrol gets consumed on the road outside our office?”

Nishant Singh, CEO and founder of customer relationship management startup CRMnext, likes to throw up a brain-teaser during interviews. The intention is to understand how a candidate deals with such questions, rather than to get an accurate answer.

One question that Singh has often asked during interviews is: how would you estimate the petrol consumed on the road outside our office between 8pm and 9pm every evening, without any help?

“See, if you strip away domain and technology knowledge, you are left with attitude and problem-solving capabilities in a person. Skills can be tough, but these natural instincts are what makes a winner,” the CEO of the Norwest Venture Partners-backed company said.

“Many people don’t even try to answer and just give up, and that says a lot about them,” he added.

“Tell me about the time when you failed.”

Until not so long ago, Amit Jain, co-founder and CEO of CarDekho, an automobile classified portal, focused more on a person’s qualifications and past work experience during interviews. But as his company grew in size, it became essential to hire people who would maintain the culture and ethos of his company. “When we were a 100-people team, I could personally keep a check on the culture. But now as we grow, I need people who speak the same language as mine because I cannot keep 3,000 people on the same page culturally.”

So, while interviewing candidates nowadays, Jain asks them about their failures.

“The moment a candidate starts talking to me about his or her failure, I get an understanding of how humble or pompous he or she is,” Jain said. “A person’s past success or failure is of little importance to me. But what I want to know is if the candidate is humble enough to realise what went wrong and accept it.”

CarDekho currently employs at least 25 entrepreneurs who failed in their ventures, Jain added.

“When was the last time you were wrong during a debate?”

Bipin Preet Singh, CEO of mobile wallet startup MobiKwik, tries to find out if the prospective employee is comfortable with accepting when he or she is wrong. His favourite question: when was the last time that, in the middle of a debate, you realised you were wrong, and promptly admitted it?

“It’s very difficult to come up with a diplomatic answer when the candidate is not expecting this question,” Singh said. “The answer gives me an insight into how open-minded the person is, his or her ability to accommodate others’ viewpoints, and whether the person is humble enough to give credit where it’s due.”

“Explain crowdfunding to me like I’m a six-year-old.”

Crowdfunding is relatively new to India. So when Varun Sheth, co-founder and CEO of crowdfunding platform Ketto, is hiring a new employee, he tries to understand what the candidate knows about the sector.

“Explain crowdfunding to me like I am a six-year-old,” Sheth often asks. It helps him judge a prospective employee’s communication skills and understanding of the job.

The question may seem easy, but not many find it easy to answer. “Answering this question is far more difficult than it seems,” Sheth said. “Explaining a concept like crowdfunding to a six-year-old is a tough job. So answering this question shows the candidate’s understanding of the concept and also his or her ability to think out of the box.”

Another question Sheth often asks is this: if you had to do a job without a salary what job would that be?

“This typically takes people by surprise because they come prepared for technical questions,” he explained. “The answer to this question reveals more about the real person behind the prospective employee.”

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.