7 Tips for Interviewing at a Tech Startup in Japan

With the rise of foreign-based tech startups and incubators emerging in Tokyo (don’t forget Fukuoka), we’re seeing an increase in motivation to take risk and break through Japan’s lifetime employment model. You want to be part of something that is changing the way people live their lives, but preparing for an interview can seem daunting. Imagine this scenario: You are applying to an innovative company entering Japan that has yet to establish a physical office in Tokyo. They provide no written job description and require you to do all interviews in English via Skype with their San Francisco office.

Piece of cake, right?

Here is our solution: Cut the tie, load up your Spritz and check out some of these top tips that we’ve picked up over the past few years.

1) Download the app. We’re surprised by the number of candidates who show up to an interview for a mobile-platform based application/internet-based company but have never actually used the product. This should be step #1. It doesn’t matter what position you are applying for—whether you are an entry level or a senior director, you need to understand the product. Give yourself time to play around with the service, but don’t stop there — ask detailed questions. How can you improve the user interface (UI)? How do they monetize/make money? What is their business model? How do they differentiate? Who are their competitors? If they’re in e-commerce, for example, purchase one of their products online and take notes on the shipping process and customer experience. This will allow you to formulate more detailed questions and demonstrate you’ve put a lot of thought into the business and are genuinely excited.

2) Job description — What job description? Many startup companies do not provide job descriptions. Why not? Startups don’t always have a concrete HR process — there are few established functions at this early stage. When we meet with startup founders to discuss hiring needs, CEO’s tell us to “find us a superstar” or that “we need good people on the team.” The candidates they meet mold their perception of a desirable fit. Since there might not be an exact image of what an ideal profile would look like, this gives you a very big advantage. Therefore, if you have a vision of how you can use your skills to help grow the business, then you probably fit the requirements. While you are not matching yourself to a job description, you still have to proactively demonstrate your relevant skills and express why you’re a good fit for their organization.

Another way to look at it: Job descriptions usually tell you little about your actual job function. They give you general lines about “5+ years of experience in X” or “3 years of management experience in Z,” etc., but in fact only represent one possibility of many potentially suitable backgrounds. This can actually scare off great talent that have highly comparable skill sets which might not fit in this pre-defined set of requirements. Lou Adler has a great article about this, check it out here.

3) No ties. You’re not interviewing for a back-office position at a keiretsu conglomerate — lose the tie and go business casual. But like most things in life, it depends, so pay attention and tailor your approach to the situation. If you have an interview with a couple of 20-something year old Silicon Valley co-founders, you can be pretty certain they won’t be showing up in Versace suits. In this case, a nice button-up shirt will suffice. Ladies, throw out your shukatsu-style suit and go for smart dress pants/dress and a blouse. Tomoko Namba does it well.

4) Use social media for research. While LinkedIn Japan only has a user base of about 1 million people, it’s still possible to find people who you will be meeting. It’s useful to use your interviewers’ backgrounds beforehand — maybe you have something in common (a potential conversation starter) and it will make them appear more familiar. Do you have a friend in common on LinkedIn? Maybe you can get a hint about them based on previous companies/positions/education. If you don’t want them to know that you viewed their profile, you can go to LinkedIn privacy settings > Select What others See when you’ve viewed their profile > Select You will be totally anonymous. Also, you can Google their names, read articles they have written, and if you’re lucky even find information about their interview style from people who they interviewed in the past (or from your recruiter). If you choose to utilize these resources, make sure you know the information well. Speaking incorrectly about their background in an interview can be detrimental.

5) Know your numbers. Whether you are in sales or marketing, people want to know your results and achievements. This concept applies to all job functions. As a sales person, you need to be prepared to speak about your numbers; know your budgeted vs. actual, how many accounts you actively work, how many accounts you have opened in a given time span. Why did you only hit 98% and not 100% of your target? What could you do to achieve that extra 2%? Other, non-numbers focused questions that may come up are: Who were you selling to? What kinds of connections do you have in a given industry? How would you develop business outside of your network?

In marketing, you want to be able to explain the numbers from a business perspective. ROI on effective campaigns, size of budgets you’ve handled, knowing your CPC/CPI/CPE/CPDs — whichever the measurement may be. In sum, you will sound much more credible when telling a story if you have solid numbers and reasons behind those numbers.

6) Don’t be afraid to admit failure — Failure, rejection and difficult decisions come along the way as a natural part of our professional and personal lives. It is easy (and expected) to go into a meeting and talk about how successful you have been. But it’s much more difficult to talk about a poor business decision you made that resulted in a loss of revenue, or a tough employee that you had to let go. Be prepared to speak about them openly and explain how you’ve grown from them. What will you do differently in the future? Why will you not repeat the same mistake?

Admitting failure is important because a tough startup situation will require tough decisions, and you will face shortcomings. If you have a variety of positive and negative experiences under your belt, companies can see that you are better equipped to handle various circumstances. They will appreciate your humility, wisdom and “never give up” attitude.

7) Show your passion — Entrepreneurs have an idea or a vision, and they like their employees to embody that vision. Be able to blend your background, through telling a story, into the company’s history and mission statement. Make it clear to them why you fit into their company culture, how you can make an impact and execute — not eventually, but from day one. After your research and understand the company and product before the interview, be sure to pick out some key points that really motivate you. If it’s an Online Travel Agency (OTA), talk about your passion for travel and the backpacking trip you took around Europe after you graduated. If you’re not interested in travel, then is this job really your best option? Don’t just apply for the sake of applying, but apply to something that you can be passionate about.

by Misha Yurchenko, Consultant at Wahl & Case, Digital Media & Ad-tech Recruiter

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