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So this is kind of an interviewing question in reverse.

I'm a final-year university student and a yet-to-become-successful entrepreneur. Last week I was in the university library, talking with another student about a potential business opportunity that we've been throwing around. We we're discussig marketing and sales funnels and how we would go about launching the particular product we've been thinking about trying. My degree is actually in engineering, but I know quite a bit about product sourcing, internet marketing, sales metrics, etc, from running my own small LLC.

Anyway, during a lull in the conversation, this guy walks up and says that he overheard us talking, and asks a few general questions about what we were discussing and what we were studying. He was polite enough, so we talked with him for a few minutes and gave him a bit of background about ourselves (nothing strictly related to the enterprise we were considering).

He eventually asked me if I might be interested in a job. He said he's got a friend looking to expand a company into the city where we live, and that based on what he heard me saying, I might be someone they'd be interested in. Apparently it's some online-data business that analyzes something called the "Bounce" of users navigating between websites. I'm still in the student-intern phase of my life career-wise, even though I'm interested in starting my own business ultimately, and thinking that it might be a way to get some experience in marketing, I gave him my number in case his friend was interested. He didn't extend the offer to my friend (politely), who is more on the technical side of things.

Today I received a call from him. He said that they might actually be interested (when I asked him, he said he's part of the company, don't know why he didn't specify that before). He asked if I was free to do a quick interview this coming week. We're going to meet at a local Starbucks in a few days, dress is formal. He said it's just to ask a few questions, get a feel for who I am and whether or not they'd be seriously interested in me. He asked me how available I'd be if they were interested, and I said that I'm mostly interested in skill-building and learning at this stage, so it would depend on the what the offer is. I specifically told him that at this point I'm not committing to anything, but would be open to an initial interview. Forgot to ask what the name of the company is.

So firstly, is this kind of headhunting normal? To me it feels a little bit odd (don't want to say shady, but odd). However, most of my experience as a mid-20's student-transitioning-to-career is with submitting job applications and then hoping for a formalized invitation to interview. I'm used to having some idea about what I'm applying for before I go in. No one's ever approached me before specifically trying to recruit me for anything except clubs and network marketing schemes. Is this outside the norm for headhunting, or a reasonably normal way to try and recruit someone you randomly came across in an unexpected setting?

Secondly, how should I go about vetting the offer and the company? I wish I'd asked for the company name, and I'll be researching it once I learn it, but I plan to make the interview two-sided. For those of you who have experience as consultants or high-value employees, what would you want to know if someone came around trying to recruit you? What would you ask the interviewer to get an idea of how the company operates, why they want you, what to expect, etc? What would you need to know to decide whether it was a good decision or not?

Thanks so much for your wisdom on this. Please upvote if you think this is a good question so I can upvote your answers in turn.

  • The vetting I'd do would be highly dependent on my personal preferences in terms of role or company. I'm not sure we'd be able to tell you how you should vet, since we don't know where your priorities lie. What are you specifically trying to find out during this vetting process? – Dukeling Nov 10 '18 at 9:58
  • as for suggested phrasing - "i'm an entrepreneur", you're not aspiring. " It's not something I have Ph.D in...", instead try "I love business development analysis, I enjoy applying creativity to problem solving" works better. Effectively, you talk like you already have done it, even if you're only just starting (or haven't even yet). So not "I want to create" but "I have created". It's more direct. – bharal Nov 10 '18 at 14:45
  • Just to recap, the overwhelming issue here is that it is a "small time" operator, trying to hire someone cheap. Simply be totally prepared to deal with it on that basis, and apply the Iron Law of freelancing. – Fattie Nov 11 '18 at 3:34
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    people who accost others uninvited may have all sorts of agendas. Why was he hanging out in a University library? – Kilisi Nov 11 '18 at 7:28
  • @Kilisi He was sitting at a computer station next to us, studying. Whatever else he may be, I think he's a student. – CMB Nov 11 '18 at 8:37
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It is unclear for me if they want to hire you as a contractor or a full time employee, but in both case you should look for the same thing :

  • Conditions such as salary, working hours, contract duration, made absolutely clear
  • Interview process made reasonable. If they don't test your skills, it is quite a warning.
  • If learning is important, you could ask who you will be reporting to, what is his or her position. I've learned a lot less reporting directly to the CEO than reporting to a technical lead, in my tech position. Equally, you could need a sales manager.
  • For startups and when considering a full time position, I often ask questions about cash flows directly. Startups which don't rely solely on investment money but are making a decent net revenue are startup you can expect to see grow. For others, well, not everybody is facebook. Some may not want to disclose this information - this is a warning as well.

You can extend the list with other things, but that's the main things I look for having worked for small to tiny companies in the last 3 years. And yea, some of them employ guerilla tactics to be visible to possible hires, and I'm not surprised you are approached by a headhunter in this fashion.

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  1. it's totally normal at the "more modest end" of startups

  2. the person is trying to hire you cheap

Here's how to deal with a situation where someone is trying to hire you cheap, this is the language:

"Tom, I totally get where you're coming from - everyone wants to keep costs down at first. I really understand you're looking to hire someone who is good but you can still get at a cheaper rate. Unfortunately that's not me - I never work at a cheap rate! As you know, it's tough but there is so much demand for programmers at the moment, there's really no need for anyone skilled to work cheap. I'm sorry for the bad news!

  1. the specific startup idea you/he mentions (dating blah) is a non-starter. It's a complete waste and will go nowhere, it's a zero. Be aware you're working on a loser that will never "go" and will just drift off after a few months. of course, that describes 90% of startups, garage or professional, so not necessarily a deal breaker, just to be aware of.

  2. if you want a "flakey start-up job that may turn out good" the answer could not be simpler, click to angel.co. no need to worry about people you meet in the library

  3. "how should I go about vetting the offer and the company? .. I'll be researching it .." You're in the wrong headspace here. It's some flakey guy with 10 or 20 thousand who is trying to put together his "app idea!". There's no "company" or nothing to "vet", you can't do any "research". It's just a guy or two with a few dollars.

  4. if you decide to do some programming for the guy, you do know the Iron Rule right?

  5. "meet at Starbucks" etc, sounds somewhat bizarre - you can just do deals on the phone. He can just go ahead and state what he wants to know. But sure, meet at Starbucks. He's just trying to make it more "important" and "impressive" to try to wind you in. I personally for example wouldn't do this if someone approached us about a new contract, I'd just deflect the conversation saying, what is it exactly you need done, what has been done, and how are you funded. But sure, it's harmless to humor them and meet at Starbucks.

  6. "For those of you who have experience as consultants or high-value employees, what would you want to know if someone came around trying to recruit you? What would you ask the interviewer to get an idea of how the company operates, why they want you, what to expect, etc? What would you need to know to decide whether it was a good decision or not?"

      1. There's not a lot you can do other than ask "How Much U.S. Dollars Will You Pay Me." You obviously already know the Iron Law. (The reason it's called the Iron Law is that if you don't follow it, you will almost certainly end up utterly screwed on every level, if you do follow it nothing bad can happen!)
      1. A good thing to do is simply meet (at least by facetime or whatever) the other actual players. A common thing is, Tom, who owns the "effort" at hand, hires you. But the more senior programmer, Ted, you have not actually met. Ted will be some jack-of-all-trades who puts together software for Tom from time to time, now they're trying to find another body to help out Ted. Simply make sure you meet basically anyone who will be your supervisor.

In short, encounters like this are usually just flakey, as you suspect. It's a small-time player looking for cheap work from their erratic budget. So yeah. Rarely it can be totally legit.

Again, you can swiftly sort out which it is by talking money. It's that simple.

Don't be drawn in to long-winded conversations about technical crap or anything else. And again, if you follow the Iron Rule of casual freelancing, nothing at all bad can happen.

Enjoy your adventures in freelancing !


Regarding the actual conversation at Starbucks. Really there's only one thing on your side. You have to be instantly ready to give a price. Don't forget there are three possibilities, they may be thinking

  • per hour
  • per week ("so many hours a week nominally")
  • per "task"

You have to be instantly ready to give a price, following their sentence. Never vary your price - end of story. Just walk.

A great lead off for you is "So guys what is it you need done? Which stack and what features are needed first?"

You could say that word for word.

They will then talk at great length (people trying to get a low price, always talk at great length).

Interrupt them with your next question, "Understood, are yo looking to pay hourly, by the week, or do you want to pay for the task as a unit?"

They will then talk at great length (people trying to get a low price, always talk at great length).

Pick the one they most focussed on and pretend they had just answered that. Next you say,

If a "payment for the job",

"That's great, because I'm highly skilled in that area. It will be no problem for me to do this. I'd divide the job in to three (always divide it in to three) the prototype of the interface, the networking, and the animations. I'd charge $1500 paid in advance for the interface, if you're happy with that $3500 paid in advance for the networking, and $2500 paid in advance for the final part. What were you thinking?"

if it's per hour/week,

"That's great, because I'm highly skilled in that area. It will be no problem for me to do this. You're thinking I would work about 10 hours a week. That will be $400 a week paid in advance each week. It should not take more than 10 weeks. What were you thinking?"

There will then be a huge amount of talk from them trying to get out of paying you the first cent up front. Just stare blankly, and repeat "I can only do each small chunk on a payment basis, but what are you thinking about these figures, is that about how much you were hoping to pay? Is it too high - too low?! (smile)"

Just keep repeating this. It is trivial to negotiate as a programmer because

  1. they are desperate

  2. the software you create as a programmer is worth staggering amounts of money, so you're always "in the right" economically

  3. if they won't agree to paying you in advance, just super-politely walk away. emphasize that the project is exciting etc but you're only able to work on "usual freelance terms". they'll call back within a couple days with the money

The key: you have to be instantly ready to give a price. Always!

  • Gotcha. I think I can understand that, though since I'm more interested in skill building and have another job, I could live with not much pay. I'll definitely want to meet the higher-ups if it sounds interesting. That's good info, though. Thanks. What exactly is the iron rule? I've never heard of it. – CMB Nov 10 '18 at 3:29
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    In casual freelancing, you get paid in advance. The Iron Law. Iron. – Fattie Nov 10 '18 at 3:38
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    If you DO follow the Iron Rule, nothing bad will happen to you. If you DON'T follow the Iron Rule, you will get screwed sooner or later (almost always sooner). – Fattie Nov 10 '18 at 3:46
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    yes, but TBC it's perfectly fine and good to chop it up in to "small parts". if the whole project is "$5000", make the first part $500 (or even less really) so that they can "review your work" and "see if it's a match". there's nothing wrong with your very first freelance job being for a small amount of money, even $1000 is great, in that case chop it up in to 250/500/250. I threw in some "language" in the post, good luck and BFN ! – Fattie Nov 10 '18 at 4:01
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    Don't eat or drink anything he's touched, and don't accept a ride home... – Kilisi Nov 11 '18 at 8:05
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So sorry to select my own answer as best answer, but the truth revealed itself.

It was a scam. Dude wouldn't answer my questions about the company or about the position. All he was interested in was my "leadership potential" and "entrepreneurial mindset". He said he was interviewing 30 people for two positions, but couldn't tell me what those positions were or why they wanted me for one. When he got tired of trying to blow off my questions, he tried to move into the next part of his proposal/script/indoctrination/whatever and revealed that the interview was an education step, the first in some six-step process. When I said I wasn't going to go through any educational thing without being told up front what it was for and what I'd be learning, he clammed up and said I obviously wasn't the right kind of person for the job. He ended the "interview" then. Total scam.

Thank you all so much for your advice. It was very fun watching him squirm as I applied the questions you all recommended. Good practice vetting out a proposal.

  • Great work man! And thanks for giving an update here! Ask more good questions eh! :) – Fattie Nov 14 '18 at 9:30
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While I'm glad you "know more than the average schmuck", generally some modesty is expected of a graduate "i'm in the skills building phase of my career". Your words make you come off as brash and, I'm afraid, underqualified. Professionals won't use that language - if you want to become a successful professional, use the same language.

Just find a youtube video of a person who embodies whatever success means to you. Now look at the language they use. Unless you're angling for a 50s mobster, you're going to need to change your tone.

Now, while I like Fattie's answer, and he could quite probably be 100% correct in this case, I'm not sure this is a programming role. This is simply based on what you've described - that you were discussing less technical and more business related concepts, and that your friend is the more technical one.

Next, if you want to find startups that are doing well, go here. You can also lookup whatever the name of their company is when you get it on crunchbase, you'll get a feel for what they've raised, and who they raised it from.

As to if its a good decision - you want to know how the management team are. Do they have MBAs, or successful corporate careers, or have they previously run a successful startup? It really depends on the space of the startup too, is it something you think might work, can you see their growth trajectory, what are their plans for the next year, what is their burn rate, how much are they raising, what is their cash flow, what is their growth rate. That last one is probably the most important (along with the management team).

Then you'd look at the position they want you for - it might be a little fluid given it is a startup, of course, but if you, say, don't like IT and it's a db role, then it's probably not for you.

Good luck, have fun.

  • My bad, didn't mean to sound harsh. Just trying to emphasize that while I know enough to sound knowledgeable, I'm hardly an expert. I really don't know if it's a fresh-off-the-ground startup, though. That's the problem: I don't know anything about it. I just have a funny feeling about it, and want to have a good method of learning. – CMB Nov 10 '18 at 6:35
  • I edited that phrase. Better? – CMB Nov 10 '18 at 6:37
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    @CMB Not really, it still doesn't sound professional. You are, accurately, a engineering student with marketting skills. Comparing you to "the average" isn't modest. Talking about successful entrepreneur career at this point isn't modest either. – Arthur Havlicek Nov 10 '18 at 9:26
  • Point taken. My bad. – CMB Nov 10 '18 at 14:06

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