Anatomy of the founder interview

We hired 200 people last year, going from 45 to 245 people in twelve months. My worries about how we’ll all fit together vanished this weekend seeing everyone thoroughly enjoying each other’s company at our all-hands meet.

We work hard to achieve that common culture powering our engine. It takes on average 4 interviews to become a Wiser. Some people have come through 8-9 rounds, case studies and trial days. The final step for every candidate is the founder interview. While the first interviews focus on the technical skills and the candidate’s fit for getting the job done, then this interview is about fitting into the culture.

Only if the team is perfectly aligned in their motivation and desires, only then is it possible for everyone to deploy their full potential on the hard problems that we’re solving. We have no time for any monkey business.

The interview is a 2-way street. It is not just about me getting to know the candidate, it is the candidate getting to know me. The questions I ask obviously matter for me, they tell the candidate what I care about. What I ask and say during this interview will set the context for her starting the job. We will be working together with her every day for the next couple of years. I will be relying on her and she’ll be relying on me.


TransferWise was started for a purpose, not because I particularly wanted to build a company or hire a lot of people. I’ve been very open and honest about my mission and I need to understand the motivations of the people joining us.

My opening Q: Why do you want to join our team? almost always starts with a poor answer. A: You are such a cool startup and I like what you do, or I have always been interested in finance/numbers, or I studied management and have experience at Paypal that’s why it is a perfect role for me. The follow-up Q: What is specifically interesting about finance for you? starts getting better responses, but it almost always takes the five whys to get to the meaning of this job for the candidate. The discussion can easily get to intimate questions and we see if the candidate can retain credibility and sincerity.

I don’t expect our candidates to have the exact same passion for borderless money. I need to understand and believe what drives the candidate to know that she will be aligned with the rest of us, when she starts making decisions for us on her own.

Another angle for understanding Q: Imagine if TransferWise didn’t exist, which other company do you admire? Which role would you want to do there? About 60% of candidates are able to give this a genuine answer. It is much easier to reflect on what the person wants to achieve, if you take the current application out of the equation.


She either talks about things she wants to achieve in life or she talks about role titles, becoming a manager, joining the executive team. Leading people is not a wrong ambition per se, but more often than not digging further will lead to immaturity or insecurity.

I often build the conversation around the time after, e.g Q: You have a long career ahead of you. What do you want to do after TransferWise as your next thing? Like in chess, successful people think a couple of steps ahead. What are the skills and experiences that she expects to pick up in our team and what great things will she be able to do next?

For most people TransferWise is a step on their life journey. It is worth making sure if it is the right step towards her goals before you get started together.


Digging into the source of motivation and ambition is often enough to understand what gets the candidate out of the bed and drives her decisions.

People are always passionate about their values. The more passion the stronger their values. I enjoy talking about the candidate’s proudest moments, what has she created and why she is proud for this particular thing. Pride comes together with passion and passion shows what you value.

Maturity and self-awareness

Most of the time “managing people” is spent on playing a shrink, arbitrator, soulmate, etc. We love people who can be their own psychologist and maybe even help their colleagues. Mature candidates will be more productive and have less “management overhead”. Most importantly they will be a pleasure to work with. There is a positive correlation with people having studied or lived abroad, been competitive in sports or coming from tough social circumstances.

Candidates always naturally explain that they were really successful in their previous role. Without questioning that claim, it opens an opportunity to understand two things. Firstly, why does she think that she was doing such a great job? What did “great” mean in that role and what was the indication that brought her to that conclusion. Secondly, how well does she understand her strengths that made her so successful in that role.

Finally, it is always assuring if the candidate can talk you through the important things she wants to improve with herself. This discussion ties neatly together with the question, what she wants to do after TransferWise.

Senior roles

What is she adding to the culture? How will she inspire the team in a way that no-one else have yet. Can she funnel her passion to the team’s mission.

Given our expectations of passion, ambition, values and the ability to operate with independent autonomous teams, it is particularly hard for the “seasoned executives” trained in corporate politics to fit into our positive chaos. Unfortunately time works always against us, the longer the candidate has spent at a Big Company the more engrained the corporate culture.

We’ve become huge fans of the case study. For a prospective team lead the case study involves working on a real problem with some members of the future team for a day and presenting the results back to the whole team.

My 2015 asks for candidates

Be genuine. You are wasting both of our time beating around the bush. Our future relationship would be built on trust and even a trace of doubt would spoil it. Don’t oversell.

Prepare. People envy our marketing. They don’t know that our first marketeer surprised us with a 40 slide deck at his final interview. A no-brainer preparation is using the product and thinking through your feedback. Specifically what you would do better/differently.

Relax. We don’t have much time to spend and need to cover a lot of ground fast. There are no right and wrong answers.

Getting better at interviewing

In the last year I clocked 300+ interviews. I’m getting more structured and feel more determined about my interviews, but still trying to figure out a few things

  1. How to run short and intense interviews without coming across aggressive for the candidate?
  2. It hurts to pass on candidates who are not there yet, but have the passion to get there. Breaking up is hard for the culture, wondering how to do more “conditional” offers and be disciplined about going separate ways soon if it doesn’t work out.
  3. When making the offer, we sometimes forget to give thorough feedback to the candidate about their interviews.

The founder interview doesn’t need to be done by a founder. Anyone who is uncompromisingly passionate about the culture is ready to do a founder interview. We’re in it together anyway.