Streamline Your Interview Process to Win the War for Talent


Cluster is the first marketplace for hardware companies to hire full-time engineers. Hire talent with expertise honed at top companies in climate tech, aerospace, automotive, robotics and more.

Seed stage startups might not have the advantages of big companies - like full-time recruiters or great benefits packages - but it doesn’t mean you can’t win over great hires. Incumbents may have brand recognition, but startups are the perfect place for employees who crave more autonomy and want to accelerate their career.

In this article, we show you how to leverage being nimble and fast to design an efficient and effective interview process that will help you hire faster and identify employees who will perform better and stay longer.

Preparing to go fast

Speed is a key tool that startups can leverage to beat out larger competitors for new hires. Preparation is key to going fast and there two things you need to determine before you start interviewing: performance-based goals and deal breakers.

Identify performance-based goals

Write out the performance-based goals that you expect your new hire will accomplish in their first year. Then, design your interview questions to evaluate each candidate based on their ability to meet these goals. 

Performance based hiring is more accurate than trait-based or ‘gut feel’ hiring at predicting long-term performance and success. When you base hiring decisions on specific and result-focused abilities, you’ll not only help eliminate bias toward traits that aren’t consequential to the job, but you will also won’t make bad hires whose real abilities are misaligned to the needs of the role.

Know your deal breakers

Take a few minutes up front to decide what these are for each role and make sure your interview process includes questions for each deal breaker. Communicate these issues to everyone in the hiring process, and when a deal breaker appears, screen out the candidate. Instant disqualifiers will save you much time and expense pursuing ill-suited candidates. 

Plan your screening and interviewing process

Plan carefully to get the most important information early in the screening process, dig deeper through effective interviews, and pick your hires based on the criteria that will most-effectively predict their success. We recommend these steps: 

Step 1 - Screen for the most important factors right up front.

Give yourself a means to evaluate the critical things this person must be able to do to be successful at their job.

For example, if the job requires competency with specific languages or tools, don’t take a candidate’s word that they are experts; provide a means for them to demonstrate their proficiency or ask questions that should be easy for an expert to answer, but difficult for a novice to fake.  Ask these questions as early as possible, including in the application.

Be clear about salary expectations right up front. Don’t get to the end and find out they want you to match their cushy Facebook offer (including free lunch and a massage room).

Step 2 - Homework assignments: they aren’t just about the answers

Candidates with lower interest often won’t do the homework, letting you know up front that they’re not that serious. Others won’t devote enough time to the homework to do it well. It’s a great filter to screen out candidates that interview well but won’t make a good hire. 

A few tips about using homework in the hiring process:

Homework isn’t just about the quality of their answers on the assignment, it allows you to see how people think and how they approach their jobs. 

  1. Did they deliver it on time? 
  2. What format was it in? 
  3. Were there spelling, grammatical or formatting errors? 
  4. Did they ask questions ahead of time to help improve their response? 

Homework assignments should be easy for the right person to complete and shouldn’t take more than an hour or two.

If your homework takes more time, compensate people appropriately. You’ll be surprised how much goodwill you’ll get from a $20-$50 Starbucks or Amazon gift card. 

Step 3 - Design interviewing process:

Every interview needs to drive toward a specific result. Every interview needs to move you forward in the process. We recommend a 4-step process that can be completed end-to-end in about 10 days.


  1. Phone screen
  2. HW assignment
  3. Review over the phone or if it’s really good, move them to onsite and review during onsite.
  4. Onsite Interview series, covering 4 critical areas of “fit”. We recommend 4 separate sessions of 30-60 minutes, each with a different contact within your company if possible.

Simple Interview structure:

  • Technical area 1
  • Technical area 2
  • Work approach &  habits area
  • Team values fit area

During the on-site interviews, your team should pre-plan the questions and ask each candidate the same slate of questions. These conversations don’t have to be rigid, but you need to cover each question. This will make sure key areas are covered and help you compare candidates.

Step 4 - Have a framework for making your decision

Decide ahead of time on the key factors for this role and have a simple way of evaluating them. When you already have a framework for making a decision, you can target your interviews appropriately and avoid wasting time when making your choice. 

We recommend a simple “3 star framework” that allows you to “triage” your candidates by how well their qualifications seem to meet your needs: 

  • 3 Star Rating: You would be relieved/excited to work with this person and they will make a big impact. Hire this person.
  • 2 Star Rating: The candidate can do the job, but they don’t wow you. This is the hardest category to screen out. You’ll interview many 2-star candidates. When you get a 3-star, they’ll make all the 2-stars seem dull. 2-Star candidates can be great hires for limited-impact positions or at later stages.
  • 1 star: This is a person.

Another construct we find useful is the 85% Framework. It breaks down candidate suitability into four categories you judge independently.

To apply the 85% framework, first rate the candidate on a scale of 1-5 (5 being ideal) 

  • Technical ability - 1-5
  • Relevant experience - 1-5
  • Potential - 1-5
  • Team Fit - 1-5


  • Multiply each category score by 5 for a total potential of 100% fit.
  • This “Score” gives you a rational means to compare candidates against each other.
  • If a candidate averages ≥85%, you should definitely hire them

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