I know of a company, a very successful company, that has an extremely selective hiring process. Potential candidates go through many interview rounds with many employees to make sure that they have the right skills and that they are a good cultural fit for the organization.
Curiously, their hiring process for operations roles—specifically within their accounting department—is not nearly as rigorous. Accountants get hired much more quickly (perhaps because they are so in need), but they also wind up leaving the organization much more quickly as well (either their choice or management’s). In other words, it seems that the necessary time is not being taken to ensure that these accountants are good hires.
I think this highlights a bias against accountants that is unfortunately quite common. That is to say that I get the sense that people, especially within startups, often look at accountants as “outsiders.” The core team may recognize the value of having a knowledgeable accountant on-board, but it’s less likely that they will see the accountant as an integral part of their team; rather they are “outsiders” hired to do a necessary, but tangential, function.
This is a mistake.
Your startup accountant will serve a very important function, and shouldn’t be an afterthought. You should take great care and take your time to find the accountant who has the skill-set you need, who understands the accounting needs of a startup, and who will fit into your company culture.
To find the best fit for your company, you need to thoughtfully construct your interview. Below are some of the key types of questions you should be asking and why, along with some sample questions:
1. Personal/About You Questions. These questions give you insight into the candidate’s personality and help you to gauge cultural fit. Usually these kinds of questions will be phrased as behavioral question such as “Tell me about a challenge you faced on-the-job and how you overcame it.” or “Describe a time when you had to handle a disagreement with a colleague or supervisor.”
Sample Question: Describe your greatest professional achievement. You want to see a candidate who has accomplishments under her belt, and who takes pride in her work. This answer will provide some insight into the go-getter nature of this candidate. It will also give you a sense of her ambitions.
2. Technical Accounting Questions.After all, you are hiring an accountant! You need someone who has a firm grasp on accounting basics. Do they understand GAAP financial statements? What’s their process for AP/AR? How would they reconcile a bank account? How familiar are they with a dual-entry accounting system? It’s okay if the candidate doesn’t have all the answers, but they should have the basics down. Also, you want to see a candidate who is willing to admit what they do and don’t know and who can demonstrate their thought process for solving problems.
Sample Question: How would you advise we build out our next 2-year forecast?For this question, you want to see candidates who have mastered forecasting and can grasp the big picture. The interviewee doesn’t need to go into great detail, but you should be able to see, through how they sketch out their response, how organized they are and their control of this exercise.
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3. Technology questions: With technology question, above all, you’re looking for someone who demonstrates enough tech savvy to be comfortable working with different systems—and a willingness to try new ones. What’s of interest here isn’t necessarily what tech they’ve actually used but how they’ve interacted with it.
Sample Question: What finance software do you have experience with? Here you are looking for knowledge and flexibility. Your startup may already have an accounting system in place in which case it would be a bonus if your candidate has experience working with your existing system. Or you may just be starting to look at implementing a system that works for your company. In that case, recommendations from a new accountant can be helpful.
4. Overview. This bucket of questions includes any questions that give you some insight into how integrated this candidate will be within your organization. You want to ask questions that get at whether or not the candidate understands your company’s needs and challenges. And you want to see that the candidate is excited about working at your company. After all, would you hire a developer who wasn’t passionate about your products? Everyone on your team, from operations to marketing to developers to admin should buy into the same vision for your company.
Sample Question: What do you know about/think of our company? Accounting is accounting, but each startup is different. Any potential hire should have taken the time to learn a little bit about your company and be able to articulate what they’ve learned. Bonus if the candidate can offer some insights into your accounting challenges and how he will approach these challenges.
If you are interviewing an accounting firm as opposed to an individual, the same rules apply. You still want to know that your contact at the firm has the skills that you need and the interest in supporting your particular company. In addition, you’ll want to see that any firm you are thinking of engaging with will be responsive to your needs.
By asking these types of questions in a comprehensive interview, your team is more likely to find the best accountant for your startup. The hiring process is costly, so you want to try to minimize bad hires as much as possible and make your first choice the right choice.
How have you sourced and hired your startup accountant? Tell us about it in comments below or contact Early Growth Financial Services if you need accounting support.
David Ehrenberg is the founder and CEO of Early Growth Financial Services, a financial services firm providing a complete suite of financial and accounting services to companies at every stage of the development process. He’s a financial expert and startup mentor, whose passion is helping businesses focus on what they do best. Follow David @EarlyGrowthFS.