Job Search

What to Wear to an Interview at a Startup (So You Don’t Embarrass Yourself)

startup interview dress

A friend of mine received the best kind of panic-inducing surprise: a casual invitation to meet with founders of a startup was turning into a job interview.

Normally on the morning of an interview, he told me he would wake up and put on his sharpest, navy-blue suit, wrap a double-windsor around his neck, and head out the door. But he was also interviewing with larger corporations; where cubicles, fluorescent lights, and HR departments dictated the office atmosphere.

This made him second guess his upcoming interview with the pair of founders. He had met with them previously and saw that they themselves didn’t walk around like ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man. So how should he show up to this interview?

Startups -especially tech startups- have become known for their anti-corporate attitude: Zuckerberg probably hasn’t washed his hoodie in over a decade, and now the average-startup employee looks more like a skateboarder who was tricked into picking up a keyboard instead, although the media likes to play up such stereotypes to hyperbolic levels.

The company he was about to interview for, while no larger than 20 full-time employees, had already formed a culture. It was the relaxed, startup atmosphere that saturates most of the lofts, incubators, or other coworking spaces in the greater-NYC area these days.

Realizing that how he showed up to their office would have a big impact on how everyone in the office perceived him, he knew that the same old navy blue suit would make him stand out like a sore thumb.

Also read: 14 Things Smart People Do the Night Before an Interview

How to Dress for an Interview at a Startup

Companies are like snowflakes – no two are alike. They all have different cultures, personnel, and atmospheres. When you go into the interview, you want to complement their culture, not stand against it. That is why your interview attire is very important. You need to show that not only are you a professional who is taking the opportunity seriously, but also that you will fit in with the company culture. Showing up too casually suggests you are not taking the opportunity seriously. And over-dressing for the role can suggest you are rigid, with a corporate attitude. The latter situation isn’t always the case, of course. But when Millennials are running companies and driving the interviews, they might see a suit as something that will suck the fun out of their startup atmosphere.

And this is not supposed to be a dig at those who wear suits – just a soft reminder that they have their time and place: you don’t wear shorts and flip flops to a wedding, and you don’t wear a tux to an all-you-can-eat BBQ restaurant.

One of the first things you should do when you have an upcoming interview, is reconnaissance. Visit the company’s website and see if they have some pictures posted inside their office, or of their employees. If that is unavailable, see if you can tap into your network, or even reach out to a current employee of the company for an informational interview. While you are there learning about the company, you can also ask what the culture is like and how people show up on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, this will give you a good cue as to how you should show up. And if there is still doubt, a safe bet is to go one notch more formal than how you would expect the interviewer to appear.

The other thing you want to be careful about is not showing up too fashion-forward or flashy. The last thing you need to do is get the interviewer to pay more attention to your clothing choice than what you can do for their company.

Also read: How Can I Show Great Culture Fit with a Prospective Employer?

Here are a few general pointers for each gender:

  • How to Dress for the Interview: Women

To offer a point of view for females, Ivy Exec’s Director of Talent Acquisition, Sara Farkas, suggests the following:

It’s always safe to go the traditional route: pairing a dress with a stylish but casual blazer. If the company where you are interviewing appears to be more “low key”, you can get away with pairing the blazer with jeans and heels. In fact, you can use the casual blazer as a constant and vary the rest of your outfit around the mood of the company.

  • How to Dress for the Interview: Men

While the two (or three) piece might be too formal, you can easily get away with a sport coat to show professionalism without being stuffy.

Slacks and a button down shirt will serve you well. You might even get away with a nice pair of jeans if the rest of your ensemble dresses it up.

A bow-tie for an interview is not a great idea, as it can be a distraction. So is a tie with an over-the-top pattern or design. And if you agree with 007: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity” – Ian Fleming. But that’s your call.

Looking for More Support with Interviewing?
Check out our Collection of Interviewing-focused Articles

About the Author

Greg Olsten is Ivy Exec's Sr. Content Manager, producing Online Classes, and Executive Intelligence articles.