The upside to working at a startup? No two days are the same and you learn to expect the unexpected immediately. The downside? That unpredictability starts as early as the job interview itself. What are the dress code rules when you’re interviewing at a company as casual as a startup? While the reality is the answer varies, first impressions still matter and also work to keep you standing out in a sea of applicants.

Startup job interview

Here’s a briefing for the dos and don’ts of keeping your ensemble professional, yet chill, when you’re meeting with a team (most likely) clad in hoodies and flip flops.

First, do a little research about the company before the interview

Odds are, you were probably already planning to do this before I mentioned it, but this kind of homework extends beyond asking questions about the position and history of the company. Consider the type of industry this startup is in and what its company culture looks like to help influence your look.

The startup’s niche

Does the startup specialize in food, fashion, tech, or another field altogether? Take note and have it reflected in your outfit. From little details like food pins on your shirt collar to a sleek, fashion-forward jumpsuit, tailoring your ensemble for its specific industry shows that you already have an understanding about that startup’s field and its respective trends.

Company culture

Nothing might grip you with more fear than the prospect of arriving to the interview too overdressed or underdressed — especially since there’s no way to instantly dial your outfit down or up.

Take a few minutes to check out the startup’s social media accounts and “about us” page on their website to get a feel for their office or incubator environment. If the atmosphere seems fairly relaxed, you can set aside the heels in favor of flats and ditch the tie for a neutral button-down shirt. None of this goes unnoticed either. The HR departments at these startups will take notice of an applicant who has observed their upcoming surroundings and dressed the part accordingly to prove they are serious about the job.

Startup employee

Don’t wear a suit

The consensus across the board is that the worst first impression men or women can make at a startup is one where you’re dressed in a suit. Startups tend to have a laidback reputation, so showing up in a stiff suit can give the impression that you might also be a stiff yourself and too much of a killjoy to fit into their world. (In my defense it’s the suit that gave them that impression, not you personally.)

If you’re not wearing a suit, then what are you wearing? Here’s what men and women can pull from their closets for consideration at their respective interviews.

  • Jackets can dress up or down any outfit instantly. Buttoned or unbuttoned, it adds just the right amount of structure to pull your look together.
  • Yes, you can get away with wearing jeans at a startup. Err on the side of dark-washed denim for a polished look and avoid anything acid-washed or full of holes.
  • Button-down tops. For guys especially, this means breaking out the checkered button-down shirts to keep it mildly dressy but mostly relaxed.
  • Shirt dresses. Skip a super tight pencil skirt for a shirt dress with a fun print that allows you to move and is naturally pulled together on its own.
  • Nice shoes. They don’t have to be designer brand, but they do need to be clean and fashionable enough to tie in with your outfit. Make sure you can easily (and comfortably) walk in them before the interview too.

Pay attention to the details

Now that you know what to wear and what not to wear, take a moment to review the details. Is your shirt ironed and free of wrinkles? Have your pants been tailored? Did you floss this morning? How do your nails look? Simple details like these all add up to your overall look, from head to toe, and should be kept in consideration before your interview begins so you can start it off with the best first impression possible.