This may be one of the most clichéd topics on startup land. Everyone and her mother-in-law would have a view on who should be hired and who should not be! So, I would start with a disclaimer that these are some of personal experiences in hiring for my two startups and according to me, the top 2 or 3 focus areas for any entrepreneur.
Few hiring practices which worked for my startup are
Always look for attitude – It may sound simplistic but the test I employ for this when doing an interview or a casual discussion is – would I see myself working with him / her managing the ups and downs of a startup? Does the candidate bring the maturity needed to tackle the ride? If the response is not an unequivocal yes, then I would not proceed. I hired a person who brought 2 years experience doing QA work in another startup, but wanted to do something in travel. I saw passion for travel and determination, so she was in. Within few weeks, she created impressive content on various travel destinations for our website. She also was able to work with the product team and have conversations with customers about the destinations fairly soon.
Probe the intent – Is the candidate looking at the startup job as a stopgap arrangement or does she seriously want to have a startup experience? This is especially critical when hiring mid-to-senior level candidates. So, I go deeper into their motives and try to understand the reason. Like the earlier case, if the intent is vague, then I do not proceed.
The Big Picture – Apart from the adrenaline rush and the excitement, what else pushes a candidate to join a startup? Canned answers of “changing the world” would not fly and we all know that! Is the person able to really think big , is what I would look for. I have had the most elegant narrative of the big picture from candidates who were fresh out of college. One time, this kid talked about how too many social media tools hamper his ability to keep in touch and he wants to create a tool to keep it together. Sure, it is not an earth-shattering idea – but I liked the fact that he is able to spot the problem that needs a solution and attempts to do that – exactly the traits for a startup company! We need castle builders and not stone cutters.
Manage the ambiguity – this is a pre-requisite to be in startup world without getting stressed out! I generally ask the below open ended questions which give me a reasonably good grasp of their personality :
- If she works on a team with clearly laid out vision and goals but not the steps to achieve them, how would she operate?
- If their area of work changes frequently or their work gets scrapped or thrown away more regularly, how do they take it?
- How would they react if the entire team has to pivot and do something entirely different?
- Does the candidate have the experience (either in their personal life or professional life) where key decisions had to be taken without a guarantee how it would pan out?
Team Dynamics – Look for team players than “leaders” – in a startup everyone has to exhibit natural leadership qualities. Do they share knowledge without holding back ? Are they happy sharing credit as a team rather than individual accomplishments ? What do they most enjoy in a team? While some of these leading questions would provide qualitative answers, it is up to us as entrepreneurs to sift through the noise and get a real sense from the candidate
Referrals – As startups, we do heavily rely on candidates from friends and other sources of referrals. In my mind, that’s a double-edged sword. If you cannot sit down and have a performance conversation (in the event of things not going well), then it would be a burden for both you and the person. Recently, I had to have this difficult conversation with someone I had worked previously and had believed she would add tremendous value. Within few weeks, I realized she was not carrying out what she signed up for. I had to discuss this and have it resolved amicably, it was painful. Key lesson for me was to have an explicit conversation of setting expectations; Prepare for the worst while hope for the best!
As a startup you don’t have the luxury of spending your time hiring replacements – it has to be first-time-right. If you see the initial high wearing off too quickly in the person you have hired, take the tough decision quickly and let them go in the first 60-90 days rather than lingering longer.
In my earlier corporate avatar and in the current startup world, I have applied a simple heuristic test (and it has worked for me most of the times!) is – Would I see myself or my current team work with this person in the years to come? If this does not give me a solid “yes” I would let it pass and would not hire the candidate.
On a related note, one of the articles I found really interesting is from Paul English who is the co-founder of Kayak, the meta search engine which got sold to Priceline for $1.8 Billion after a very successful IPO. He really talks about how hiring has to be one of the key focus for one of the members of the management team. You could check out his thoughts here
Building a high performance culture and shared vision is something every entrepreneur needs to focus on. Getting the first few hires right really holds the key to creating the next Zappos or Netflix or Amazon!