Hiring is one of the most important things you’ll ever do. Whether in your own company, someone else’s or a large publicly traded company. The biggest difference though for a start-up is the wrong hire can literally kill your company. While other companies that are larger can put low performers on performance plans or transfer them to other departments in a start-up you’re stuck. You’ve just wasted 3-6 hiring them, several months getting them up to speed and now you have to start all over again.
Over the past 10+ years I’ve built teams for 4 very different companies both in Europe and in the US and seen a lot about what works and what doesn’t. If I had to start over, and I probably will at some point, here are the 5 most important things I’ve learned in the process:
- Hire A teams: Never, ever, no matter how much pressure you’re under hire anything but the best talent you can get. I’ve seen first hand at Google what the impact is of hiring great people. They learn faster, solve problems more quickly, identify and fix problems without being asked, are hungry, ambitious and want to get things done. The flip side is they are typically more demanding, more critical and more difficult to manage. My team at Google is probably the best I’ve ever managed but they also require the most management and are really challenging. Lastly, the great thing about hiring top talent is they will push you to be your best day in day out and at the end of the day we all want to get better or we wouldn’t be doing start-ups would we? Lastly, don’t be afraid to hire people who think very differently to how you do (avoid group think!) and also hire people who complement your skills and are even stronger than you are in their respective areas of expertise.
- Hire generalists: One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make, and I’ve made it too, is to focus on hiring exactly for the job description I’ve outlined. While this may be critical for some roles that are really technical in nature often times you might miss some really amazing people. The great thing about amazing generalists is exactly that: they are generalists. They are flexible, you can move them around and you can always find things for them to do. For example, I’ve worked with customer support people that turned out to be great social media marketers. Why? because they understood how to talk to consumers and they understood the need for great customer service. I’ve hired marketers that turned out to be great sales people. They were creative, charismatic, enjoyed being with people and just naturally understood how to sell. Once we hired a former executive recruiter to do sales. I was against it. I was totally wrong. His empathy with people made him a hit with customers.
- Don’t hire just based on skill but on cultural fit: This is especially important in start-ups but it’s something that’s also really important at Google. You may find an amazing coder, a person of pure genius who can program blindfolded, one handed and without sleep for 48 hours straight but...if he’s unmanageable and can’t work with others and makes your life a living hell over time he may do more harm than good. That kind of attitude breeds resentment among others, it may affect their work, they may become demotivated and you might even lose some of them. The small companies that really thrive also do so because of the culture they build and that culture is product of those who work there. Everyone contributes to it. One test I’ve always liked is the 2 hour plane test. If you are hiring someone ask yourself whether you could sit and make small talk with them for 2 hours on a plane and whether other key people they’ll interact with could. If the answer is no you have your answer.
- Interview exhaustively and interview smartly: A friend of mine at Google who’s been around once mentioned he went through probably 10-12 interviews before getting an offer. My own experience wasn’t too dissimilar and it was long, challenging and somewhat painful. But in truth it works and contributes to the amazing culture Google has today. First, make sure any and all relevant stakeholders that are going to work with this person spend a few hours with them. I can’t stress this enough. The folks who will work day in day out really have to sign off on the candidate and more importantly will be able to identify and pick-up on many things you might miss. Second, use real life case scenarios when interviewing. Back at GetJar I used to ask 2nd round marketing candidates to write a marketing plan for me and then come and present it to me and the sales teams. Putting candidates in real work situations gives you an opportunity to really see them in action and keep them on their toes. Lastly, interview them in different contexts. For example if the role is critical enough you might want to invite them for dinner with a few colleagues and see how they behave and react after a few beers and in a different environment. I once inherited a guy who couldn’t hold his alcohol in public. He went on to insult our biggest customer and we had to let him go. Context can be critical.
- If the role is critical call in the hunters: yes, we know you’re a start-up and you need every penny. But the truth is human capital is your most valuable asset. Everything else you have or own is replaceable or can be obsolete in 6-9 months time including your technology if you’re not paying attention. I’m not saying not to use your network or Linkedin. These can be invaluable and if you can save the money that’s great but in my experience good headhunters can save you time, money and a lot of headache. The key is to hire the best folks in the business. I recommend you use the best you can find. If you’re VC funded asked your board to recommend someone, if not and you have the money firms like Riviera Partners, The Cole Group, Ignition Search Partners are among the most respected. Other more traditional firms like Korny Ferry and Egon Zhender may on occasion do start up assignments but they typically will work with larger, more established companies. One thing I’d recommend though is to do some background on which partner you will work with. Like anything, the firms is only as good as the people who work in it and you want to get the best people within the firm conducting your search. Look for partners who really understand your space, have experience and a vast network in it and preferably have placed people in your field in the past 3-6 months. Finally, the key to using executive search firms is to a) properly brief them, b) give them time (the process can take easily from 3-6 months typically) and c) really pay attention to what they are telling you about candidates and the market. Jeff Markowitz at Greylock has a great article which is a must read if you’re going to go this route which you can find here.
Anyway, i could write volumes about this and have some great stories on the subject but hopefully these tips will be helpful. Maybe for my next piece I’ll pen something on how to manage those great people or the 5 tips on what to do if 30 days in you realize you’ve made the wrong hire. Happy hunting!