All insights provided below are from my own personal experience, and what has worked for me may not necessarily work for you. Having said that, I hope you find them useful – and would appreciate any and all feedback on the best practices of hiring great people.
There is no set timeline for hiring. Every startup has different sets of resources and goals – but the general rule of thumb is to hire when you want to scale. If you’re one of the lucky founders who have a product, a game plan and investments checked – then you could start thinking about building a team.
Several factors are needed to make a company reach success – but it is ultimately the people behind the product and the service that matter the most. An idea (and by extension a product or a service) by itself is not worth anything – it all comes down to execution (and persistence and customer service). Howard Shultz of Starbucks is one of the pioneering believers of hiring great people – he refers to all Starbucks employees as ‘partners’ and believes that they are a people’s company that sells coffee (and not the other way round)
Whenever a person is making the decision to work for a company – he/she looks primarily for 4 contributors;
- Pay – Is the salary they are offered worth the time and effort?
- Product – Is the product/service offered by the company something they are passionate/care about?
- Purpose – Is the company’s long-term goals and vision aligned with what they believe in?
- People – Do the people who work there share the same interest and principles as I do? Can I learn from them? Do I want to be friends with them?
While 1 and 2 are essential for attracting people to join a company – 3 and 4 are crucial to making sure they stay! So if you’re a founder – you need to make sure you communicate your company’s purpose and long-term vision clearly and place a higher importance to hiring those that believe in them, than those who can help solve your short-term problems.
This is necessary as the people define a company (not the other way round) – they become the multiplier, so whatever culture you want to perpetuate needs to be reflected in your hiring choices from day 1. A lot of people might be confused with the cause and effect of culture and people, and as one leads to the other – which one should a new company focus on?
I think it needs to be built from the ground up. It is an entrepreneur’s job to build and communicate the type of culture he/she wants to nurture. Every new hire should add positively to the company’s culture – they should build on what already exists or add a complimentary foundation to what the company aspires to grow into.
Here are a few things that have worked for me when I hire someone to join my team.
- Cast a wide net – I make sure I don’t narrow the top of the funnel by adding unnecessary and unattainable requirements when it comes to qualification and experience. Instead of stating that candidates need a certain degree or a certain number of years of experience – I simply write down what kind of personalities (e.g. hard worker, willingness to learn, unafraid of challenges, friendly, outspoken, etc) are required for the job and take it from there
- Interview quickly – I do not spend more than 30 mins on an interview – usually, if someone does not fit the position – I end the conversation much earlier (some interviews have been as short as 3 mins). If you don’t get the sense that someone is right for the role within the first minute of the interview – there is no point carrying on. On the same vein – after you’ve done this a couple of time, it becomes pretty clear whether a person is right for the role within the first few minutes of meeting them
- Give them homework – This applies to all roles (technical and non-technical) – before I interview anyone, I would ask them to complete a certain task or write a 100-300 words prompt (e.g. how would you describe yourself? why should I hire you?)
- Decide quickly – You are not McKinsey or Google, and hence do not have the luxury they do to stretch out the interview process or mull over every decision. Bring your key people in the room (if you have any) when you interview, and decide within the hour of interviewing someone
- Be creative – Have fun with your questions instead of asking them the textbook standard – ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ you could try asking them ‘which fictional character they identify with most?’ But make sure there is an objective to why you are asking that question – it needs to reveal who they really are. Just don’t go off on a whim and talk about things that have nothing to do with the job
- Get your team involved – Sometimes it helps to take the candidate on a tour of the office and introduce them to other team members or invite them for lunch with your team – so as to gauge what questions they ask or even interact with everyone else. Your team can also give you their input as they will be working with the hire in the future
- What’s not on their CV – Similar to point 5, the interview is really a time for you to find out what kind of person you are letting into your team and if their broader goals and interest align with the company’s. But be sure not to lose the balance of what the job is all about and making sure they can actually do it
- Diversity – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook goes to the extreme to say that he would never hire anyone who he would not want to work for. But if you like your dramatic gestures to be less dramatic, I’d say make sure you hire people who are smarter than you and can help take your company to the next level. You also need to make sure there is diversity in skill and opinions so that the same problem can be solved in multiple different ways
As much as we need to hire the most relevant people for the task at hand – it is always better to hire for attitude than for skill, as you can always train for skill but you cannot train for attitude. I would much rather hire someone who has a higher willingness to learn (with limited technical knowledge initially) than someone who has a lot of technical knowledge but is unwilling to work in a team or hear differing opinions. Trust me, it will save a lot of time and energy for you and your HR team later on. Similarly keep an eye out for people who have soft skills and can easily adapt and adjust to change. Also, don’t overrule your initial gut feeling – always trust that little voice inside your head when making hiring decisions.
Now if you’ve climbed over the hurdle of hiring someone and welcoming them to your team – you need to take on the bigger challenge of making sure you get them to stay. Most startups are great at hiring people but not very good at retaining them. If you are fortunate enough to build a team – you need to make sure you keep them happy. And I don’t mean providing them with free snacks and bean bags and ping pong tables (although they surely help) but making sure you understand what their professional goals are, and figuring out ways to achieve them together. Companies who have training programs and learning opportunities have a bigger chance of making sure their employees don’t get bored. Additionally, workplace culture like flexibility in work hours, rewarding proactiveness and teamwork all help retain (the right) people longer (and weed out the ones who don’t fit your culture)
And if there is one thing that kills company culture and innovation at a startup – it is too many rules and rigidity. If you want to be one of those startups that champions the first principle thinking – then you need to make sure you exercise adequate trust and flexibility to those working for you. I find that the best people to work with are the ones who set their own rules and structure – and make things work. After all, you are hiring people to make sure your company moves forward, while at the same time making sure you lighten your own load and focus on more important things. And always remember you are a team – and your job as the leader is to make sure you provide the resource and environment they need to thrive!