Hiring is a huge part of running a startup. Everything that is created by a startup is done by a team, therefore having a great team is one of the most important things. Hiring based on skills is what the first-time entrepreneur may think is right… However, skill doesn’t turn out to be the most important factor. While you don’t want to have team members who are not professionals, after reaching a certain threshold it’s not about being the best at coding, designing… It’s about how well the team plays together. You want the total to be greater than the sum of the parts, as Steve Jobs liked to say.
So let’s see what to do if your goal is to ruin your great startup team (;
Hire fast, fire slow
The golden rule says:
“Hire slow, fire fast.”
It’s a common rule but it really is one of the best I have heard about hiring/firing. I have made many hiring mistakes because I didn’t hire slower and especially because I didn’t fire faster. As soon as you figure out that something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, take an action right away. It doesn’t have to mean ending the relationship right away; you usually want to start with talking to the person about the issue first. I like the rule of giving one more chance when it comes to something more serious. If you see that someone is on a bad route with their behaviour, give them one more chance to fix it. If they don’t correct their ways after receiving the opportunity once, they will not change after having two, three, four… chances. You don’t want to create an environment where things don’t work; moreover, the bad moral of one member affects the other team members as well.
Making a bad hiring decision is eventually much more expensive than waiting a few more months in order to find the right person. I know companies need to move fast, especially startups. However, every bad employee you hire will slow your startup down more than if you waited longer to find the right one.
[Update, April 2016]
I recently learned what it means to hire slowly in numbers. It took Airbnb founders to hire the first employee six months. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, looked through thousands of people and interviewed hundreds of people till he found the right one. With those numbers in mind, I think, it makes it very clear what it means to hire slowly. I don’t want to say that it should take almost a year till you hire everyone but just articulates the importance of slow hiring, especially in the beginning of a startup. So, don’t feel guilty if it takes you more than 6 months to hire someone. You should feel guilty only if you rush it through.
I mentioned the rule of giving a one more chance, however it is important to note that this rule is not applicable in all cases. There are many exceptions to this rule such as involvement in the office politics, discrediting others, lying to team, criticizing founders behind their back, when actions are led by ego, not fitting the culture, irresponsibility as an attribute of a character… Basically, when it comes to values or character attributes then you can’t fix it by giving more chances.
Hire someone you would never work for
“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.”
— Mark Zuckergberg
This is an extremely helpful test to pass when you are about to hire a new person into your team. It is a tough test that eliminates maybe 99% of candidates. Just because you are leading somebody doesn’t mean that you should be the best in your team. If you want to have a rockstar team, everybody you hire should be better than you at certain things. You should be best at leading them. They should be best at the rest. Your team needs to be motivated; however, you, as a leader, need to be motivated to have the opportunity to lead great people.
Hire somebody with a big ego
“It’s better to have a hole in your team than an a**hole.”
Hire team players not individuals who will divide the team. You want to hire people that think in terms of “us” rather than “me“. You want your team members to help each other in need, and not be focused solely on their individual tasks. Cooperation and support are the advantages of having a team.
Do not underestimate the power of one individual to undermine a team, especially the ones with a big ego. Proud or egoistical people can be charming and convincing; however, they have difficulties working toward common goals. Consequently, they might misuse their talents for setting the team apart and turning situations to their benefits.
How do you find out if someone has a big ego? Proud people are very inflexible: things have to be done their way and it is incredibly hard to lead them because they “know everything”.
Also, look for other signs during interviews, such as whether the candidate wants to add value to your company, not only to himself. Obviously, you want people that are eager to grow; however, they should be genuinely passionate about growing your company and therefore themselves, as well.
Hire someone who culturally doesn’t fit
“Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.”
— Casey Stengel, American Major League Baseball manager
How do you define culture? It is values that define culture. Therefore you should think about what culture you want to create in your company. What do you value? hard work, creativity, passion, determination, friendly atmosphere…?
Having a good culture is also one of the key things when building a startup. When you as a founder are not in the office, the team wouldn’t know how to approach certain situations but they know the rule of thumb that is defined by the culture of your company. Thus, your culture becomes the advisor of everyone in times of your absence. It’s like your best employee that is always present in the office and whispers to the others how to do things.
If you hire someone who doesn’t culturally fit in the company, they will not feel good in your company. Others are also not going to feel good when there is someone who doesn’t share the values of the company. When people don’t feel comfortable, they are not going to excel at their work. And then it’s just a matter of time till it explodes and it’s going to be either him who will want to leave or others who will want him to leave.
Working in a startup is so much more than just solving difficult questions. It’s also about difficult times when the team needs to stay together because otherwise it can/will crash. It’s also about having beers and lunches together and maybe even hiking together. You need your team members to stay as a one entity not only in good times but especially in bad ones. What is going to connect those people? Dreams but also good memories. Good memories are usually created by people you enjoy being with.
When hiring, don’t listen to your heart but only to your brain
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Most probably one person will never know everything about how to hire a great team and then keep them at their best shape as one unity. Fortunately, we not only have our brains but also our hearts, or someone refer to it as gut or intuition. A rational person would think that the brain always beats the heart. That is rarely the case though because the heart/intuition is more complex. Often you can intuitively feel something that is too complex for your brain to process. There were times when I did not listen to my primary intuitions and rationalized instead, but in retrospect I learnt that my first intuition was the right one. So my last observation is, don’t rely on the facts of your brain. Listen to your heart. The more you are going to be hiring/firing, the better intuition you will develop. Your heart will sometimes tell you the opposite of what the brain tells you. Why? I don’t know… Maybe because our hearts use different and unknown algorithms to make decisions (:
Be alert even after you hired someone. I also learned that people can consciously or subconsciously hide their weaknesses at the beginning — for around three months. Nevertheless, after that initial period the true personality will come through.
I hope my observations will help you in the hiring/firing process. If you have anything to add or would like to share your experience, please leave a comment. I am looking forward to reading them.