10 Years, 10 Lessons: Year 6: If You Can’t Find the Right Person, Don’t Hire

photo courtesy of franckdethier

photo courtesy of franckdethier

Bad choices are worse than no hire

In a startup, the team is the biggest determinant of output and day-to-day happiness. Choose wisely.  You’re going to be effectively married to these people around the clock for years on end.  If something bothers you during the interviews, or the salary negotiations, don’t hire!  Any issues will be magnified a thousand-fold, and getting people out is painful and risky.  I hired someone who performed brilliantly in interviews, but became unnecessarily high maintenance during the negotiations.  Big mistake.

It has been said that you get ahead with A-players, tread water with B’s and go backwards with Cs.  My output and that of my team and our reputation definitely suffered due to this mistake at a critical time in the company’s development.  While it can be very hard to find the right person, it is always worth the wait. Don’t be suckered into settling for less, especially in today’s market.

This is a really challenging issue for most startups, because most startups, be definition, can’t be A-list.  There’s a limited number of killer ideas in growth markets addressed by well-funded, brilliant teams who are awesome fun to work with, have a great office, pay and perks.  Most startups have a least one blemish and the challenge for potential employees is working out which blemishes they can live with.  Likewise for a startup, finding and attracting the perfect talent is hard, and deciding what blemishes you can live with is crucial.

I’ve noticed a tendency amongst startups to put too much weight on experience in the market the startup operates in (anyone remember those hilarious posts in 2000 requiring 10 years of Internet experience?). You don’t hire IDEO or McKinsey for their prior expertise in the space, and I think the same thinking should apply to employees.  From what I’ve seen in both marketing and consulting, an A-player will get to know the space better than most on the team within 6 months of starting, and the right attitude and inter-personal skills, together with the boost in creativity from new thinking from other industries will outweigh the slight improvement in productivity of the experienced B player in months 0-6.  It’s clearly helpful to have some experts on the team, but I’d argue that always hiring experience over potential is an error.  Seth had a good post today on the tendency to prefer apparent risk over actual risk – what seems more risky can actually be less risky.

In that highly successful book, Good To Great, Jim Collins argued for “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off, and the right people in the right seats”.  He has posted some helpful mp3s on this topic. About ½ the VC’s I’ve heard, on the excellent iinnovate podcasts from Stanford’s Business and Design schools, say that they’d rather have a good team with an ok idea.  Amusingly, the other ½ say they’d rather have the average team in the killer market over the A-team in the bad market.  That said, my experience suggests you have to win the race your in, and the race has to be worth winning).  A good team will increase the likelihood of winning the race your in.

Key Takeaways: Get the right people on the bus. If you make a mistake, act quickly to resolve it.

Sign Posts: Has it been easy to find the right people? How do you find and evaluate them?

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