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The Wrong Hire Pissed Off my Team, The Right Hire Didn't Have All the Answers

We team-interviewed the candidate, who told us what he cared about and what he didn't know. Then he helped us figure out our priorities before he took the job.
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Our engineering team is restless. Their skills are off the charts but they aren’t working as a team. There are flare-ups of outright hostility--Hatfield and McCoy-style warfare, one group of irreverent geniuses who work in silos and another that prefers collaborative teamwork. They get passive aggressive. Each tells me the other group’s lousy, out of sync with our priorities. They refuse to work in tandem or team-code. They fight about which technology to use.

I need a brilliant engineering partner who can help build the company.

So what did I do? I rushed and made a bad hire. I stumbled and made mistakes because I thought I just needed a manager. I didn’t absorb feedback from others, I ignored the fact that the candidate didn’t share our commitment to open source technology or to empowering small businesses, and I avoided the team interview. I hired him because he told me he would bring order to the team. He’s out after four months for the safety of a private equity firm, apologetic but determined to find a better fit for himself.

A team member stepped up to fill the gap.

One of my partners, our VP of Product, Chris Keane (formerly at KickApps and Meetup), a patient and clear-headed guy, stepped in to lead the team. We met with the engineers together. In response to their visible concern, I promised to change the process for hiring. From then on, we would always team interview, exchange written thoughts on the candidate after each interview, and focus on finding a good cultural fit. We’d each own a piece of the role by focusing on a specific area in our interviews. Critically, we agreed to choose a person, not a resume. 

Chris set the agenda with daily meetings and by calmly confronting challenges. He was working 100-hour weeks and re-establishing trust within the team. He mediated disputes. But those hours weren’t sustainable: his wife was due to have a baby in a few months.

I trusted someone else to help me find the right CTO.

Kindred Partners did the search for my CTO. San Francisco-based, they’re one of the best search firms for innovative companies like ours. They only work with the best tech companies, established and start-up alike, and they know what we need. We talk multiple times every week. I trust them and their work ethic. I tell them that I need a CTO who not only shares but also improves my vision for a shopping experience that is similar to Twitter. OpenSky is a social network and a commerce platform at the same time. Trying to build them both in a way that’s harmonious, with a simple suite of tools for small businesses and a simple user experience for consumers, is near impossible. 

The wrong hire could put the company out of business. I can’t and won’t let that happen.

We take our time finding the right match.

John Allen and Charlie Walton at Kindred introduce strong candidates. John is tireless, and digs in to find the perfect fit. Some candidates are "managers" but not forward-thinking enough to envision a social shopping platform. Others are imaginative but they lack empathy for the commerce basics. I am impatient and demanding. I call Kindred multiple times a day.

Chris, Kevin (OpenSky’s co-founder), and I resolved to completely fix our interview process, define the road map with the candidates, and take as much time as necessary. We want the perfect fit.

Kindred presents Michael Schnapf, a guy from the Midwest who’s clearly passionate about the intersection of social, small business and commerce. He has been leading part of GSI Commerce (now owned by eBay). He thinks before he speaks. And he doesn't have a big ego.

He comes to OpenSky six or seven times--each time up from Philly, on the train. And he starts by asking us what we want to solve first--social or commerce. 

Wonderfully, Mike's honest. He talks about wanting to be part of a team that helps re-make the shopping landscape for small businesses and expresses a willingness to make sacrifices to get there. He describes his experience building companies as one that makes him feel lucky. He also feels lucky to be a father and a husband. His stamina is remarkable. In our two- to three-hour meetings, he doesn’t ask for breaks and never appears tired.

Refreshingly, our candidate didn’t always have an answer.

Mike is explicit when he’s unsure about something. In one session, we pushed him hard to make a list of priorities. We were debating whether he’d prioritize building the engine to recommend merchant-to-member connections or building the social broadcasting tool for merchants. His response? "I don’t know."

He’s telling the truth and there’s nothing more you can ask for. He articulates his thinking: The social broadcasting tool helps empower merchants, but the tool that recommends connections makes shopping more personal for consumers. It’s a thoughtful and rationale approach to prioritization. He challenges Chris about why we’re not building shopping Pandora (data-driven matching) but rather, Twitter-like shopping (affirmative human connections made by members). I will not hire Mike if Chris and he aren’t aligned. There is a growing respect and what feels like trust. Different guys for sure, but trust. 

We define a product roadmap together before the hire.

We create a new product roadmap together. We create two tracks: red and green zones. Red are must do, but not sexy, intellectual property, such as cart, supply-chain, and fulfillment. Green zone needs are sexy, and involve things like being the first to solve an issue. They’re also very high risk needs, such as social shopping and CRM. 

Mike leads us. He separates elements of the strategy that are nice to have from the essential building blocks. He speaks about technology in simple terms and about making it invisible to consumers and merchants. We all align around the simple (and ambitious) plan that OpenSky is a social experience that connects buyers and sellers, and which empowers small businesses.

When I call one of Mike’s references, a former boss from Digital River says to me "Mike’s the hardest working guy I know. He’s creative and he likes to work." After I tell him about our vision, he sends me an email: "The best thing you can do is partner with Mike."

When I offer Mike the role, he says, "We're going to have a lot of fun." He joins OpenSky and is fired up to make an impact. Mike recruited a team of engineers around the core group. And that new team released more code in 30 days time than we had in the prior 90. 

I learned a major lesson. I didn’t want someone to just bring order to our team. We needed (and found) a partner to help create OpenSky’s social shopping platform and to empower small businesses. 

Here are my suggestions for smart recruiting:

  1. No jerks--life is too short to work hard with people you don’t like.
  2. Invest the time. Do multiple interviews so candidates can relax and reveal their personalities and so you and he or she can both figure out it’s a true fit.
  3. Don’t focus on hiring someone who has "done it before" or you’ll build a me-too company. Choose someone who wants to do more than what he or she has done before.
  4. Disclose all your challenges. The right candidate will crave the solutions.
  5. Write a 90- to 120-day plan together. Get past the superficial interview questions and into the meat and potatoes of what you’re building.
  6. Include your team. Trust your partners to help you identify the right candidate.

Never compromise; the candidate is out there. Take your time to do it right, even if it takes a long time.

IMAGE: Karl Weatherly/Getty
Last updated: Aug 22, 2013

JOHN CAPLAN | Columnist | Founder and CEO, OpenSky

John Caplan is the founder and CEO of OpenSky, a social network for shopping. OpenSky launched in April 2011 and now has more than 2.5 million members. Before OpenSky, Caplan was the CEO of Ford Models and president of the About Network, which sold to Primedia in 2001 for more than $500 million.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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