Alex Churchill, CEO of VonChurch, a digital entertainment recruiting company, says most companies make a big mistake when they hire: They neglect culture fit, so teams never really coalesce.
If you want to put together a rock-star team, he says, then hire employees based on their values first and ability second--the way great rock bands do it.
Why the Rock Band Parallel?
Once a musician himself, Churchill isn't your typical founder. He says he grew up "basically sitting underneath a piano in a recording studio" watching his father, Chick Churchill, build bands.
"He's had over 8 'Top 40' albums and played at Woodstock and so he's a very established musician," he says. "I took what he did and I transferred it into this company and it's worked quite well."
"If you're a rock band [looking for new members]--say, AC/DC--and someone comes in there in a tweed suit, it's not going to work" Churchill says. "But if someone comes in and they share the same musical background, they've got piercings, tattoos, or whatever, that's values. It's easy to bring someone in by values. It's more difficult as a company to do that."
"Bands always, always hire by values first and once the person looks right, feels right, speaks the same language, then he's allowed to get up and jam with the band," he says. "So we hire like a band."
Build a Supergroup
Like any start-up, the first thing Churchill did three and a half years ago when he founded VonChurch was build a senior management team, or as he calls it, "a supergroup" that would be as cohesive and successful as some of the best rock bands.
Churchill says big name musicians are choosy about who they'll work with, so he approached recruiting the same way and nabbed Corey Myers as his partner and Bill Coyman, who is now head of VonChurch North America. Both, he says, are very well established names in his industry.
"Once we got the supergroup then we could then start growing quite quickly," he says. "Whenever I speak to my managers [about building] their own teams I always tell them the same thing: Build your band, get your supergroup. And it gets their heads plugged into realizing you need a synergy of people to get a good product out the door."
How to Find Your Rock Stars
Churchill has also been quite intentional about the company's values, which are: confident, creative, and cool. Before deciding on the location of a new office, for example, he and members of his supergroup ask themselves if the space reflects each of those things.
Every employee brought into the VonChurch fold also has to emulate those values. And this is where Churchill's focus on operating like a rock band really comes into play.
Synergy is a tricky thing to nail. What if you attract the big name, the Grade A talent, but he or she is a first class jerk?
That's why VonChurch uses a unique filtering system before bringing anyone on board.
The very first test is how an applicant treats the receptionist who offers him water or tea.
"If they don't say 'No, thank you' or 'Yes, please' or if they're rude, they've actually failed the values interview there and then," Churchill says.
Next, job applicants answer about 45 questions to determine if they are confident, creative, and cool enough to fit in well with everyone else at the company.
"We don't see 'cool' as walking in with popped collars and clicky heels," he says. Instead, VonChurch deems the coolest people as those who are humble, polite, respectful, magnetic, and coachable.
Another test, which gauges both creativity and the ability to thrive under pressure: An applicant is given a sheet of paper that shows a grid of 100 boxes and told to draw a picture in each box within five minutes.
"It doesn't matter what you draw. If you actually do four boxes but particularly well, then great. You're going to be good for operations but you're probably not going to be good for digital entertainment recruitment," he says.
Another test to measure confidence involves standing up in front of a panel of VonChurch employees and speaking for two minutes on a subject an applicant is passionate about, and one that also demonstrates he or she has technical knowledge.
And after all the tests have been conducted and answers given, VonChurch sets applicants loose to walk around and ask questions of anyone in the company. This in itself is a bit of a trial. If a current VonChurch employee doesn't meet the applicant it can be a red flag--people who reflect the "confident" value are outgoing, driven, independent, and curious and likely should have been proactive enough to make sure to have left no employee unmet.
But Does It Work?
Churchill points to the company's 238% growth last year and says it's on track to reach $12 million in revenue in 2012. VonChurch has offices in San Francisco, New York, London, and (soon) Berlin. It staffs all the big name gaming companies from Electronic Arts to Microsoft to anyone doing anything with mobile.
But recruiting can be a tough gig and it's a space that typically sees high staff turnover. Churchill says that's not the case with VonChurch.
"We've got fantastic retention and we have an amazing place to work and we all share the same values... We've rejected people who would have been fantastic for business and bring one or two million in through the door but--excuse my French--are just assholes. We don't want to work with those people because they're going to disrupt the vibe," he says.
"If I was run over by a bus next year the company should be as fun a place to work in three years as it is now and that can only be held by values," he says.