Startup Hiring and the Goldilocks Principle
Take a look at the chatter of the startup community and it becomes instantly clear that nearly everyone is obsessed with hiring. That makes sense -- intuitively we all understand that the team can make or break a business. But if you dig a level deeper looking for practical advice, it’s quickly apparent that the consensus ends there.
About half of commentators seem stressed that founders hire too fast, while the other half is just as worried they’ll hire too slow. What gives?
The two fast camp has many famous backers and an equally famous mantra -- 'hire slow, fire fast.' Here’s a typical story of what happens when you rush to fill seats from Carrie Kerpen, co-founder of likeable media, "We started to grow--and grow fast. So fast, in fact, that we couldn't staff the clients that we had. We started bringing people in the door. If you had ever tweeted in your life, you were a great candidate to work at Likeable Media. Have a Facebook account? Come on board. Can you guess what happened? There was a bloodbath. A bloodbath of firings, lost clients, and the morale of the people who were still at the company just plummeted."
Blake Pierson, the CEO of co-founder of apartment rental platform Lovely, recently told Inc.com a similar story: "Early on we were very aware of the skill sets that were missing. At any startup there’s a ton that needs to get done, and the pressure to hire quickly is more pronounced when there may be ten other teams working on the very same problems, so you need to move fast. At least that's what you're thinking at the time. We hired people who could help us solve the problems of the day without giving enough thought to their overall fit and how they'd influence and affect the company of tomorrow."
But hold on, say a number of high-profile dissenters. These cautionary tales aren’t to be taken lightly, but neither is the need to actually get the work done. Danny Boice, co-founder of Speek, has called the ‘hire slow’ mantra “complete b******t,” offering this analogy: “If your doctor gave you six months to live unless you got a liver transplant, would you hold out until you found the PERFECT liver? Or would you find the best liver available this very second and figure out how to make it work?”
VC Mark Suster agrees, adding that ‘hire slow’ is based on the incorrect assumption that longer hiring processes correlate with better hires. “You’re never really going to know how somebody is going to perform in the role, how good of a cultural fit he or she is going to be and how motivated they’re going to become until they’re on the inside,” he has written on TechCrunch, concluding “any team that I work with that struggles to hire people quickly knows that I’m likely frustrated.”
The Goldilocks Principle?
So what’s a befuddled founder to do when confronted with fast hire horror stories as well as dire warnings against hiring too slow from frustrated men bearing big checkbooks? Is the the Goldilocks principle at work here -- not too fast but not too slow?
For Lovely’s Pierson finding that balance meant deciding on what constitutes his company’s must-haves values for candidates. "My co-founder, Doug Wormhoudt, and I sat down one day and came up with ten values that defined us as individuals. Values that motivate us and that we believe in. If you want to work with us, these are the values that are important for you as well." By focusing on a few essential must-have values, the founders avoided analysis paralysis or unicorn hunting but protected their fundamental company culture.
For others the balance is more about hiring help promiscuously, while being very scrupulous about who you actually take on full time. Serial entrepreneur Matthew Stibbe used something like this approach at his second company, having been burnt by too quick hiring at his first: “I kept things small using contractors, freelancers, and outsourcing and only recently have I begun to hire full-time employees again. I’ve made more money, and I’ve been far happier.”
How do you balance the competing demands to fill seats but only hire A-players?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.