Fund raiser. Dishwasher. Product manager. In the world of Silicon Valley start-ups, where I’m based, a CEO has many duties. Of course, as your company grows and evolves, you'll likely delegate a number of those duties. But there are three primary tasks you must own yourself in 2012 if your team—and your start-up—are going to succeed.
1. Hire for good cultural fit
You know the saying, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Consider hiring a little like picking your professional family, but in this case you do get to choose.
And choose well, you must. Last year at Wordnik we hired 12 new people, while seven moved on, bringing our total to 20. Those 12 extra people can either raise the bar or crater the company.
On paper, plenty of candidates matched the experience for the jobs available, but that’s not what I’m most concerned about. I want a good cultural fit.
I find I often spend more time doing reference checks on candidates than I spend interviewing them. The first thing I ask references is if the job candidate lived up to his or her previous references, both in terms of performance and cultural fit. By asking this simple question, it reduces the theoretical risks inherent in blind reference checks and it gives me a broader view on someone’s work history.
One thing to keep in mind: A start-up’s core cultural and philosophical principles evolve as the company grows. Someone who was a great fit for a company of five or 10 may not be for a company of 25 or more. This is why you must be an integral part of the hiring process. And every person you hire, regardless of the role, should meet with everyone on the management team at least once.
On the day I signed my offer letter to join Wordnik last February, I was driving between my home in Palo Alto and San Francisco, and I noticed a full rainbow stretching from the Pacific Ocean completely across Silicon Valley. When I looked up again a few seconds later, a second rainbow stretched across the sky.
I pulled off to the side of the highway to take a picture, and as I was fiddling with my phone I heard a knock on my passenger side window. A police officer asked me if there was a problem. "No, officer, I'm looking at the double rainbow," I said. Apparently it’s illegal to pull off a highway except in emergency situations, so he went back to his car to write me a $280 ticket. I sat in my car waiting for him, admiring the rainbow. When he came back with the ticket, I sensed that he hadn't even seen the rainbow. He was so focused on what was in front of his nose, that he'd completely missed what was happening around him. All he had to do was look up.
Inspiration thrives on moments of awe, which is why the rainbow story has become something of a motto around Wordnik. As CEOs, it’s our job to share those moments and create an environment in which they are celebrated.
Every Friday, we gather as a team and write down the key moments of product, business, and team inspiration that moved us. It's a way to acknowledge how even the everyday aspects of our job contain moments of awe that can be leveraged for great teamwork, and innovative products.
Start-ups are based on the belief that a product or technology has the potential to be transformational. But those same products and technologies have a higher chance of failure than success. That’s why it’s so important for a CEO to believe—in the team, in the next phase of development, and in the larger vision for where the company is going.
Start-up life is hard. You’re asking your employees to sacrifice things like time with their families to contribute to your team. But you can lessen that burden if they go home at night knowing that all of the things they do add up to something big that you believe in. If you really believe in the project, it will come through in how you manage your team and how your employees, in turn, approach their jobs. (Investors notice this sort of thing, too, by the way.)
What’s on your list of things to do this year to succeed?