Weed Out Wannabes; Not Everyone Can Cut It At A Start-up
They smile, they laugh on cue, and they have a rehearsed response for every conventional interview question. They profess to be entrepreneurs, but are they actually wantrapreneurs?
A wantrepreneur is a well-intentioned person who wants to be an entrepreneur, but does not have the skills, personality, or risk profile to be successful. When the going gets tough, as it always does at every start-up, wantrapreneurs get busy emailing their resumes to prospective employers.
The costs of a mis-hire during the early stages of your venture are dramatic. As such, deploy the following unconventional tactics to separate the wantrapreneurs from entrepreneurs.
Discover the inner child
Gain an understanding of who the candidate was when he graduated high school, in order to assess who he is as an adult. Did you just meet the shy boy who spent his high school years writing in his journal, or the boisterous verbal bully who used her wit to hide her insecurities? Maybe you spoke with the class president voted "Most Likely to Succeed" or the nerd who preferred video games over interpersonal relationships.
If you only focus on the candidate’s skills and work experiences, you may learn the what associated with the person, but you might miss the who. Some of the key aspects of who the candidate is include: creativity, risk profile, curiosity level, and desire to win.
Ask really personal questions
Another way to identify the acne-faced high school kid is to ask personal questions. Relax, I am not suggesting that you violate fair employment practices. When I say "get personal," I am referring to non-typical questions designed to determine who the candidate really is. Here are some examples:
- Did you move around a lot as a kid? If so, did you enjoy relocating? Why?
- How many siblings do you have? Are you the youngest, oldest, or middle child?
- What do/did your parents do as a vocation? Did they enjoy their jobs? What were their dreams? Which of their dreams remain unfulfilled and why?
- Did you play any team or individual sports competitively? Do you still compete?
- Did you become proficient on a musical instrument? Do you still play?
- What were your hobbies when you were growing up, and what are they now?
- What were your childhood dreams? How have they changed? Which dreams remain unfulfilled?
- What were some of your more memorable childhood ventures? Did you always scheming to make money?
Some people will be uncomfortable answering these questions. If so, they may not have the temperament required to succeed at a start-up, an environment in which everyone is forced to work in close quarters and on multidisciplinary teams. A willingness to share who she really is and become part of a start-up family is an important trait for all early-stage hires.
Team up to interview
Group interviews can also be an effective way to gain insight into someone's soul. In one-on-one interviews, the applicant is always on. He maintains eye contact, smiles at the right times, says what he thinks you want to hear, and generally makes a concerted effort to keep you from knowing what he is thinking.
In group interviews, maintaining an unflappable facade is more difficult, as the interviewers who are not in the midst of asking a question have the luxury of observing the applicant. Top negotiators often prefer to work in teams so that one team member can observe body language, devise questions, take notes, and analyze the applicant's responses, while the other interviewer is engaged in conversation. You can gain similar observational insights through group interviews.
Generally, two interviewers at a time is sufficient. Too many interviewers will heighten the artificial nature of the discussion and should be avoided.
Lunch at an out-of-the office locale is an effective forum for group interviews, as sharing a meal in a group setting further reduces the formality of the conversation, and gives you a more accurate glimpse into the applicant's true entrepreneurial style.
Even if you conduct an interview one-on-one, changing up the environment from a traditional desk discussion is often an effective way to encourage someone to speak more openly about who she is. Go on a walk, head out for coffee. Anything that breaks the interviewing norm will help you better assess the candidate’s suitability for life at a start-up.
Meet the significant other
For significant hires, I recommend you meet the candidate's spouse or romantic partner. Even in a relatively brief encounter, you should be able to assess if the candidate’s significant other will be a hindrance that will make your start-up's inevitable lows even lower, or if he will act as a positive force that will help the partner through the inevitable start-up challenges. The vitriol generated in unhealthy relationships can seep into your organization and negatively impact your company's morale and culture.
Find out where else she is interviewing
Ask your candidate to name the other companies she has targeted in her job search. Her response will give you further context into her start-up proclivities. If all of her other interviews are with Big Dumb Companies (BDCs), then the applicant may not be an entrepreneur. Knowing that she is speaking with one or more BDCs will alert you to a potential incongruence in her career aspirations. If an inconsistency arises, address it in frank terms, and assess the applicant's response.
Challenge him to face difficult issues (even during the interview process)
For instance, you might say, "You certainly have a great skill set, but I am not sure we can afford you." This nicely sets up your future salary negotiations, gives the candidate a chance to reach for the opportunity, and encourages him to explain why he is an ideal fit.
This approach also ensures that your new hire joins your team with his eyes wide open, with a realistic understanding of the challenges that must be overcome in order to thrive at your start-up. Someone simply searching for any job will be unenthusiastic about an offer with a below-market salary. Entrepreneurial candidates will be willing to make monetary concessions in order to join an exciting venture, if you offer them adequate potential upside in some other form, like stock options. If the applicant does not appropriately value your start-up’s equity, quickly usher him out the door.
Assign free consulting projects
You might ask a candidate to research a potential new market, analyze a competitor, or assess a new distribution channel. Preferably select a task that will actually add value to your team’s efforts.
There are several potential positive outcomes from this approach. The candidate gets engaged in your business and can hit the ground running if hired, and gives you an effective window into her true motivations, as well as, of course, an assessment of her skills and abilities.
Brace for a counter offer
The recruitment process is not over if you make a star candidate an offer. You should anticipate that his current employer will attempt to win him back with promises of additional compensation, a promotion, possibly more equity. Especially if you have a strong rapport, you can head off such win-back efforts by letting the candidate know in advance that a last-minute scramble to retain him is flattering, but it would be more meaningful if proffered in the normal course of business, rather than as a last-ditch effort. He should ask himself, "Where was the love before I announced I was leaving?"
Try before you buy
Both your company and the employee can benefit from a mutual 90-day trial period. Such an arrangement facilitates correcting an improper fit between the employee and the position she is hired into. If it is apparent that the relationship is not working, the employee can move on to another organization that will ultimately facilitate her happiness and success. Or it gives a natural time to offer feedback and become even more effective
In addition, by institutionalizing a review early in the employee's tenure and the employee decides to stay on, long-term problems can be avoided and the employee can ultimately become more effective through timely constructive criticism.
The 90-day trial is also a good test to determine if the applicant is a wantrapreneur. If he is just looking for a job, your unconventional request to enter into a mutual trial may offend him. You should hope it does, as you'll want to weed out wantrepreneurs as early as possible.
JOHN GREATHOUSE | Partner, Rincon Venture Partners
John Greathouse is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion?s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos.