Sunday, March 20, 2011

Whom you should hire at a Start-up: A Repost and An Obeservation

Earlier this week, there was an interesting post on Techcrunch. I always like these types of posts when I come across them. Whom Should You Hire at a Startup? (Attitude over Aptitude) by Mark Suster is another post from a VC and former entrepreneur on how to look at the problem of building a strong team in a start-up. It's a short, easy read and I recommend going through it before you move through the rest of this post.

The area that I wanted to explore is one that is touched on in his second and fifth recommendations:
2. Find people to “punch above their weight class”
5. Attitude over Aptitude
If you add up some of his statements like
It means that many management teams I know feel the need to hire people who have “done it before” and frankly many VCs encourage this. It’s a mistake. When you hire somebody too early who has already “done it” you often find somebody that is less motivated in tough times, less willing to be scrappy (as many startups need to be), more “needy” and less mentally flexible / willing to change their way of thinking...
You said, “Eff experience. I want to know whether you can deliver. If you can, you’re golden. You’ll go a long way. If you can’t – you’re toast. Are you up for it?” It’s Tristan Walker of FourSquare. They hired him when he was an MBA. He had no right asking for a senior biz dev role at one of the hottest companies in the US. But he was ready to punch above his weight class. And he pushed for it.
You might wind up with the take-away of, "don't hire tired experienced people, hire hungry inexperienced people." If that was your take-away, I recommend that you read his other post from his blog, Who Should you Hire at a Startup? This post presents a more comprehensive look at the role of talent, capability and experience, and provides some additional insights.

The Reality of Experiences That Make You Tired
While it's easy to see students coming out of school with a hunger and a naive sense of excitement, most of us that have struggled in difficult employment environments understand that there are a lot of pressures that can wear you down, weigh on your sense of enthusiasm, and make you a bit cynical. After all, if everything at work was exciting, challenging growth, you probably wouldn't be motivated to do something different. And when you interview, this is one of the challenges you often face in positioning yourself -- you don't want to seem like a grumpy curmudgeon that simply can't get along with the people you work with, but you need to position some clear reasons why you're considering this change. But regardless of how you present it, people want smiles in interviews and you're carrying frustrations.

So here you have the "Attitude / aptitude" issue wrapped up in a microcosm of perception. Perhaps the driver for your frustrations are the bureaucracies of your current employer or tired of being told that you don't know how to do your job because the organization doesn't follow your recommendations. Perhaps it's all driven by your frustrated desires to have a more senior role or more control of the process. It's even possible that you've tried to do more, only to be shot down as 'not getting it', too inexperienced, or not the right fit. In one sense, this might put you in the "punch above your weight class" group, but it also depends on the individual.

People react to adversity in different ways. As a long-distance cyclist, I've seen very tired people face hills near the end of a ride and get angry. I've seen them give up. I've also seen people who dig deep and continue to work, continue to push to get to their goal. In the case of people that you're considering for a start-up, while the environment that you're hiring them from may suck, I think that what you're looking for are the people capable of continuing to turn the pedals when the going gets tough. That doesn't mean someone who is happy to continue turning the pedals in a bureaucracy, but that's really back to the attitude question.

So What Do You Think?
Can somebody who is coming from an environment where they have been beaten down, told that they don't know what their doing or that they are doing it wrong be successful in a start-up? Can they succeed in an interview? Perhaps more to the point, if you're looking for a position where you can "punch outside of your weight class", do you really believe that a company will consider an "underqualified" candidate in today's job market? In other words, are you targeting a market where you have a realistic opportunity?

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