Adam Smith

How to Find and Hire Amazing People, Part 1

October, 2009

Nothing matters more to your success than the skill and determination of your team. So, how do you find and recruit these folks who will make you incredibly successful?

First, what experience have I had hiring and building teams? Moderate. I've directly hired about twenty folks and have been involved with but not responsible for hiring about ten or fifteen others. I've found that you can hire well without experience but you'll be about 3x more efficient with experience and you'll call fewer false negatives. So I hope to describe some of the patterns I've picked up over the past four years.

Prime Directive

Your first job is not to hire bad people. Prefer false negatives to false positives. I'll come back to this later but it's an important foundation to the whole discussion.

Finding Talent

The easiest way to find talent is through your networks. I knew this going in but didn't know how to reduce it to practice.

As an MIT engineer I don't have natural networking skills. Some think this means it's hard for me to mingle at social events, which you get used to, but the more damning result is that you don't have the mental gestures of thinking in terms of your "network." Network itself feels like a dirty word.

But network just means your friends. So when you need to "find talent through your networks," that just means reaching out to people you did school projects with at MIT. It's not really that bad.

Paul Graham originally told me to "shake my friend tree" when looking for a cofounder, which is certainly friendlier terms than "use your network." So shake your friend tree.

I can only think of two real group projects I did at MIT, and both of my teammates from one of those projects are or have worked at Xobni before. How awesome is that!?

If you don't have a network, hire folks who do. I hired three or four pros from my immediate friend tree into Xobni, but we've hired 15 to 20 folks from networks in general.

Example: we hired Bryan Kennedy after meeting him through Y Combinator. Bryan is our founding web engineer and is the mastermind behind all of our web properties.

Bryan referred in one of our next employees, Ryan Gerard, through a friend of a friend. Matt, my cofounder, and I were having lunch one Sunday and we got a call from Ryan. We gave him the Xobni pitch over the phone and the rest is history.

This is how it happens.

It seems remarkably inefficient that most hiring happens through friend trees and not through more merit based approaches. We'll probably have better approaches in 30 years but for now this is what we're stuck with.

Recruiters and job boards

Recruiters and job boards don't work well either. They are supposed to fix this problem, and despite the gobs of money people are willing to pay they are still unable to deliver in general.

First, bad people (heretofore "unqualified workers") stay on the market longer and cycle their resume around 500x more often than a great employee in the lifetime of their career.

I kid you not. How many times do you think the top 1% of developers send their resume to companies? Maybe 15 times during college, they get an initial job, and get to pick where they work from there out based on reputation. So maybe 30 resume-sends over their lifetime.

Whereas unqualified workers will be on the job market say 15 times, each time spamming their Java resume (sorry -- couldn't help myself) out to 100 places each time before getting hired.

Someone check me on the math, but it sure feels like a 500x difference.

Recruiters won't save you, either. They get paid when you hire someone. They do not PAY YOU for consuming your time.

So a classic first time entrepreneur mistake, which I made, goes like this. You raise a bunch of money, and the recruiters come calling. Paul Graham didn't talk about recruiters, so you don't know what to do. (!) You listen to their tale, and they tell you they don't get paid unless you hire one of their people. So you can't lose. You sign a simple contract and go to sleep.

Then you wake up the next morning with seven resumes in your inbox. You'll get another seven the next day. And they'll keep coming until you interview someone. They will wear you down.

What happens next determines whether your company will fail or live on to fight other battles.

If you are looking to "staff up" you will look at the number of resumes you've read, and you'll say to yourself:

"Self, you've looked at 200 resumes and interviewed ten of them. You've worked hard. You certainly deserve to pull the trigger and soak in some celebration and accomplishment."

And repeat until you've hired an engineering team full of people playing the part and burning your cash.

Seriously, I've seen a company do this. Needless to say they sank without a trace.

Instead, if you maintain your hiring standards you will wisen up and dump the recruiters. That's what happened to me but I hope you can one-up me and avoid spending time on recruiters overall.

Now this isn't true of all recruiters. Your mileage may vary. What usually happens is the good recruiters move up and do executive recruiting, so most staff recruiters are crappy. I don't have enough direct experience with executive recruiters to speak about them.

There are good staff recruiters too, but they are very rare. At the very least ask for some clause to be changed in their contract and see if they have the organizational power to do it. If not you're dealing with a chop shop / call center. It's also a bad sign if they anonymize the resumes they send you. Most do.

Back to job boards: I have found that the Joel On Software job board doesn't have the spam problem. A typical Xobni post there nets us two good resumes, one bad resume, and that's it. Not cost effective but at least not spammy.

Craigslist can also work for hiring some roles, particularly where skill is easy to measure and there isn't much variation among choices, i.e. not developers, not product people, and not business people.

When you do use Craigslist run a bulk recruiting process. Post once on craigslist, ask everyone who emails you to answer a few questions on a form, and invite those that respond and read well to your office at thirty minute intervals across one day. Have all of the decision makers available and at the office on that day.

Finally, use [email protected] on your home page but use different email addresses for any job board postings you do. Blind emails to jobs@ from your home page will tend to be high quality, so you'll want them in separate buckets.

Finding folks using your network

Building a network and using it to find the best people is a long term play. CEOs who knew lots of people at Yahoo got a windfall when Yahoo started faltering, for example. These events are rare and hard to predict.

You also can't predict when you'll get a phone call from a friend of a friend who isn't happy at his current gig.

The best you can do is try to encourage these random events. Meet lots of people, spread the word about what you're doing, and be so awesome and excited that people remember you and your enterprise.

This is a great strategy overall, and will result in more frequent coincidences that result in positive results.

For more on this topic, go read Never Eat Alone and this blog post.

Loose in the socket

I originally assumed that people's happiness at a job falls along a spectrum, maybe in a bell shaped curve. Not so. It seems to be binary: either someone is happy, or they're not and open to a switcheroo. I call the latter group loose in the socket.

Also, the really good and intrinsically motivated folks won't come work for you because you offer a higher salary.

At the end of the day, it's disproportionally harder to recruit someone who is happy than someone who is loose in the socket.

This is not to say you shouldn't talk to good people you know who are happy in their current job. Just realize they are long term plays as mentioned above. If someone is happy where they are, your best shot is to (a) have a really compelling product and team, (b) tell them you have an open door for them and would love to tell them more about what you're doing at any time in the future, and (c) hire their friends or people they know are good. These long term bets can work over the long term, and are bets worth placing, but you can't count on them in your pipeline.

Part 2

Part 2 and beyond will be coming soon, and will touch on topics like:

  • How to interview and judge candidates (very important),
  • How to close,
  • How to resource and time your hiring efforts,
  • How to recruit for culture, and
  • How to negotiate and set expectations,

...among other things! Check out the RSS feed to stay in touch!

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