Hiring for Startups: A few tips to note

There was a recent discussion on MVP gang about a particular “wrong-hire” which prompted me to write this longish experience-based note. For more on the discussion Robin of ReachTax has a blog post off it here.

  1. Do not sell or glorify your start-up to the candidate. Be matter of fact, undersell the growth opportunity to the candidate. It may sound a little crazy for a tip, but in my experience, initial employees for a start-up should join the team for the work the start-up does and believe in the concept and the founding team. Joining a start-up for its “The Thing To Do”; For a great salary package, to help their resumes’ or to make their application to MBA look better are all not the right reasons from the start-up’s perspective.
  2. Be Candid and Straight Forward in explaining the Job Description. List out the various things that the person will have to do when hired. Be explicit in listing out obvious things. When I hired for Madhouse in the initial days – we had a small 600 Sq Ft Basement Office – and we insisted that we interview candidates at our little basement office and explained to them what they had to do. “The What” had everything from – Major Responsibilities, Back-up functions and other things one would do as being a part of the team. If i were hiring a customer care person, for example – his/ her core responsibility was to answer request calls, make intelligent movie recommendations, confirm order and send it out for processing. Their back-up functions were – Doing sales calls, packing DVDs. The other things expected were – opening of the office if they were the first ones to come, closing the office if they were the last to leave (We had a solid iron shutter at the entrance), helping in promotions – if necessary – which meant participating in roadshows and interacting with potential customers at Malls and Promo stalls. We explained most of these and gave them real life examples of things to display we mean what we say. If you have to multi-task and do anything that’s required for the start-up or for the benefit of the customer, we all do it – that message was conveyed strongly.
  3. We’d have written Job Descriptions. These JDs not only helped us get clarity on what was expected from the position we were hiring but most importantly, “set expectations right” at the candidates end. The JD would have main responsibilities and secondary responsibilities – listed as one line items. It would also have the main purpose of the position which were usually linked to key items like – customer acquisition and customer service.
  4. Do a trial. In a start-up scenario, one wrong hire would cost us dearly. I’ve made a few wrong hiring decisions – this was not just a bad thing for my start-up, but was a bad  thing for the candidate too. There is no point trying to make the hire work to make it a good hire or convince yourself that its a good hire. Similarly, the candidate will be trying hard to ensure to himself and you that he’s a worthy candidate. This is a pain for the person as well as a loss for the start-up as each day does count and no point investing too much time in damage control or maintenance. As well invest that time in increasing value for customers and productively. And so, a trail period has always helped us. We infact follow it to this day @ MVP and “live-in” with companies before we official induct them as part of our portfolio. This trail period will help set expectations at both ends, get to know the candidate and him/her, the start-up culture better. So, at the end of the trial even if we have to let go of the candidate or the candidate chooses not to continue – it’s fair and not ugly. Only, ensure that the trial period test the candidates in various situations to find out how he performs. This helps evaluate not just his domain expertise and capability; but also his attitude, capacity to stretch & passion toward the start-up.
  5. Another key aspect is to identify a wrong hire quickly and made a fast decision to let go! The longer you postpone a firing decision, the more painful it will get. Be logical and make a fast decision – all of us are humans and we learn out of our mistakes – so acknowledge it and rectify it. By making a fast firing decision -you not only do you and your start-up a favor, you will also be doing the candidate a favor! And ya, the first firing act will be the most painful 🙂
  6. Once the person is in the team, treat them well, make them a part of the group and shower them with care, training and feedback helping him perform!
  7. Finally, lead by example! If you expect someone to do an odd job that is typically not expected from that position outside of this startup – then, to make them comfortable and get on to doing it – the best motivation is to exhibit acts that display the founding team, CXOs doing similar things with ease. At Madhouse, Sameer and I sat on the worst possible seats giving the new ones to new hires. Soon we found that, team mates were happily sitting on a not so good chair, if they had to and do work without complaining! Their funda was, if Nandini and Sameer can we will too.

Longish thoughts, but hope it helps. Of course, these are based on my startup experiences in India, where i have seen unprofessional behavior exhibited by some experienced, top management guys; as well as experienced amazing professional behavior displayed by entry-level candidates!

One thought on “Hiring for Startups: A few tips to note

  1. looks like he wasnt a wrong hire “perhaps , it was not his attitude and rather lack of incentives that drove him out of the startup. I had hired a similar kid out of college who I tried to pay next to nothing . He accepted at his junior level , that the salary was fair and began working. He also asked about equity but I laughed at him , I had somehow managed to retain 95% of the startups equity by paying the rest of the team salaries. Soon he realized though , that he was almost working for free with no incentives helping build my company ( he never once complained about the occasional grunt work , only did he mention something while I decided to enforce his one month leaving policy ). He was obviously smarter and better acquainted with startup norms compared to rest of the team , who sat quietly getting measly salaries without any equity.So I don’t know why you were “speechless” , he wanted to work in areas that he was not experienced in , so in the process , he could build his skills and at the same time help my company. Additionally I must mention , I stifled him from access to the company servers , databases and critical areas . Every time he would implement something he would have to wait , for one for my overworked team to implement the requests.Hence I reached the realization , that he was of a different breed , one that I could not exploit , for my grunt work + other “cool” and “good” stuff that he could boast to his college friends about. I let him go and we parted on the good note. I realized that one day his company could be bigger than mine and he will be a great contact to have. “

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