Startup Hiring: 6 Subtle Signs You Might Have A Winner

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Startup Hiring: 6 Subtle Signs You Might Have A Winner


Many startups that I'm advising, invested in or otherwise involved in, including my own startup, HubSpot, are hiring.  This is a good sign (generally), because growth is usually a sign of success  -- or at least optimism.
As I've written before, hiring for a startup is hard.  Of all the things startups need to do, finding exceptionally talented people that are a good "fit" is likely the hardest.
I've had several meetings in the last couple of weeks with potential recruits. Interestingly, I find that it's usually easy to tell when I'm impressed with someone and think the opportunity is worth exploring further.  What's harder to figure out is why.  So, I gave this some thought and thought about the attributes of some of these recent conversations that signalled to me that I might have a winner.
6 Subtle Signs Your Startup Recruit Might Be A Winner
1.  Strong Opinions, Well Defended:  Just about all of the great people I've ever recruited in my professional career have had opinions.  Strong opinions.  But, it's not enough just to have a strong opinion (lots of people have those).  I like to see people that have strong opinions that are good at explaining why they hold those opinions and defend them well.  On the other hand, people with strong opinions that are weakly defended are not interesting -- they're just stubborn or inarticulate.
2.  Intersecting Disciplines:  My favorite conversations with recruits (I don't really do interviews, I have conversations), are those where we can talk about things other than startups and software development, but still find these conversations somehow "intersecting" (or converging) on some common passions.  I had dinner last night with someone I met for the first time.  Here are some of the things that came up during the course of the dinner conversation: quantum mechanics, degrees in history vs. economics, the quadratic equation and how much math we actually remember, Flex and Silverlight, why Lisp doesn't really provide the startup advantage any more that Paul Graham might think it does, San Diego, the issue with lack of UI abstractions for client-side development, YUI, C# and LINQ.  (That's just what I can remember).  The point is, lots of interesting things happen when non-software discussions intersect software discussions.
3.  Doesn't Feel Like Either Party Is Selling Too Hard:  One thing I hate about "classic" hiring is that it feels too transactional where one or the other side is selling.  My best recruitment efforts were more explorations were neither side was really "selling" and instead the discussion was more collaborative.  If you find yourself having to sell too hard, there's something wrong.  If you find that you are being sold to too hard, there's something wrong.
4.  You Learn Something You Can Use:  For the technical part of the discussion, a good sign that you might have a good recruit on your hands is if you actually, truly learn something that you can use.  It's amazing how many meetings you can have with people that have been working in software for a while, and you don't really learn anything.
5.  Proclivity For Change:  Thinking back on my history, there's a disproportionate number of people I've recruited, that worked out really well, that were already looking to make a big change in their lives.  I'm not talking about job hoppers, but those that are simply not satisified with the status quo and are looking shake things up a bit.  This signals to me folks that have some risk tolerance, don't need to have everything all figured out and are basically willing to "experiment".  Startups, as it turns out, are a series of experiments.  She that can experiment the most often and the most efficiently, wins.
6.  A Palpatable Absence Of The Temptation To Run Screaming:  There are often times when you figure out in the first 10-15 minutes of conversation that the likelihood the person you are talking to is going to work out.  That happens  The right (in a business sense and a politeness sense) to do is to not pass judgement too early because.  They've spent the time to meet with you, you saw something there that warranted the meeting.  Make the most of it.  But, there are times when you not only want the meeting to be over, but you want to run screaming.  For those wondering where the sub-title for this bullet came from, I have to give a head nod to Douglas Adams:  "...the ships float in the air the way that bricks don't..."
Apologies if this particular thread of reasoning is a bit disjointed.  I was up until 4:00 a.m. in the morning last night working on stuff and I'm not feeling energetic enough to actually weave a well-constructed article.  That's the great thing about blogging.  I don't have to.
Let me know if you have any signs or signals of your own that you've found are highly correleated with exceptional talent. 

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, May 18, 2007



Another great quality of a good candidate is someone that is passionate about what they are doing and I know that some of you are thinking "duh, obviously you want someone passionate..." but I don't mean passionate in a light way; I mean passionate in the deepest way that would result in a heated conversation kinda way.

Having intelligent, rational, passionate people in your team ensures that every decision is the best decision being taken and won’t settle for anything less than perfection, at least not without putting up a good fight and good reasoning behind it. At the end, not everyone will agree on the decision being taken but it is a great debate of ideas and it insures that everyone understands all points of view.

I much rather have someone that is challenging a decision because he passionately believes that it is the wrong decision (even if the final decision was the original) than someone that just goes with the flow and doesn’t care if it is the right or wrong decision.

On a Startup there are many decisions that can make it or break it; and having employees that truly care is the best way to stay in synch.


posted on Friday, May 18, 2007 at 1:47 PM by Abe Sultan

One thing I am struggling with, as I am sure others too, in my recruitment process is people who want to work with you (in some cases as partners) but would like to maintain a certain amount of status quo. I think the hard decision is when and how best to involve the people who are not 100% committed but sort of have part-time passion towards the gig. Initially when the startup needs all the help it can get if gets u into a turmoil. Any suggestions around how people have dealt with this situation with part-time partners would be appreciated.

posted on Friday, May 18, 2007 at 2:52 PM by Subraya Mallya

The last one about running from the room screaming has turned into my best indicator. When I was CTO with a medical imaging company, I let other engineers do the technical type of questioning. I would merely engage the person in conversation (you're so right about that) and try to get a sense of who they were and whether they were comfortable in their own skin. You put a time limit of 10-15 minutes. I had it down to less than 5 minutes, and often less than that. I can hear overselling almost immediately.

posted on Friday, May 18, 2007 at 5:49 PM by JoeC

I fully agree with Abe. That kind of passion and hot discussions produce far better results. In my experience, the output of thoes discussions is the best solution, sometimes far better than any of the original ideias, since it has a bit of several of the original ideas. I also prefer someone o fights back a solution, it means it's probably not the best one and it's should be discussed. In my experience, I find thoes people most valuable, since they care to do an excelente work.

posted on Saturday, May 19, 2007 at 6:12 AM by FM

Dharmesh - great piece. Forget about the 4am time, your points are right on. Perhaps I'm a little less 'nice' than you - if I can tell that I'm not going to hire someone (often within 10 minutes) I do try to end the interview quickly. Otherwise I think I'm wasting their time and mine - neither of which is useful. I also wrote up a long list of startup hiring tips that you might find useful in my post Life is a Hire Way m

posted on Monday, May 21, 2007 at 7:47 PM by Mike Cannon-Brookes

Sorry, that link got garbled, here it is again:

posted on Monday, May 21, 2007 at 7:48 PM by Mike Cannon-Brookes

This sentence doesn't make any sense (to me at least):
That happens The right (in a business sense and a politeness sense) to do is to not pass judgement too early because. They've spent the time to meet

REQUEST: larger font size. Love your writing. Hate reading it <grin> b/c of the font size..

posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2007 at 9:55 PM by Aphasia software for stroke survivors

Wonder what you would write at 12:00 AM? Gosh ! First point is great one and for me, works single handedly. Only a well exercised analytical mind is capable of defending its opinions.

posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 at 2:00 PM by Ashish

Should "correleated" in the last line "correlated"? 

posted on Friday, December 19, 2008 at 1:37 AM by T E Gautham

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