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Traditional recruiting for tech startups has focused on finding the right skill sets. That’s an important variable, but it doesn’t help a great team to mesh. Just because someone knows a programming language doesn’t mean that they will communicate well with other team members, help carry colleagues on down days, or fully share the celebration when there’s a team triumph.
The key in hiring today is to focus first on people who will be compatible with a great team. Do prospective employees believe in what our company believes in? What’s important to them? What are their values? And is there a cultural fit? Because, at the end of the day, if people on a team share the same set of beliefs and values, want to work together and love being together, they’ll achieve collaborative success. If they don’t, they’ll be unhappy. As we know from our professional and personal lives, the happier people are, the more likely they are to have strong friendships, strong business partnerships, and strong relationships of any kind.
Everyone has to be 100 percent all-in
Recruiting and hiring for an early-stage company must also take into account that working in a new business is often like living on the edge. These experiences are wondrous and exhilarating and awesome, and, at the same time, they’re terrible and sad and depressing and totally crappy.
In order to survive this kind of emotional oscillation, everyone has to be in it together. Being in 100 percent means being there for your team and delivering through the good, the bad, and the ugly. It doesn’t work if each person isn’t 100 percent in. The biggest mistake when it comes to recruiting and hiring for an early-stage company is making sure that the people being considered for the team are fully and totally committed to the journey. If they’re not, they won’t be happy, and neither will we.
Setting your hiring priorities: The three Cs
When we evaluate candidates at Ivy Softworks, we focus on the three Cs. Culture is the most important thing. Capacity for mastery, or the potential or ability to learn new skills, is the second most important thing. Capabilities, or skills, the thing that everyone interviews for today, is only the third most important thing.
If you have the first two pieces — someone who shares your values, understands what’s important and what’s not, and is capable of learning new skills — you can start building a great team that works well together and adapts to every up and down.
Our hiring process at Ivy generally starts with a phone screen that looks carefully at the three Cs. If we feel there’s a good fit, we invite the candidate into the office and engage in a series of interviews. There are technical interviews and domain-specific interviews, but these have absolutely nothing to do with whether the candidate would be a good team member or not.
That question starts getting answered during something we call the narrative interview, which helps us understand the candidate’s arc in life and whether that arc intersects with ours. This is all about building empathetic rapport and seeing if things flow as we explore the candidate’s experiences. Is there a good exchange? And do we feel comfortable around each other?
One of the important things that we’re trying to determine with the candidate here is if the next logical step in his or her career is to come and work at our company. I’ve seen candidates confidently answer for themselves that it isn’t the right place for them now. They’re very grateful for the discussion and appreciate the insight it gave them about themselves.
Building empathy within ourselves
One of the key skills we’re trying to develop is evaluating and assessing answers through another person’s experiences in order to build empathy within ourselves; this extends team longevity. We’re also hoping to mitigate some of the negative effects of the unavoidable power imbalance; in other words, we don’t want a defensive Q&A, but rather a simple narrative. And, finally, we’re eager to avoid candidates’ tendencies to provide answers they think we want to hear. In the end, the only way we can reliably arrive at trustworthy answers is to ask the questions we’re trying to answer within ourselves, through the lens of the candidate’s own narrative.
After the interviews, we send the candidates home so they can relax, contemplate, and decompress about what the interview experiences have meant to them. Then, if they’re feeling good, and we’re feeling good, we invite them back to the office on a separate day for something we call Integration Day.
We think of this as a final flight systems check — just to make sure. It’s not a cognitive exercise. We’re not measuring particular things and matching them up together. We’re saying, “What does it feel like with this person actually riding shotgun on one of our normal days?” We have no requirements. We provide no advice to them other than to do what feels natural; to participate or contribute if it feels right.
When we come to the end of Integration Day, we ask the candidate, “Do you feel 100 percent about joining us?” We also ask ourselves, “Do we feel 100 percent about the candidate joining us?” We really try to focus on both sides here; this is a bidirectional assessment.
Avoiding a disparity between what is felt and said
One of the advantages of developing our own evaluation, assessment, and communication skills is that we’re able to reflect back to candidates when we sense that they’re not 100 percent all-in — even if they say they are. We have found that when there’s a disparity between what is felt and what is said, there’s usually a hiring mistake in the making. And you can’t afford to make very many hiring mistakes when you’re building an early-stage company because it’s already so challenging on so many levels.
The biggest challenge in an early-stage company is that it sucks to suffer. Every day, you’ve got a list of things that are just not going to get done. And you’re frequently sitting across the table from a candidate desperately hoping, “Are you the one who’s just going to help carry my load? Are you the one who’s going to help us push ahead?”
That’s when you compromise, when you make the bad hiring decisions. But you can’t compromise, and you really and truly don’t want to make bad hiring decisions.
What you really want to feel is, “Yes, this is good. Yes, we want to work together with this person. And, yes, this person wants to work together with us. Let’s move forward.”
Those are magic words, and they help reinforce the fact that great teams — not products — are an early-stage company’s most valuable asset.
Jordan Ritter is CEO and founder of Ivy Softworks, a stealth tech-startup incubator. He previously cofounded Napster, Cloudmark, and Servio.