“Hiring” is one of the most important tasks of an entrepreneur in a startup. A wrong hire could have a much more significant impact on a startup as compared to a large MNC. Most entrepreneurs know that other than conceptualising an idea, the next most important thing is about execution. Well-executed plans will create a higher probability of success for startups. And in order to execute well, we need a strong team and everything boils down to hiring and retaining the best talents that we can find and afford. In this part 1 of the blog, I will talk about the first part – hiring.
I have mentioned before that I have interviewed more than 300 candidates in the past 7 years in order to select the right candidates to join. At the last count, this number has exceeded 400 candidates. I expect this number to continue to grow as we are constantly hiring. Despite interviewing many candidates, our take up is pretty low. Less than 10% of the interviewed candidates make it into our company. Why is it so hard to hire? More importantly, it is so hard to have the right hire.
There are many books and articles written by very accomplished entrepreneurs on hiring. We read, we learn and we experience. IMHO, a successful hire comprises two key parts – first the selection and hiring process, and second the retaining the hire past the probation period. Hiring doesn’t stop at the moment the candidate signs on the dotted line. The hiring process extends beyond just the hire itself. To me, it includes the probation period where the actual litmus test happens – is the staff a right fit and to the staff that just joined – is the company a right fit? Hiring is really a very difficult process. Let me talk about the first part – selection and hiring process.
First of all, the selection and hiring process itself are both an art and science. In our company, we hold several factors tightly – we never lower our hiring bar even if we are under time pressure to fill positions. We know a wrong hire is more damaging if we rush ourselves. We take the time to assess.
The science of the hiring can be seen by the knowledge assessment of the candidate. Regardless of positions, we would have tests to size up the knowledge and competency of the candidates. We would test in pre-interviews and post-interviews. To our surprise, such tests are pretty effective means of eliminating potential candidates. For those shortlisted candidates who did not even pass the pre-interview tests, it was obvious that we would not proceed to the next stage. But would you hire someone who did not even bother to do a good post-interview test? Definitely, knowledge and competency tests are a critical part of our assessment.
In recent times, we have also upped our hiring tests. We introduced self-assessment. We asked potential candidates to assess themselves and give us a rating 1 to 10 on their technical competency. Again, an interesting outcome. We also use situational tests during the interviews to assess the candidates. All these tests serve us well. And to me, these are the “sciences” of the hiring.
While the knowledge assessment can be measured through tests and interview questions, the ability of the candidate to suit the culture and environment of the company is a much harder test. How do we assess the person’s suitability in terms of culture fit and environment fit? Can candidate work with fellow colleagues? Can the candidate deliver in this environment? This is the “art” of hiring. There is no right or wrong answer to this but one effective way, which we experienced, is to paint the right picture.
In the past experiences, I have seen interviewers painted an overly rosy picture of the company in order to entice the candidates to join. I objected such practices. In fact, I did the exact opposite. I paint the realistic picture. I told some candidates, this is not a cruise. This is not a Business Class service on the plane. We are a startup. We have the bare minimum. We do everything ourselves. Simple things such as booking our own hotels, painstakingly pasting our receipts for post-travel claims, to even repairing the lights in our own toilets. We have to be hands-on. We can’t afford the luxury of a big team of support staff working for us. Everyone has to go beyond the tasks given. Everyone has to play their part in our company.
I remembered a wrong hire recently. A management position who asked whether there is anyone who could help him to file the claims. Coming from a large company, he wasn’t used to doing such mundane tasks himself. My HR replied him a straight “no” and “even the CEO prepares his own claims”. This is the reality. Everyone who wants to join startup must see both sides of the coin. One side is the “fun” and the “freedom” to execute while another side is the hands-on approach towards small tasks. Personally, I take pride in handling such small tasks. I make sure the receipts are glued correctly. I control my own calendar. I book my own air tickets and hotels. I do all small tasks myself. If we can’t do the small tasks well, how can we handle the big tasks?
The last point in the selection and hiring process, we adopt the principle of team interviews. We bring in the “future” colleagues of the candidate into the interviews. The objective is for mutual sizing up. My current team must “like” the candidate and potential hire. Any undesirable feedback or red flag from my current team, we would not hire. Similarly, the potential hire can also assess his or her future colleagues. Are these the kind of people that I am comfortable to work with? This is an important question that we want the candidate to ask himself or herself. That’s why we are willing to channel our scarce resources and invite the team to sit in for interviews.
Having said all these, there is so much we can do during the interviews. There is always a limitation to our assessment during interviews. We have even done character referee calls and I have personally experienced (on hindsight) incorrect views of the candidate personality and integrity from the referees. Hence, we know that the hiring process does not end at the point that the candidate signs on the dotted line. It is just half the job done.
In the next update, I will talk about the other half – the probation period.
With best regards,