#27 How to Hire well for your Startup?

Hiring well is what defines success, but damn, it’s hard.

I have hired across different functions at GreyAtom and even in all my past roles - and I can spot talent, I can filter out talent fairly reasonably. In fact, over a period of time, my interview round was like a litmus test when my other co-founders liked a person a candidate a lot. I used to think in early days that I had the intuition for it - but really there is actually a method to the madness. I tried abstracting out the process.

Reflecting on my Best Hires and thinking about the people I love working with, I can’t help but smile. They are people I learn from, whom I trust, and who consistently produce fantastic work. With them, I feel more comfortable, more courageous, more inspired and more energised.

This got me thinking. If I could figure out the qualities of these people in the first group and the process that identified them in the first place, could I find a way to find more talented people that I love working with

The Basics

  1. What's your career story - This helps in understanding a lot of things about a candidate. What has been important to them, what stint in their career have they been most passionate about because when they are narrating that story, their face almost instinctively lights up.

  2. What's one professional adversity have you have overcome - I want to check if Do they tend toward negative interpretations of their circumstances? Bad things happen. But it’s not always someone’s fault, and it’s not always permanent. The ability to stay optimistic itself makes success more likely.

  3. Your Strengths & Weaknesses - Do they think critically about their own strengths and weaknesses? This makes me more confident in their ability to gravitate toward the right work and responsibilities.

  4. Given a complete freehand - what do you want to do at GreyAtom? - This question helps me understand the size of ambition the person has. When they have no constraints, how far can they think? It also gives me an insight into how much they know about us.

  5. During the interview, I also sometimes make incorrect assumptions or make factual errors about their experience summaries

    WHY? To weed out candidates who are easily annoyed. If the candidate’s last job was at InMobi, and I say, “How long were you at Directi!?” Take note of the candidate’s tone when he corrects you. Does he stay cool?

  6. Checking for multi-tasking, and the point of getting overwhelmed - I put the candidate in the middle of a conference room with interviewers at both ends of the table. Is the candidate able to simultaneously direct her attention to both interviewers while sufficiently answering each question at the same time? Or is she clearly exhausted and wondering why she even agreed to this interview? This is a great indicator of how the candidate will perform during a crunch.

The Skill Test

  1. I always also get them to do a couple of assignments that are totally related to their future job. When we hired a career coach, we had her interact with real learners, and get feedback from them. The feedback was fantastic and we hired her. She remains to be one of the highest impact players on our team.

  2. When I hired my head of learning - I gave him a single problem statement - how will you make online learning as engaging as classroom learning. He was based in Chennai. It was the single most important role for us at that point I flew him down to Mumbai and requested him to spend a full day with us in office. Invited him to be a part of a few ongoing meetings as well. He had done a ton of research on the problem statement I gave him and came up with 3 strategies, did good competitive analysis and had a strong rationale for prescribing an approach to us.

  3. He also came back with a comparison on who was nailing this globally and how. He clearly identified some blindspots he had and the fact that he would need to dive much deeper to find a solution here.

  4. Needless to say, we did hire him and till date, he is one of my personal best hires ever! He has grown to be a great leader and a valuable asset to the organization.

  5. Similarly, we design tests for every role, front end developer, back end developer, VP engineering, our content manager - everyone had a skill test to go through. It could be a scenario-based thing, a small project and they present back their solutions to us

The Culture FIT

  1. HUSTLE is an extremely important skill needed to navigate through a startup life. I have seen many many people succeed just because they had this 1 skill in abundance above everything else.

  2. Learner success - How much does it matter to them. Why does it matter to them? What happens if a learner is set up for failure. How will they overcome this? As we are in the business of transforming careers for learners, some of the best hires on our learning team have been our past students at GreyAtom - the ones who used to give us a lot of constructive feedback when they were doing the programs!

  3. A few times its also the persistence of the candidate that stands them apart. Candidates following up post the interview, with life and work updates, meaningfully engaging to understand if the position is still open, has also worked.

  4. I posed a hard problem to someone during an interview, something we hadn't been able to solve for long and their response was - "Don’t worry, we will do it". I raised a flag for this role, but we went with a majority vote and hired the person. Turned out he was genuinely overconfident on a lot of things, gave a lot of pep talks - but problem-solving, attention to detail was missing completely.

    Bottom line - if you are ever unsure if you want to hire or not - Don’t hire!

I’ve had my best results from starting with projects that focus on real-work, to test the waters in a safe way. Some call it ‘freelance-to-hire’. The projects last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. It may sound like an expensive use of time and money, but trust me, it’s far less expensive than hiring the wrong people. It's like dating before getting married. Not all roles can afford this luxury though.

Since last year, I have also started interviewing people for their GRIT - using Angela Duckworth's Grit Scale. It has stood out great people from the rest. How much a person is able to preserve through the not so good times and rough it out is a key determinant not only of their success but also of the success of initiatives they are driving.

In the long run, hiring well across functions can make an organization, poorly hiring can break one!