5 startup hiring mistakes

June 24, 2013 11:50 pm Starting Up

Lately, I have been reading a lot about how companies hire their first circle of people. Everyone would advice you to choose the first circle from people you already know, your friends, previous colleagues, people who have worked with people you know well. Basically, people about whom you know more than whats on their resumes. People who are basically – ‘your kinda‘ people.

This was pretty easy when I was freelancing and I always had friends around to work with. There was always this quite little multi-tasker inside me who wanted to work on multiple projects at the same time. If there were designs that I had to submit while I was writing code for another project, I would outsource it to a friend knowing that I am going to get good work. When we started out with a new startup, it didn’t seem that difficult hiring a team. After all, I had been taking hiring decisions for a major part of my career and knew how to pick out the good ones. Well, it got awfully difficult but we learn’t a few very important lessons:

Mistake – 1: Hire freshers

When you are out of college, you are like that kid who just got his new bike. You have a new degree, your weapon to conquer the world. A rush of blood to the head and you want to change the world. That smell of passion is the smell you want in a startup. Also, it is easier to write on a clean slate. I always supported hiring people with little or no experience and then training them. At Directi, we pulled it off fairly well. So, did a lot of other companies I knew about. It is not cheaper, the money you save hiring a fresher, you spend training them. The problem arises when you realize that both these costs might not always be the same. Freshers come with one extra burden, they don’t much about whats happening in the _real world_. To build something better, you should know what the benchmark is. Here, training is the easiest part, callibration is the most dificult.

Companies like Directi pulled it off well because they had a set training structure and people who had the time to sit down with these freshers and train them. In a startup, this is usually not possible.

My personal advice, if you hire freshers, hire the ones who have been freelancing atleast for a year.

Mistake – 2: Hire to get my boring job done

I was talking to a friend recently about something completely random. The conversation comes to getting something done and he is like “The other day I was reading about this founder who said: if you find something boring, hire!”. I was like, yeah, thats exactly what I did too. There were so many things, which weren’t exactly boring, but things I would have wasted a lot of time doing; instead I hired someone to take care of that for me. But, what I realized after reading Jason Frieds tips is that this is not always the case. An excerpt from that article says:

“How do you know if you really need someone? A good rule of thumb is this: Have you already tried to do the job yourself? If you haven’t done the job, you don’t really understand the job. Without that fundamental understanding, it’s hard to judge what constitutes a job well done.”

I had to setup the intranet, setup an Active Directory Server, basic office infrastructure. I hired someone to get this done. Ideally, I should have taken sometime off and done it myself to figure out that there wasn’t much work anyways. I mean, for two months this guy would have work to do, but after that its just managing stuff and we could have done that ourselves.

Mistake – 3: Hire A+ people

Everyone you talk to would tell you this. Hire A+ People. Hire the best. My mistake – I hired them even though I did not need them. While we were selecting people, we came across candidates who were really good at their job. We wanted great people so we hired them. Being a startup is very volatile. Especially one in the web design business. Just because a person is good at one job doesn’t imply he’s great at the other.

More than an A+ guy, you should be looking at someone whos versatile. Someone who wants to learn more and strive to get there. The world is not black and white. You need to hire from that grey area which has people on the move. People who would put in that extra effort to get there.

Mistake – 4: Hire people who can’t take decisions

There are queen bees and worker bees. The worker bee has to go collect some nectar to make honey for the queen bee’s fat ass. All the while, the queen bee pretends that its getting all the work done. This has been drilled in everyone’s heads, specially people working in corporates. Industries involving a lot of manual labor, have a very stringent corporate structure. A person on the job is treated more like an indentured servant. Open door policies are a sham. I realize the reason internet companies have achieved so much is because we treat humans like humans. I am not denying the fact that we work longer and sleep lesser, I am just stating a common fact, everyone is supposed to do their job. In here, its all about the respect you command, not demand.

At Aksip, teams are very small. Each team has an acute set of tasks. Such micromanagement leaves everyone in charge of themselves. Its all about doing your work your way and creating a kick ass product. We are in the service industry and we make sure that our clients are always talking to people who design and program their applications, not sales people.

When I had started out, people found it difficult to understand what I was trying to preach. Most of my colleagues were freshers who had no idea of what an IT company is really like and the others were from a band of IT companies in India, run like a government office; where, if you want to suggest a feature to your manager, you need to fill out a form and mail it to him. Which would be eventually turned down; and even if it is actually implemented, your boss gets all the credit. I have heard these tales with utmost amazement. So, when I asked my colleagues to dress causally or try to come up with ideas for the project, brainstorm how we can do things better OR very simply take decisions that change the course of the project, they panicked. Blasphemy! they screamed. I realized they were good workers but they couldn’t take decisions. This I realized is a very important trait that distinguishes startup people from the other folks. It is very important because these are the people who are supposed to be leading teams and taking decisions a year from now. You need people who are confident about what they know.

Mistake – 5: Hire when in doubt

My last boss, Abhijit, always asked me to let people go even if I had a little doubt about them. I was always of the opinion that once you train them and show them how things are supposed to be done, things would be taken care of. It was only at Aksip I realized that if you like a few things about a candidate simply means you don’t like the other things. I have hired people believing I will work on their strong points. But, the bad parts are all the more evident once the guy is working with you. One very good method, is to ask the guy to work with you on a contract basis, or for one project. This helps you take a calculated decision.

Well, this is like a six month review of running Aksip. I like to look at this as the things I have learn’t. I must have been through at least 200 interviews in the last 3 years of hiring people. One thing I have learn’t is that – there are no tricks or methods of judging people. For me its liking the person enough to work with him. Is he passionate about work? Does he like to have fun? Can he talk to people confidently? Can he write well? Is he passionate about something else apart from work? Its a few basic traits that YOU like and the gut feeling.


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