Should Startups Compromise When Hiring?

Dharmesh Shah shared some thoughtful insights recently on “Why Startups Should ALWAYS Compromise When Hiring.”  It’s true that any new hire brings a balance of skills, traits, experience, and relationships.  Finding the right balance (or compromise) is the key, and this needs to be done in the context of both the specific job and the broader organization.  For a team to be more effective than the sum of its parts, there must be a constructive mix of different experiences, complimentary skill sets, industry relationships, ages, and personality types.  The requirements matrix for any one job may contain binary criteria like cultural fit, passion, intelligence, integrity, etc.  The subjective criteria will vary by position with ‘relevant experience’ being high on the list, especially for more senior roles.

Time is a scarce resource at emerging growth companies and speed is critical to success – speed to market, the agility to change direction on the fly, and the ability to iterate faster than the incumbents.  To quote Rupert Murdoch, “The world is changing very fast.  Big will not beat small anymore.  It will be the fast beating the slow.” The implication for startup hiring is that there is little to no time available for on-the-job training nor room for the rookie mistakes.  Good ideas and ripe markets get competitive very fast … thanks partly to the flood of venture dollars (but that’s another story.)  While every hiring need will have its own prioritized criteria, relevant experience will invariably rank towards the top of the list.  Experience is not surprisingly well correlated to relationships … and the right relationships provide tremendous leverage and the ability to move that much faster.

From OnStartups by Dharmesh Shah

Startups should hire the best people possible.  But, if you re-read the title, you’ll notice that I’m saying you should always compromise.  Why?  Because there’s no such thing as the absolutely perfect hire along every possible dimension.  If you recruit people that you think were a “no-compromise” hire, you’re deluding yourself with unrealistic expectations.  Nobody’s perfect (and if they are, you probably couldn’t recruit or afford them anyways).

Everyone you bring on is a compromise.  The trick is to compromise on the right things.

Let me explain.  Here are several different attributes or “dimensions of awesomeness” you might seek for your startup recruit:

1.  Passion:  Are they fired-up?

2.  Experience:  Have they done this particular job before?  Did they succeed at it?

3.  Intelligence:  Are they smart?

4.  Academics:  Do they have the right degree?  From the right place?

5.  Hunger:  Are they motivated?  Are they ambitious?

6.  Risk-Tolerance: Can they share the risk?  Or, are they looking to make fair market value?

7.  Scrappiness: Can they get by with little?  Are they resourceful?

8.  Loyalty: Can you get them to commit to your cause?  Will they be fiercely loyal?

Those are just a few I thought of off the top of my head.  It’s by no means a complete list.  I intentionally left out things like “integrity”, because it’s hard to argue in favor of compromising on integrity.  That’s just plain stupid.

But just about all of the attributes listed above could be compromised a little in exchange for something else.  For example, if you were somehow able to grade a recruit along all these dimensions, you might find that someone scores “average” in the academics dimension – but is off-the-charts smart (happens all the time).  So, you might decide that it’s OK for them not to have an ivy league degree.  Or, someone might be so smart, passionate and entrepreneurial – but lacking in experience.  Perhaps that’s OK too.  Or, maybe you really do have to have the absolutely perfect person along every possible dimension, but they’re so good, you’re just not sure you’re going to be able to keep them engaged.  Perhaps you’ll have to compromise on the loyalty front.

The point is, like with just about everything related to startups (and lots of things in life), there are tradeoffs.  You need to figure out which dimensions are absolutely critical (where you will not give), and which ones you’re willing to compromise a little on.  There’s no right answer – it depends on your business, your culture, your values and your instincts.

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