My post The Future Of Work Is Distributed received some good comments. More interesting was the number of direct emails I received back with detailed information about “remote-first” companies and how they did things.
There was a distinction in some of these emails between “remote-first” and “multiple geographies.” It’s an important nuance, as there is a big difference between a fully distributed workforce (which the blockchain kids refer to as a “decentralized workforce”) and a multi-location workforce.
Almost every company in our portfolio with more than 50 employees either has or is looking at a second (or third, or fourth) location. This is especially true for companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York.
While I’ve observed (and experienced) mixed success with second locations being implemented too early, I’ve concluded that this is mostly a function of the company not having a handle on how to deal with a distributed workforce. When the CEO prioritized either distributed or remote work and makes it part of the wiring of how the company operates, it’s effective. When it’s an afterthought, a lifestyle choice, or a reaction to something, it fails.
I’ve found that secondary/tertiary US cities work better than international locations, with the exception of software/hardware engineering locations. Several of our companies have had great success in Eastern Europe and Russia with technical teams. China and India work, but seem to be harder and more hit or miss. Cities in the US that have concentrations of technical, sales, or operational talent, usually because of one specific employer or a highly motivated university nearby, have been surprisingly effective.
The biggest magic trick seems to be the “direct flight.” When it’s a two hour or less direct flight to the second location, people move easily between places. I knew this instinctively from all of my time traveling between the east coast and the west coast from Denver. When I went west, it was easy. When I went east, it was hard.
Magic trick number two is well-implemented video conferencing. I learned an approach many years ago from my now-partner Chris Moody that he used at Aquent when he was COO. He set up video conferencing in a cubical at each location at left it on all the time. Today, we have the equivalent on our desktops, so the cubical trick isn’t needed, but easy ways to immediately start video conferences at any time, as a substitute for in-person meetings, without having to go into separate rooms in the office, makes a huge difference in interpersonal interactions.
It seems pretty clear that a very large, single location company in Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle, and several other cities (e.g. LA, Boston) is getting much more challenging. Sure, it’s possible, but is it advisable?
I’ve written several times about leveling the playing field for women in tech, including our own actions at Foundry Group. I’m always keeping my ear to the ground for how to do this better.
Recently, I was connected to Kate Catlin, the Founder of Find My Flock, by my partner Jason. From the outside, it looks like Find My Flock is a tech job board that is enthusiastically open to all. What isn’t obvious is that they did 100% of their product research, design, and UX testing with developers who happen to be women and/or people of color.
This led to some very specific features:
- You can filter jobs by benefits like maternity leave, trans-inclusive healthcare, or visa sponsorship.
- You get a personal interviewing coach.
- If a company wants a premium posting, Find My Flock has an off-the-record phone call with two developers in the company to make sure they’re happy.
While mostly driven by “determined intersectional feminism,” Kate thinks more platforms should be designed this way. She’s a former IDEO CoLab Fellow, and follows IDEO’s belief that you can spur the most creativity by interviewing users at the extreme ends of the bell curve, in addition to those in the middle.
To understand this, imagine you’re designing a new sneaker. You’ll come up with very different ideas if you go interview the most blister-prone ultramarathoner instead of the average neighborhood jogger.
Find My Flock took it a step further by interviewing only at the extremes. If developers most likely to experience unconscious bias feel this process is effective, supportive, and fair, then they believe everyone else will also have an outstanding experience as well. “This is not about handouts,” Kate says. “No one I know wants a job they haven’t worked for. It’s about a level playing field.”
What are your thoughts? How would major tech platforms be different if they had designed for underrepresented people first?
By definition, as a company scales rapidly, it adds people quickly. There are many things about this that are difficult, but a vexing one has to do with the leadership team.
Often times, the wrong people are in senior positions. The faster a company grows, or the less experienced the CEO is (e.g. a first time founding CEO), the more likely it is a problem. Per Fred Wilson’s famous post What A CEO Does, this is one of the three key responsibilities of a CEO.
“A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”
I’ve slightly modified in my brain to be that a great CEO has to do three things well. These three things. They can be great at many other things, but if they don’t do these three well, they won’t be successful long term.
Let’s focus on “recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company.” This is where the vexing part comes in. As a company grows from 25 to 50 to 100 to 200 to 500 to 1000 people, the characteristics of who is the very best talent in leadership roles will change. It’s rarely the case that your leadership team at 1000 people is the same leadership team you had a 25 people. However, the CEO is often the same person, especially if it’s a founder.
Stress on fast growing companies comes from a lot of different places. The one that is often the largest, and creates the most second order issues, is the composition of the leadership team. More specifically, it’s specific people on the leadership who don’t have the scale experience their role requires at a particular moment in time.
Take a simple example. Imagine a 50 person company. Now, consider a VP Engineering who has never worked in a company smaller than 5,000 people. His last job was VP Engineering on top of a division representing 25% of the development resources of a very large company, reporting up to the division president. By definition he has never worked in a company that grew from 50 people to 100 people in a 12-month period. He might argue that he’s seen that kind of growth within a segment of the company, but he’s never experienced it working directly for a CEO of a small, rapidly growing company.
In comparison, consider a VP of Engineering who has worked in three different companies. She started with one that grew from 20 to 200 and was acquired. The next one grew from 5 to 100 and then shrunk again to 10 before being acquired. The one you are recruiting her from grew from 100 to 1000 while she was in the role and is still going, but she’s now tired of the larger company dynamic and wants to get back to a smaller, fast growing company.
Which one sounds like a better fit? I hope you chose the second one – she’s a much better fit in my book.
Now, here’s the magic trick – if you are a CEO who is interviewing for a new member of your leadership team, ask the person you are interviewing if they have every been in the same role as a company that grew from size -50% to +200% of yours. So if you are the CEO of the 50 person company, you are looking for someone who has been in at least one company that grew from 25 to 100 people. Ideally, they participated in growth to a much larger scale, but at a minimum they should bracket these numbers.
Now, ask her to tell you the story of the company, the growth experience, how she built and managed her team, and how she interacted with the rest of the team. Keep digging into the dynamics she had with the CEO, with other executives, and with the people who worked for her. Focus a lot on a size you will be in a year so you know how she’s going to handle what’s in front of her.
Remember – you are looking for competence fit and culture fit. By using this approach, you are exploring both, in your current and near term context.
In the Startup Communities, I talk extensively about leaders and feeders. I assert than anyone in the startup community should be able to start / create / do anything that is helpful to the startup community. They don’t have to ask permission – there is no VP Activities in a startup community. I also talk about how the students are the precious and most valuable resource of a university.
This morning I got the following email from Fletcher Richman, a student at CU. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about and it is immediately actionable for every entrepreneur in Boulder and Denver.
Dear Founders and Friends,
As students at CU Boulder, we have noticed that there are many startups that would love hire more interns and full time employees from the university, and lots of students would love to work at a startup. However, there seems to be a disconnect between the two.
We would like to fix this issue. We have created a simple form to get a better idea of the positions available for students at startups that we would greatly appreciate if you could fill out:
The data from this form will be used for two things:
1) To help start an online startup jobs and internships board for students that we are currently building.
2) To build a contact list of companies for the Students2Startups fair early next year, which will be bigger and better than ever before!
Thank you so much for your help! Please let us know if you have any questions.
So – what are you waiting for. Go sign up to hire some CU Students!
This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Cultural Fit Trumps Competence. Also, I’m going to be doing online office hours with the WSJ on Friday 12/21 at 3pm ET – join and ask questions!
The first people you hire in your startup are critical to your company’s success. So it’s easy to say that you need to hire the “absolute best people you can find.” But what does this actually mean?
Take two different spectrums – (1) competence and (2) cultural fit. Imagine that you have a spectrum for each person – from low to high.
Now, you obviously will not hire someone who is low on both competence and cultural fit. And you obviously will hire someone who is high on both competence and culture fit. But what about the other two cases?
Many people default into choosing people who have high competence but a low cultural fit. This is a deadly mistake in a startup, as this is exactly the wrong person to hire. While they may have great skills for the role you are looking for, the overhead of managing and integrating this person into your young team will be extremely difficult. This is especially true if they are in a leadership position, as they will hire other people who have a cultural fit with them, rather than with the organization, creating even more polarization within your young company.
In contrast, people with low competence but a high culture fit are also not great hires. But if they are “medium” competence, or high competence on in a related role, or early in the career and ambitious about learning new skills, they may be worth taking a risk on.
While you always want to shoot for high competence, high cultural fit people when you are hiring early in your company’s life, it’s always better to chose cultural fit over competence when you have to make a choice.
If you are interested in working with a company that is an expert at figuring this out, go take a look at RoundPegg.
If you are looking for a cool job in the bay area, go take a look at the recruiting event happening on 10/5/12 organized by a bunch of our portfolio companies searching for amazing folks.
The neat thing to me about this is that my partners and I had nothing to do with this – it was completely self-organized by the CEOs of the companies in which we’ve invested in the bay area. We have a very active internal CEO list and I saw a thread about this that started a week ago and then generated a long thread as the CEOs decided to do it and figured it out. I’m sitting with Seth, Jason, and Ryan after a long (awesome) day together doing email and watching football and Jason said “hey – did you see the tweet about the bay area recruiting event!”
It’s another example of the power of the network that I believe is rapidly dominating the way we live and work. No one asked permission. No one had to get approval. It is a great idea – and it just got implemented fast.
If you are looking for a new gig, our friends at Datahero, Sifteo, Awe.sm, Singly, Mongolab, Authentic8, and Pantheon want to hang out with you. Go sign up for the event on 10/5/12 from 6pm – 8pm. It’s free and there will be food, drink, cool tech, and great people.
Once again we are in a zone where hiring software developers is incredibly challenging. The market is fully employed and while there is some movement between companies, great developers tend to be decided to what they are doing for a while, especially in an entrepreneurial context.
Last night I was at Angel Boot Camp in Boston. It was a dinner for about 50 angel investors – a mix of experienced ones and new ones – organized by Jon Pierce. A few of us (including me) gave short talks and there was a long, vibrant room wide group conversation.
Angus Davis followed me for the short talks. He had a bunch of great ideas, but one stood out. He said something like:
“If you want to recruit great software developers, show up at the computer science lab with a bunch of pizza the night before a major project is due.”
While he said this in the context of recruiting software developers, I think this is true of building relationships with anyone in college you are interested in working with. Just show up and bring pizza. Just show up and do something memorable that is helpful in the moment. Just show up and be generous with your time. Engage and go to where the people are, rather than wait for them to come to you, because they won’t.
This afternoon I’m teaching a class at Harvard with Jeff Bussgang and then tonight I’m teaching a class at MIT with Ken Zolot. I haven’t decided what version of pizza I’m bringing, but Angus’ line made me think about always showing up with something that everyone will remember, in addition to simply showing up in the first place, which is probably the most important point of all.
Chris Dixon had an excellent post yesterday titled Recruiting programmers to your startup. The post, and the comments, are full of super useful stuff that every entrepreneur should read carefully.
I sent the link for the post out to the Foundry Group CEO email list and it generated a great discussion thread, including one of the companies sharing their full day interview / evaluation process which includes a four hour coding exercise. Among the feedback was a great short list of four addition things that Niel Robertson, the CEO of Trada (and an amazing programmer in his own right) has learned over the years.
- Be careful who you pick to do the interviewing. You want to showcase your best engineers in the process balanced with those who are good interviewers (which can be wildly different)
- Have an awesome engineering process that you are pros at and can showcase in the interview. We lost a great candidate because our process was in flux and he sussed out our eng management wasn’t committed to the new way
- Program with the person live. You can do this on a whiteboard or on a computer. We’re going to move to the on a computer version. Over and over I’m hearing this is the best way to learn someone’s skills
- Reference check – oh man how many times do I have to learn this lesson.
Trada, like many of the companies we’ve invested in, had spectacular growth (both revenue, customers, and headcount) in 2011. They, and others, continue to aggressively search for great software developers to join their team – when I look at the Foundry Group Jobs page I see well over 100 open positions for developers across our portfolio and I know this list undercounts since not all of the companies we are investors in are listed there.
It’s an extremely tight hiring market for software developers right now. I expect this to continue for a while given the obvious supply / demand imbalance for great people. So – if you are hiring – read Chris’s post and be thoughtful about how you go about this. And, if you have comments for him, me, or Niel about how to do this even better, please offer them up!
I can’t remember when Angela Baldonero joined Return Path, but she’s been there for as long as I can remember. I invested in Return Path eleven years ago at the very beginning of its life. Today it is a profitable, 250 person company that is growing quickly, dominates its market segment, and is an awesome place to work. Angela has been a big part of both hiring many of the people and orchestrating the culture of the company so I very much value her point of view on interviewing. I hope you do also.
Everything is data. The candidate’s responsiveness during the interview process, how the candidate treats the admin staff, and the candidate’s ability to communicate is data. Are you interviewing someone for a tech leadership role who doesn’t have a skype account? Data point. Do you fly a candidate out for interviews who then nickels and dimes you on expenses? Data point. Does your candidate send a thank you note? Data point. Is it well written and specific or a lame generic note? Data point.
Give the candidate feedback and see what she does with it. People are wiggy about feedback. Someone who is self-aware and mature will take it in and own it, then makes sense of how she had that impact. An immature person will get defensive or refute it.
Never sacrifice your culture. Highly qualified yet bad attitude hires wreak havoc with your culture, suck up a ton of management bandwidth and ultimately don’t get anything done. It doesn’t matter if the candidate has cured cancer or invented Jell-o. An asshole is an asshole. Fiercely protect your culture.
People can’t help but be themselves. The interview process is flawed. People are “acting” in order to get a job. You want to know how this person really is to see if they’re a good fit at your company. Interviews take time and people can only fake it for so long. If they’re “putting on a show” in the interview process, that will eventually be revealed.
Give you candidate something to do. This creates a bit of productive stress and shows you what they’re made of. For example, ask a sales person to do a presentation. We’ve axed many sales people because they fell apart during the presentation.
Many of the companies I’m an investor in are hiring a lot of people right now. For a current view, take a look at the Foundry Group jobs page. I’ve interviewed and hired a lot of people over the year and I’ve developed my own perspective and philosophy on the best way to do this. However, I don’t feel like I have all the answers so I asked a few people that I respect a lot (and fit in my definition of VP of People) to weigh in with their thoughts.
Ring Nishioka from BigDoor is up first. I’ve loved working with Ring over the past year as he’s helped grow the BigDoor team from five people when I first invested to the 20 or so people it is today. Ring totally gets it, has a great interviewing philosophy, and also has a fun blog called HRNasty. Enjoy.
Interviewing sets the tone of the culture to everyone that comes into the company. This is the very first exposure to the company. It can be an effective tool to use to not only set the culture with new hires but to reinforce the culture to existing hires involved during interviews. If you want a culture of teamwork, reinforce that during the interview process. If you want a culture of “always closing” reinforce that. Ring the bell during an interview and let the candidate know you celebrate closers.
I believe that everyone who comes into contact with a candidate should go through interview training. Even if the person doing the interviewing is a senior person, they should hear from the HR department what the company’s interviewing philosophy is. Just because they understand the Microsoft interviewing philosophy and conducted interviews there for 10 years doesn’t mean they know how to interview at a small startup, or what that start up is looking for. Interviewers should understand exactly what the company is looking for in the position, what specific questions need to be asked and how to represent the culture. If your company uses Behavioral Interviewing, that should be shared.
The candidate should have a consistent experience between interviews. Interviews hopefully consist of the following:
- Introduction from the person doing the interview including name, role, and tenure, and what they like about working with the company.
- Offer of a beverage and the opportunity to use the restroom.
- Explanation of what will happen during the interview. (We have some questions for you, I’d like to be able to answer any questions you have at the end, HR will tell you what your next steps are)
When I worked in Corporate America, we would dedicate an entire day to interview training through an interviewing class. A long time you think? This is the vehicle that will vet out the folks that you are going to pay 1000’s of dollars a year, maybe 100’s of thousands. Why wouldn’t you invest a little time into interview training? This will be way too long for most startups, but again, interview training can reinforce the culture. We had a lot of exercises including mock interviews in this class. We wanted folks to complete six mock interviews before letting them loose on our next potential candidate and chasing them to the competition. At BigDoor, I spend about one hour explaining our philosophy and then follow up with candidate specific training.
Even if the candidate is not qualified, you don’t want the candidate walking out of the interview feeling crushed, dumb, or stupid. Even if they are dumb or stupid you want them to walk out of the interview wanting to work with your company. Sometimes, when folks are not able to answer an interview question, the person doing the interview feels like they are wasting their time and body language conveys this. There is nothing worse than feeling put out while going through an interview process.
If the candidate isn’t a fit now, they may be a fit for another position in six months or two years. You want the candidate feeling like your company is a great place to work and remembering the experience as one of the best, especially if they made it through a few rounds. You want them telling their friends and family about your company, your openings, your products and especially your team. Just like we all share are car buying stories, we all share our interview stories. This is free advertising and the person that you are interviewing probably has friends with similar interests.
Most of our initial interviews are at a local coffee shop. I am trying to create a situation where the candidate is a little less nervous, and it is a more of a personal atmosphere. I want to create a personal connection between our company and the candidate. This isn’t something that most recruiters at the larger companies will do, and can set us apart. I want to see the best in a candidate; I don’t want to see their “nervous worst.” Some folks will feel like if they aren’t able to perform in a job interview, they won’t perform in the work environment. I believe that if you have the support of your peers, you know what is expected of you, you will perform better. You don’t have either of these in a sterile interview room.