People I don’t want in my startup

Amazon has a wonderful ‘bar raiser’ process to ensure that the people being hired increase the overall quality of the team they are being hired for. The thumb rule for any new candidate is this:

Candidate quality >= Average (Existing team quality)

It’s elegant in its simplicity and more importantly (for me personally), it puts things in engineering terms. This simple filter during every hire process ensures that the candidates being hired are constantly improving the team and driving the bar upwards.

While this works beautifully for larger teams and companies with set roles and clear, well-articulated culture, it becomes a difficult rule to implement in the case of a start-up where culture and roles are nebulous and usually inside people’s heads.

That thought has firmed up over the last 8 weeks when I’ve thrust myself into a role that demands me to cook up reality from ideas and vision. This goes into my to do list as: Articulating vision, generating tangible short terms goals, creating roles (within the nebulous order), grooming leaders, designing teams and showing results.

I began with certain thumb rules on the typical profile of people I want on this journey. Some rules got validated, some were proven wrong and new rules were added to this. But one thing became very clear:

When it comes to picking people, 9 out of 10 times I am rejecting rather than selecting.

Since rejection was such an important component of the regular hiring process, I have begun to try and formalize what would push a candidate to rejection. These are the alarm bells that would ring in my head and if one too many rang, the benefit of doubt gets cancelled. Usually its certain phrases or responses that trigger these.

#1: My role is too monotonous and mundane in a big company, hence startup

Big red flag. Usually the candidate follows it up with a statement like: I would be able to do different types of roles in a startup.

Reason for rejecting: 9 times out of 10, the candidate is looking for quick fix to doing something interesting at work. This is a slippery slope. There is usually lack of ownership and willingness to go through the grind to pull something off.

#2: What would be my designation? Can you change my designation from X to Y?

Candidates who focus on the designation are usually the first to go update their LinkedIn profile after the job change.

Reason for rejecting: Clearly the candidate is looking for resume value. The thought process is usually like this: getting x here will increase my perceived value in the market -> helps me get y role in the future. Not coming in with the right attitude.

#3: Will I be held accountable for targets where I had a dependency on other teams to execute?

These candidates are usually worried about how their performance in their given role would be measured. Most times this is followed up with questions on what would happen if another team — whom they are dependent on — screw up. Would they be penalized?

Reason for rejecting: Some of these questions may even be a good thing in a bigger organization. It shows clarity of thought process in terms of role and in most cases one can expect the candidate to drive their allotted responsibility in a dedicated, organized manner. For a startup, these questions are self-defeating. Roles are nebulous. Only problems and their solutions should matter. There are no clear teams. The lines are blurry. You’d need everyone moving towards a common goal rather than looking at local optima.

#4: No questions

These candidates understand your vision clearly and they know the business model immediately after you’ve given them your spiel.

Reason for rejecting: Really? Did he/she just get everything in one shot? Or, do they just not care. Either way, alarm bells!

#5: I can express my creativity better in a startup

The same people who whine about the constraining nature of the role in a big company. Those meant to do better, bigger things in the world.

Reason for rejecting: The phrase may not be a bad thing on the face of it. It requires further drilling. But 9 times out of 10, candidates have a notion of creativity that is not rooted in reality. Their fantasy of a startup is of people sitting in front of whiteboards all day and ideating. The reality is that majority of time is spent on execution — the ugly spade work. Quite often you end up choosing between the first few ideas that come up and then go and do it. See if it works. Rinse. Repeat. That may not be in sync with the idea of creative masturbation that these candidates come in with.

The list above is in no way comprehensive or absolute. In fact, hiring is a very personal process that varies wildly depending on the person / organization doing it. I will keep adding to this as I learn more.

A general rule of thumb I use on candidates is testing their emphasis on learning as opposed to emphasis on achieving.