Hire Like a Startup

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Sep 7, 2017

Nicole Hitner

“It started happening last year, during one of our biggest growth spurts yet.”

VP Technology Scott Epter is sitting across from me, a mug of coffee resting on his knee. We’re talking about Exago’s Client Advisory Board meeting, an annual two-day conference where we employees get to hike, dine, and talk shop with the clients we’ve come to know so well on calls and through email. It’s a high point of our year, getting to interact with these developers and product managers from SaaS companies across the country.

Epter continues, “I remember multiple people coming up and saying, ‘Your team is incredible. How do you find such good people? How do you train them so well? How is it that you have such a collection of high-quality support people working for you?’ So I told them about our stringent hiring process, which you know about.”

I do indeed know about it. Not only did I experience it as an applicant a mere fifteen months ago, but I’ve helped interview at least a dozen potential hires since then. I’m not a manager, and I’m not in HR; but I’m part of the team, and my company has decided that means I have a say in who joins it.

Exago’s staff has nearly doubled in size over the past year and has gotten markedly positive feedback from prospects and clients alike on those hires. We figured we must be doing something right and so decided to share our recruiting practices with the software community at large. Tech startups face a unique set of challenges when it comes to curating talent, and it helps to know how others have navigated those hurdles.

Which brings us to hurdle number-one: finding recruits who will help propel the startup forward.

The Quest for Initiative

Unlike well-established companies, startups need all the manpower they can get to keep the business afloat, but they’re limited in the resources they can put into payroll. This means they need high returns on their hires, but what does this mean in practice?

Startups are famously chaotic and riddled with inefficiencies because they’re still finding their footing. Responding to market pressures, establishing a brand identity, and designing workflows requires tremendous flexibility and continuous revision. New hires therefore can’t just be skilled subject-matter experts—they need to be initiative-takers, too.

We have this whole ‘Be Your Own CEO’ mentality at Exago. It’s a mantra popularized by co-founder and CEO Mike Brody, who begins each company meeting with this message embodying his hiring philosophy. Brody believes that you should “hire people with a long-term perspective” and that the people you hire should be “highly self-motivated to succeed.”  Exago managers look for people matching that description, people who get legitimately excited about having control over their professional lives.

When the startup climate shifts (as it invariably does), creating a need where there wasn’t one before, initiative-takers naturally move to fill that need. They don’t just wear many hats; they collect them.

Epter cautions not to confuse initiative with aggressive careerism, however. “When I talk about people who take initiative,” he says, “I mean people who won’t be content to just stay with the status quo, who will spot inefficiencies in how we do things today and suggest small changes that will make a big difference.”

For high-growth organizations like startups, employees with a knack for spotting and eliminating inefficiencies are invaluable because not only will they do their jobs, they will also free up valuable resources in the process, creating room for growth.

Identifying the initiative-takers in a group of job applicants means discovering what kinds of problems each candidate loves to solve. Interviewers will literally look for a spark of enthusiasm or curiosity from applicants, some evidence to support their claimed interest in a subject. The best candidates display a quintessentially nerdy penchant for sharing their enthusiasm with others; the worst fail to speak knowledgeably on topics they purport to know.

Support Manager Jeff Kalpakis helps devise questions for recruitment interviews but says it’s sometimes the boring or seemingly uninspired questions that get you the insight you’re looking for. “You never know what will get them diving deep into a topic and showing their extensive knowledge on a subject. We look for that inquisitiveness to reveal itself in the interview.”

But of course, initiative isn’t everything in a small business. New recruits need to mesh well with their respective teams and the company as a whole.

Assessing Team Fit

One of the most unconventional things about Exago’s hiring process is the support team’s group interview. After being vetted by phone and interviewed by managers, the job candidate sits at a table with as many as seven or eight would-be coworkers for a team introduction. Each Exago employee has the chance to ask a question, and the candidate is encouraged to ask questions as well. In a quick debrief after the group interview, everyone gets the opportunity to share their impressions of the potential hire.

“So far, we’ve done pretty well with making sure there is a pretty high level of comfort for everyone on the team,” says Epter. “Getting the whole team involved in the hiring process has been good for everybody. It takes more time, but in the end we feel the investment of that time is worth it.”

Kalpakis has worked to refine and systematize the group interview process in recent months. “On some occasions we had so many people participating in the group interview that we feared it would intimidate rather than encourage the job applicant,” he explains. “So we set up a rotation that thins the pack a bit but still involves the whole team.”

I asked Matt Stapylton, a recent Tier 1 support hire, how it felt to go through the team interview as a job applicant. “It felt a little overwhelming at first,” he conceded, “but once I relaxed a bit I really enjoyed it.” (Stapylton had made an impression on the group by explaining that while there are an infinite number of natural numbers and real numbers, there would always be more real numbers than natural numbers. His enthusiasm for the subject proved infectious.) “I liked being able to show my interesting bit of knowledge, and hearing what everyone had to say about working here.”

This stringent hiring process, combined with the technical training required to become an effective agent, has made the Support department a breeding ground for internal hires. It’s not uncommon for software companies to pull support technicians out of their roles and into marketing, sales, product management, or QA. Their product knowledge and verified customer interfacing skills make them prime candidates for advancement in other parts of the company, but that comes with its own challenges.

Sourcing from Support

We learned the hard way that hiring internally from Support has to be done carefully. Toward the end of 2016, three members of the support staff were transferred to other departments in quick succession, and it took time to recover from the resulting imbalance. The remaining support agents had to adjust and absorb the additional work, and the sudden need for new technicians meant having to allocate additional resources to hiring and training. The support team weathered this transition without affecting quality of service, but it wasn’t easy.

In addition to stressing the department, that spate of hiring implied that Support couldn’t offer employees a full professional arc, that they would have to leave the department in order to advance their careers. “Which was a very dangerous thing to imply,” says Epter. “Support has long been a differentiator of ours, so we need our good people to stick around and continue to develop.”

Technical Support Analyst Evan Clark is working to define the career path he himself took to become a Tier 3 technician so that support agents have a more clear path to advancement within the department. “Having a pre-defined path, or set of paths, carved out by the more experienced analysts gives a clear direction towards what a successful Support Analyst would look like,” he explains. “It creates a transparent set of expectations for both the employer and employee.”

As long as software startups source internal hires from departments that have legitimate advancement paths of their own, the company will continue to curate talent using this system. When the source role becomes a mere stepping stone on the path to other departments, those employees start looking for other positions instead of investing in the one they were hired to take.

Our hiring practices will no doubt continue to evolve as Exago grows and its needs change, but right now, we’re happy to share the recruiting policies that have served us so well during our startup stage. In sum: make recruiting a team effort so that you will have an easier time finding high-return hires. And make sure those hires know their value from day one.

 

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