Dharmesh Shah

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How To Hire Hackers: A Realistic Guide For Startups

By Dharmesh Shah on November 15, 2012

The following is a guest post by Iris Shoor. She's a co-founder at Takipi, a new startup looking to change the way developers work in the cloud. Previously, she was co-founder at VisualTao, a B2B startup acquired by Autodesk.

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Call them hackers, ‘ninjas’, or ‘rock stars’ if you’d like. Other than being very talented developers, they all share one thing in common -- it’s unbelievably hard to bring them on-board your company. And as if competing with other companies for the same talent was not enough, being a startup just adds more challenges to the equation. Your startup may be the next Google/Facebook/Instagram, but until then - how can you convince the best developers out there to join a company where the CEO’s office is an IKEA desk? Here’s one answer -- recruit like a startup, in a creative and agile way, doing things the way big companies can’t. During the last 5 years I’ve interviewed over 250 candidates and recruited dozens of great engineers. The first interviews took place in our tiny office’s kitchen, and we still managed to convince some of the best candidates to join. There aren’t any magic tricks involved, but here are some tips and methods which helped us get ninjas, rock stars and other highly talented people on-board.

You’re a startup -- have the founders make the first contact.

We lose many potential candidates even before the starting line - we fail to bring them over for a first interview. Some are already talking with too many companies, or decide after a brief visit to your web-site that your startup just isn’t their thing. That’s the point where you can make a difference. Our co-founders (including myself) are in charge of sending the first e-mail to potential candidates. We’ve kept this habit even as we’ve grown. At first, I was worried some candidates may think we have too much free time on our hands (sadly, we don’t). I soon found out that when candidates receive a personal and flattering e-mail (important when it comes to star developers) from a co-founder, it sends a message that this startup is all about its employees. Here are some helpful points for writing the first email:
  • Link to your online profile (personal blog, an interview with you, a YouTube video) when introducing yourself. Once there’s a face behind the email you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  • Add a personal touch. Have other employees who went to the same college? Mention it. Grew up in the same town? Write it down. It might sound irrelevant, but it creates the first hook, enough to have them come over for a meeting.

Interviewing: It’s not just about the role, it’s also about who they will have lunch with.

While we tend to tell candidates everything about the role, the managers and the company, there’s one part that’s usually missing - who will they work with? One of the most common answers I get when asking people why they've chosen one job over the other is knowing other employees there. Let candidates know who'll be sitting next to their (IKEA) desk and sharing their 9GAG jokes.
  • When candidates come for an interview we try to have them meet at least one future co-worker. A candidate asks a good tech question during the interview? Refer him to the engineer working on it instead of answering yourself. Found out the candidate has something in common with one of the employees (skydiving, growing up in Ohio, have a thing for ASCII art)? Introduce them. It’s not something we plan ahead, but given the opportunity, having the candidate stay at the office after the interview chatting with other employees, is considered a success.
  • Don’t interview too early or too late during the day, when the office is empty. If the only time your future star can come in for an interview is 8:00am, make sure some people come early. You want to paint a full picture of what it will be like working at your startup.
[You don’t need a fancy office to make good impression - the small details do the job. Our entrance door has code on it and these are our meeting room custom coasters ]


Interviewing: Choose carefully which opportunity to pitch.

There truly are great things about joining a startup - new technological challenges, opportunities for moving up the ladder more quickly, learning about the business side of things, stock options and more. Don’t sell them all at once. Pitching becoming a manager to an engineer who just wants to experiment with new technologies? Bzzzz -- wrong move -- which might send her elsewhere.
  • Look back - When we first started interviewing we used to ask candidates what they’re looking for. Instead of sharing their true motivations, they answered with what they thought was the ‘right’ answer -- “I just want to work on interesting stuff”. After a while we discovered the magic trick; instead of asking what they’re looking for now, we began asking how they've made previous job decisions. When asked about past decisions, people tend to share what really matters to them.
  • Don’t pitch, give examples - You can’t really promise someone that he or she will become a manager in the future, or only work on interesting stuff. Instead, I tell candidates what talented people who've joined the company a year ago are doing now. This could be how an engineer with no previous management experience is already heading a small team, or how a developer straight out of college is doing such a great job we’ve put her in charge of some very key algorithms.

Signing: How to make candidates sign an employment agreement more quickly.

You've reached the homestretch. The candidate you really liked said yes, and now all is left is to sign the employment agreement. This can turn into a very risky period. The current employer is likely to come with a counter offer and so can other companies.
  • Important: Avoid having your future star waste time on legal issues. To help with this we've decided to have the exact same employment agreement for everyone in the company. Other than the terms themselves, everything is the same - from the number of vacation days down to the small letters. It’s a super friendly agreement and we never change it. Once I tell candidates that everyone -- the CEO, the engineers and myself have all signed the exact same contract, and therefore we can’t change it, it usually takes them only a day or two to sign it. There’s much less need to re-read every part.
  • Scott Weiss from A16Z shares a great tip about the pre-signing period with the ‘Welcome basket’.


How to hear ‘No” and how to say ‘No’

  • Hearing No - Stay in touch with good candidates who chose a different company over yours. When a candidate I really like accepts a different offer over ours I always get the feeling I was dumped. True, I can’t honestly say I don’t understand how can someone pick a great job at Google over a small and unknown startup, but it still hurts. While the easiest thing to do after hearing a ‘No’ is, well, nothing, I try to make one last effort to stay in the picture. There are two main reasons for it : 1). Startups grow quickly. You might have a good candidate who decided a 10 employee company is not for him/her but a year or two later as your company grows it will become much more attractive. 2). Receiving a negative answer usually means you've reached second place. Sometimes, the first choice doesn't turn out to be the dream job they were hoping for. Some candidates don’t feel comfortable getting back in touch after they gave you a negative answer. By making the first move you’re saying that everything is fine and we’re still interested in you. Yes, it’s very much like dating. How to keep yourself in the picture? I like to send FB friend requests to candidates, and that’s something that you can do only as a startup (it can get pretty awkward when done by someone from a large company). Facebook is a great platform to share how well your startup is doing over the years. I also like sending an email once every 4-6 months, sharing how we’re doing and asking how’s everything going. I found out that most people find it friendly (and somehow flattering) rather than annoying.
  • Saying No - giving a smart negative answer will help you reach other great engineers in the future. I often ask myself how I would have liked to receive a “No”. My answer is that I would like to hear the truth. Instead of using the default answer of “we've decided to continue the process with someone else”, I write the (sometime hard) truth- “You didn't pass the technical test’, ‘you don’t seem like a startup kind of guy’, ‘it seems like you’re more interested in managing and that’s something we can’t offer right now’. I also make sure to write some of the things I liked about the candidate. True, there are some cases you can’t write the real reason, but in most cases you can. I was terrified when I sent the first 100% sincere email, but I soon found out that candidates embrace this, and usually agree with the reason. Now comes the interesting part - instead of feeling rejected, most people rightly feel they interviewed for the wrong role. Once you don’t ‘break-up’ with them, you can ask them to recommend friends or co-workers they think could fit the position. Yep, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Even if you don’t get a new lead, rest assured you’ll have a past candidate saying good things about your company, and that’s something great in itself.

How about you? Any lessons you've learned while trying to hire great developers for your team? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Topics: guest recruiting
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How A 17-Year-Old In India Bootstrapped To $7M In Revenue

By Dharmesh Shah on November 8, 2012

The following is a guest post written bySanket Nadhani. He previously headed Marketing and Sales at FusionCharts and just launched an eBook on the complete journey of the company on its tenth birthday.

FusionCharts was founded in 2002 by my brother, Pallav Nadhani, in a quest for more pocket money. The charts people used on the web those days were Excel-type charts that were a pain to use, sat heavy on the servers often sending them crashing and burning, and generated deathly-dull output at the end of it all. FusionCharts came in with sexy, animated and interactive charts that were a breeze to use and installed the copy-paste way. Today, it has 20,000 customers and 450,000 users in 118 countries, powers more than a billion charts per month and clocks $7M in annual revenues. But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is that this is the handiwork of a 17-year old with no business knowledge whatsoever living in India — a land that was nowhere on the product map a decade ago. In this post, I will share the unconventional problems that came our way and the lessons we learnt. Even though I moved on from FusionCharts a year back, I am still going to refer to it as "we" wherever required because that's how much a part of my identity it is. Also, brevity is good.india flag

Wanting to make money is not a bad reason to start up

Ask any entrepreneur why they started up and the reasons would vary from “The project management tool we had didn't cut it for us to “The world of education had been languishing in the dark ages for too long.” And of course, there's that thing this Steve guy said that people love to repeat — I wanted to make a dent in the universe. But “I wanted to make money” is not something you hear of often. It sounds shallow, and most entrepreneurs shy away from it. FusionCharts started as a quest for more pocket money when as a teenager, Pallav needed more money to go bowling and hang out in cafes. Creating an interactive charting library isn't world-changing. It's not even sexy. But it solved his problem of making more pocket money.

It's not just about the product, it's the complete package

People don't want to know what a product can do, they want to know what a product can do for them. So throwing a feature list in their face, no matter how nicely done, is not going to cut it. They need to have the this is itfeeling as soon as they hit your website. And more so, when you are sitting in India trying to sell to Fortune 500 companies around the world. Right from the early days, FusionCharts has had real-life business demos on its website. Sales dashboards, KPI monitors, network monitoring systems, and all of them with actual business data. Of course, we could have just put out the product with an extensive feature list and expected people to give us all their money. But instead we decided to put in hours conceptualizing the demos, gathering real-life data (dirty dirty job!) and then finally implementing them. But the end result was worth the effort. Project and product managers from large enterprises would come to the website with a picture of the dashboard they need in their head, see that we have a sales dashboard, click on it and go wow. This is exactly what I am looking for. They would then ask their development team to check it out and let them know if it was good to go. So what would otherwise take three phone calls and seven emails took all of five minutes of the manager's time, and no involvement from us at all.

Fighting fraud with freemium

Every time an organization is faced with a big problem, the kind that shifts the ground beneath their feet, they just start throwing resources at it. Big money, top people. But it doesn't have to be that way — big problems often have small inexpensive solutions. FusionCharts was commercially open source from day one. The idea behind making the source code available was that people would feel safe about buying from an unknown company from India. Even if FusionCharts turned out to be a fly-by-night operator or went down in crashing, burning flames for whatever reason, they could keep their charting up-to-date by building on the source code. However, this credibility-establishing factor almost spelt doom for FusionCharts. A company from Eastern Europe picked up the source code, made some small changes to it and started selling it as their own product for a cheaper price. Of course, they had to be sued. But going the legal way needed a lot of time and money, both of which FusionCharts didn't have at that point in time. So when a new version of FusionCharts was launched, the previous version was launched as FusionCharts Free. It was free to use in both personal and commercial projects, no strings attached. What the infringers were selling for slightly cheaper could be had from the original developers itself, for free. No one has tried pulling that trick ever again.

Marketing isn't just about money

The release of FusionCharts Free not only helped fend off the infringers, it also helped get the FusionCharts brand name out in markets that were tough to reach otherwise. Developers who are wary of playing with a trial version, believing it comes with some gimmick, got playing with the product and liked what they saw. Some developers built plugins and wrappers around FusionCharts Free for different platforms including GWT, Drupal and Joomla. Startups, who were low on money started using the free version in their product and when they had paying customers, they came back to get the paid version. In essence, FusionCharts Free has done more marketing for FusionCharts than even the best of traditional marketing campaigns.

If you have a picture of the US President using your product, tell the world about it

In 2009, the US national CIO unveiled the Federal IT Dashboard which was designed to give the public a look at the status of thousands of ongoing IT projects in the government. It also tracked the effectiveness of the government's overall IT spending — 600 billion dollars of them. The dashboard was using FusionCharts in plenty, something even Tim O'Reilly made a mention of in an article he wrote. That was a great story to go tell the world about, but it got even better. One of these nights, while idly browsing the web in the middle of the night, we came across a picture of Barack Obama using the Federal IT Dashboard. While we could have told the world how Barack Obama was using FusionCharts as a part of the Federal IT Dashboard, we decided to be bold and shortened it down to Barack Obama uses FusionCharts. And then we went to the mass media with the story. We were covered in many of the leading publications in the country. In fact till today, every coverage on FusionCharts makes a mention of Obama using FusionCharts in one way or the other. After all, how many companies can claim that White House uses their product with a picture to prove it?

Give people more reasons to remember you than just the product

Business isn't just about your product and offering. A large part of it is how people feel about you. A genuine conversation, a good story, they all add up. Every time we have gone to a tradeshow, we make a list of objectives which includes generating sales leads and getting press coverage. But another of those objectives, and a very important one, is to radiate warmth and happiness to every around. Even to people we spend only a minute with. And it reaps rich rewards when we come back to emails from people saying how much they enjoyed meeting us. There have been times when people have commented on a FusionCharts article somewhere on the web just to say that the team is very friendly. Words like those can brighten up even the toughest of days. And then of course, there's the power of a good story. People love stories, no matter how left-brained they are. So when FusionCharts completed a decade of being in business, we decided to write an eBook on the complete journey of the company, with warts and all. And the feedback we have got within a week of launching the book has been touching, to say the least. People who did business with us half a decade ago are writing in just reminiscing about the good old times. Entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs are writing in about how inspiring they found the story. Existing users and customers are writing in to say how they feel like a part of FusionCharts now. There's nothing like a good story.

Final words

A startup founded by a 17-year old in a country without a product ecosystem as such can never be smooth-sailing. But what it can be is extremely satisfying, as you tackle problems both usual and unusual. And extremely satisfying it has been. If you like what you read, check out the complete story of FusionCharts in Not Just Another Pie In The Sky.

What are some of the most unusual lessons you have learnt along your startup journey? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Topics: guest story
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