Startup Hiring: 6 Subtle Signs You Might Have A Winner

Written By: Dharmesh Shah May 18, 2007

Many startups that I'm advising, invested in or otherwise involved in, including my own startup, HubSpot, are hiring.  This is a good sign (generally), because growth is usually a sign of success  -- or at least optimism.
As I've written before, hiring for a startup is hard.  Of all the things startups need to do, finding exceptionally talented people that are a good "fit" is likely the hardest.
I've had several meetings in the last couple of weeks with potential recruits. Interestingly, I find that it's usually easy to tell when I'm impressed with someone and think the opportunity is worth exploring further.  What's harder to figure out is why.  So, I gave this some thought and thought about the attributes of some of these recent conversations that signalled to me that I might have a winner.
6 Subtle Signs Your Startup Recruit Might Be A Winner
1.  Strong Opinions, Well Defended:  Just about all of the great people I've ever recruited in my professional career have had opinions.  Strong opinions.  But, it's not enough just to have a strong opinion (lots of people have those).  I like to see people that have strong opinions that are good at explaining why they hold those opinions and defend them well.  On the other hand, people with strong opinions that are weakly defended are not interesting -- they're just stubborn or inarticulate.
2.  Intersecting Disciplines:  My favorite conversations with recruits (I don't really do interviews, I have conversations), are those where we can talk about things other than startups and software development, but still find these conversations somehow "intersecting" (or converging) on some common passions.  I had dinner last night with someone I met for the first time.  Here are some of the things that came up during the course of the dinner conversation: quantum mechanics, degrees in history vs. economics, the quadratic equation and how much math we actually remember, Flex and Silverlight, why Lisp doesn't really provide the startup advantage any more that Paul Graham might think it does, San Diego, the issue with lack of UI abstractions for client-side development, YUI, C# and LINQ.  (That's just what I can remember).  The point is, lots of interesting things happen when non-software discussions intersect software discussions.
3.  Doesn't Feel Like Either Party Is Selling Too Hard:  One thing I hate about "classic" hiring is that it feels too transactional where one or the other side is selling.  My best recruitment efforts were more explorations were neither side was really "selling" and instead the discussion was more collaborative.  If you find yourself having to sell too hard, there's something wrong.  If you find that you are being sold to too hard, there's something wrong.
4.  You Learn Something You Can Use:  For the technical part of the discussion, a good sign that you might have a good recruit on your hands is if you actually, truly learn something that you can use.  It's amazing how many meetings you can have with people that have been working in software for a while, and you don't really learn anything.
5.  Proclivity For Change:  Thinking back on my history, there's a disproportionate number of people I've recruited, that worked out really well, that were already looking to make a big change in their lives.  I'm not talking about job hoppers, but those that are simply not satisified with the status quo and are looking shake things up a bit.  This signals to me folks that have some risk tolerance, don't need to have everything all figured out and are basically willing to "experiment".  Startups, as it turns out, are a series of experiments.  She that can experiment the most often and the most efficiently, wins.
6.  A Palpatable Absence Of The Temptation To Run Screaming:  There are often times when you figure out in the first 10-15 minutes of conversation that the likelihood the person you are talking to is going to work out.  That happens  The right (in a business sense and a politeness sense) to do is to not pass judgement too early because.  They've spent the time to meet with you, you saw something there that warranted the meeting.  Make the most of it.  But, there are times when you not only want the meeting to be over, but you want to run screaming.  For those wondering where the sub-title for this bullet came from, I have to give a head nod to Douglas Adams:  "...the ships float in the air the way that bricks don't..."
Apologies if this particular thread of reasoning is a bit disjointed.  I was up until 4:00 a.m. in the morning last night working on stuff and I'm not feeling energetic enough to actually weave a well-constructed article.  That's the great thing about blogging.  I don't have to.
Let me know if you have any signs or signals of your own that you've found are highly correleated with exceptional talent. 

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