Building a company requires great people, but where do you find them, and how do you get them in the door? Whether you are planning on hiring one, two or even twenty people in the next few months, what follows is a little bit of collected wisdom garnered from hiring for Freshbooks. We’ve only been at this for five years, so take our advice with a grain of salt. However, if you’re interested in putting together a team for building kick-ass web applications (and I know you are!) I think you’ll find a few gems in here.
Phase I: Lead Generation
1. Where to start
Strategy – Do you have one? You should. Hiring decisions are an integral part of a company’s overall strategy, particularly in the dot.com world of start-ups. Have a plan. Do not just go and hire blindly unless you are simply looking to fill some empty seats.
Look carefully at the points of pain in your organization. Where are the signs of wear and tear?
How many? Figure out whether you are going through a major growth spurt or simply looking to stretch your numbers a little.
2. Put out the bait
If you want to attract exceptional people, choose your bait carefully – narrow-cast your desired employable audience. Here’s how:
Go straight to their hearts. Speak to what makes them happy. Looking for developers? Make reference to obscure coding languages with high geek credibility.
Offer a casual dress code? Tell them they can wear their ThinkGeek shirts every day!
Make them salivate. Hack-offs? Choice of tools? Do not be afraid to put the wares out front.
Be specific about what you are looking for. Great people are driven, and know what they want. The more you tell them, the more likely it is that the potential employee will enter a mutually beneficial partnership with an employer that is suited to them, or recognize that this is not a fit for them and apply elsewhere.
3. Go hunting
It’s time to post that snappy job description, but where? The job description narrows the search, but you want to cast the net widely to ensure that your message gets to the right people. It’s hardly scientific, but here’s what we have used and our results:
Workopolis: A popular generic job search site exclusive to Canada that is similar to Monster. If you are trying to fill several positions with fairly flexible criteria this is probably fine, but in our experience all you will get for your trouble is a greater quantity of average quality resumes for an exorbitant price tag.
craigslist: An economic option: posting in Toronto is free, and most U.S. cities carry a very nominal fee, though the quality of applicants will vary widely (read: you are certain to amass some amusing resume-blunder gems).
LinkedIn: Good for finding people who are marketing- and business-oriented. This is especially true if you are looking for MBA-types. One small caveat: you will sicken very quickly of the sight of the word “synergy”.
University career sites: We have had varied success with university career sites. Pros: Postings are generally free. If you want someone smart, green and keen, this is the place to find them! Cons: If you are looking for someone with experience, a fresh grad won’t cut it.
Specifically for developers:
Joel On Software: Overall, the quality of resumes received through this site was much higher, as was the overall fit of the applicants. The simple fact that job seekers are aware of Joel Spolsky’s site means they are more likely to be interested in keeping in touch with what is going on in the software industry. It is highly recommended that you post on this site, especially if you are looking for savvy and self-motivated developers.
37Signals: We have found the quality and quantity of resumes through 37Signals to be disappointing, and not worth the cost.
Some final thoughts on job posting
Community presence is huge. Post your job description on websites that are community-oriented. Consider sponsoring events where ideal candidates are likely to congregate, such as industry-organized events, conferences, and profession-oriented blogs, etc.
Offer a bounty. Tantalize current employees and outsiders alike with the opportunity to profit from their excellent recruiting skills. Community bloggers will not need to be told twice to spread the word!
Use social networking sites. Put the word out to trusted colleagues and friends through places like Facebook and LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to send out a group email with the job posting. While your friends might briefly hate you for it, they will vouch for you, and that friend of a friend who feels like they’ve just hit the dream job jackpot will love you.
Based on your budget and the amount of roles that need filling, consider a recruiter. Personally, I have yet to be swayed by the pitch of a headhunter, but seeing as I receive calls from their kind everyday, I have to assume that they must be able to convince at least a few hiring managers out there that their candidates are worth the, er, overhead!
Phase II: Candidate Qualification
The roles have been posted, and now the resumes are (hopefully) pouring in. It’s triage time! Here are a few hints to make the process slightly less painful:
No cover letter? Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Cover letters are essential: they provide the candidate with a chance to let their personality shine through, and contextualize the content of their resume.
Typos, grammatical errors, and fragmented sentences = Fail. Why? The candidate’s resume is their calling card. It is the only thing we have to go on at this stage in the process and it’s a pretty darn crucial piece of information. When it is clear that the candidate failed to put their resume through a simple spell-check, or did not follow up on the errors that a spell-check does not catch, it indicates to me a laziness and lack of attention to detail on the part of the candidate that is hardly a desirable attribute in a would-be employee.
Long-winded resumes from fresh grads with no experience = Fail. If the applicant has only had one job since graduating, and her resume is six pages long, she is unable to grasp the concept of brevity. How is this candidate going to be able to communicate effectively if they require an entire page to describe their summer job filing at a doctor’s office? Brevity is key.
Look for a candidate who is enthusiastic about working at your company. A candidate passionate about their profession is great; a candidate passionate about making a contribution to your organization is better; the rest will surely follow. Look for specific reference to the position the candidate is applying for, but expect a line or two about your organization in a way that indicates that he or she has done some research.
Be wary of generic resumes. Nothing ails me more than reading through an application that outlines skills in the broadest sense so that it can be email-blasted to several company HR links at once. Even worse is the resume that refers to another company’s job posting!
5. Telephone interview
Why bother with a telephone interview? It’s a great way to further weed out applicants prior to the face-to-face interview stage, particularly if communication skills and customer facing-phone detail comprise a big part of the role. It also saves time for both the potential employer and employee. Here at Freshbooks, evaluating candidates involves a panel of interviewers and multiple interviews. While extremely vital to getting the right people in the door, it is a resource drain. A quick phone chat rarely takes more than ten minutes, only necessitates one interviewer, and can help prevent lower-quality candidates getting to the interview room.
To make calls more efficient:
Have a set number of questions handy. Tailor them to the role that the candidate is applying for: this makes it easier to compare answers among applicants.
Use common sense to evaluate the interviewee’s performance based on what the role requires. Is this person going to be on the phone all day with your customers? If so, you had better feel charmed by the warmth of their timbre across that telephone line!
And now, the pièce de résistance: the interview. Arguably this is the most important part of the process in hiring your organization’s future rock stars. Some people pride themselves on only needing one interview to “know”. This is pure hubris. Multiple interviews work best to solidify that you have the right candidate in front of you. Ask yourself what you are hiring for? At Freshbooks, we hire for skills and fit, and formulate the interviews accordingly.
Do they have the skills?
Make sure the candidate has the skills that they purport to have. Ensure that the interviewing panel for the first interview is comprised of staff from the department that the candidate is hoping to join. Developers should be assessing the merits of other developers. Chances are, regular folk, like me, are going to be unable to distill the candidate’s answer as to why the local-only use of first-class references is crucial when implementing binary trees with minimum weighted path length from weighted leaf nodes given in symmetric order in non-strict, statically-typed languages that don’t permit side effects. (Um, thanks Justin!).
Ask open-ended questions. Let the applicant do most of the talking.
Do not be satisfied with blank statements. “I boosted our sagging sale numbers”. How? Were you directly responsible for the company’s turnaround, or were you part of a team? Ask for specific examples. Probe further. And further. Ok…keep going…annnnd…let’s see where this rabbit hole leads.
Did the candidate do his research? Don’t expect him to know every little detail about your organization, but he should know enough to indicate that he has taken the time to get to know more about your product or service, and what drives your company. A standard question for those interviewing at Freshbooks is to ask whether they have tried the application. Points too for looking at the screen shots.
Cultivate a list of favorite questions Prune it according to what works and what doesn’t.
Give the candidate the opportunity to ask questions If they don’t have any, hoist a warning flag. Where’s the curiosity, the passion, and the excitement? This represents the candidate’s opportunity to interview the company. Who conducts an interview without asking any questions? Answer: someone who is wasting your time.
Watch for body language and eye contact. Need a gregarious outgoing marketer? If the dude in front of you hasn’t yet lifted his eyes from the hands folded nervously in his lap, chances are, he’s not going to be successfully converting visitors at your trade show booth into customers.
Personality has nowhere to hide in an interview Unless, of course, the candidate doesn’t have one. In that case, thank them for their time and move on to the next hopeful.
Are they a fit? Will you be able to sit next to this person day in day out without “going postal”? Check.
Ask the applicant if she has any favorite books or bloggers in their field. You want someone who follows the trends of their profession and is passionate about what they do. In other words, someone with drive.
Quality control. When conducting multiple panel interviews, make sure that you have one person who sits in on every session to ensure consistency on the part of the applicant, even if it’s just as a silent observer in subsequent interviews. Think of it as quality control as you’d be amazed how a candidate’s performance can vary from one interview to the next.
Immediately after conducting each interview, have a huddle session with your fellow panel members. Go over the pros and cons of the candidate in question.
Ensure the democracy of the exercise by allowing each panelist to have his or her say.
Form your own opinion, but be prepared to back it up. “I just didn’t like the guy” is not going to cut it.
Have the manager weigh in last. Although everyone’s opinion should have bearing on the final decision, ensure that it is clear who will have authority to veto a hiring decision. Generally, this should be the department manager.
Note: A manager who hires someone against the stated wishes of his or her team risks causing friction among the group and threatening the democratic nature of the panel hiring process. Be ready for the possibility of mutiny. You’ve been warned!
8. Reference Checks
The ubiquitous reference check is not given its proper due. Just ask any hiring manager who has had to put the brakes on a hire after a less than stellar reference call, myself included. It is not so much what the referee says about the individual, but rather what it says about the candidate who chose his or her referees so poorly.
You will want to keep the same things in mind when conducting reference checks as you do in interviews:
If possible – and this is important – get a minimum of three references, with the following criteria: a direct report, a peer and a subordinate. You want to ensure that the candidate can dish it out just as well as she can take it, and that she is a team player.
Ask open-ended questions.
Let the referee do most of the talking.
When listening, do not simply run down a list of questions Follow through on what the referee mentions about the candidate. Ask for qualifications to each statement. Details and examples are crucial. If too much time has passed for the referee to recall any useful details, ask the candidate for more contacts.
Funny story: In one case, I had a referee state that all she could remember about the candidate is that she “had a nice smile”. When it was decided that an additional reference was needed, the same applicant provided someone who, as became evident over the course of the call, was her significant other. Worse still, she was clearly present during the call, coaching his responses. Oops. Imagine if she was given access to the nuclear codes?! Ghastly.
Phase III: Closing the deal
Time to present the goods. What are you willing to offer your candidate?
Ask for the individual’s compensation expectations. This should take place face-to-face after the final interview in order to make sure that expectations are aligned. Make a decision on whether you will match their expectations, and if you are low-balling, be prepared to explain why.
Play up to your company’s strengths. In many cases, pay is not the be-all and end-all. Ask yourself what is it about your organization that makes it a great place to work? Benefits, a stellar office space, casual dress code, flexible hours, high ceilings. If you’re not sure, ask your colleagues (hopefully they won’t just stare at you in dumbfounded silence).
Tailor the offer to the individual if necessary. Perhaps you cannot meet the applicant’s salary expectations, but you know that she is planning on joining a gym in the neighborhood. Throw in one year’s membership cost. These small gestures play up to the applicant’s individuality and indicate that you are listening to what’s important to him or her.
Congratulations! Your work is done right? Wrong! The first few days are crucial in establishing a new hire’s sense that they made the right decision by accepting your offer. If establishing a company culture matters to you (and it should), have an onboarding schedule in place that ensures your new employee will be well integrated.
Introduce your newbie to everyone in the office. Don’t assume that they already know someone because they have met during the interview.
Work station is set-up and ready to go This seems like a small feat, but think back at how it felt when you started at that last company and you didn’t have a computer or desk of your own for the first two months? Pretty awful and insignificant, I’ll bet.
Take them out to lunch on their first day. Take the new employee out for lunch in the neighborhood. It’s a great way to get to know each other in a casual setting, and show the new hire around (and most importantly, introduce them to the local lunch options!).
Teach your staff to be gracious with new employees at all times Establishing a culture of inclusivity and openness is the best way to retain the interest of new staff in those crucial first few weeks. Ensure that they are smoothly integrated, and that the newbie feels comfortable enough to ask questions.
Building a web app? Have a program in place that provides exposure to the product, the customer and culture from day one. If you are building a web app, you already know how crucial it is for your team to know the product, but don’t underestimate the importance of knowing your users. Some companies have a mandatory rule about getting to know the company from the bottom-up (think Procter & Gamble) by starting in sales, no matter what role the employee was hired into. Support is like sales for web apps – it’s a customer-facing role that’s a great place to start for anyone joining your company.
Hiring is a process: don’t forget. Like your software development process and your design process, there is room for continuous iteration and improvement. Surrender to the process and let it evolve.
Good luck building your kick-ass team!