Recruiting and Interviewing Tips for Early Stage Startups

I'm in Mountain View for a few days this week, at 500 Startups (two days with their new Batch 9 companies, and then Demo Day for Batch 8).  So, yeah, it's going to be a fun week!

As part of our time with them at Office/Mentor hours, I was asked to give a lunch presentation on some interviewing and recruiting tips for startups. The advice is actually pretty germane to all recruiting.  This presentation can be found here (having issues getting the embed to work directly on my blog...), and the video of this preso can be found here.

End of day, recruiting for me is about a few things:
1) Know what you're recruiting for.  Of course, you need to know what specific skills you want for the role.  But more important, you need to know the culture you want for your team, and the types of people you want.  Then you have to set the bar for greatness and be 100% sure you nail your must-haves, and that the candidate raises the bar on at least a few dimensions.
2) Know what you're going to ask the candidates.  You should have prepared before the interview, and have your questions planned (and you should have used your questions with candidates previously, so that you know what a great answer looks like)
3) Use a behavior interviewing technique.  Once you know what you're looking for, ask repeatedly for them to give you examples from their past where they demonstrated those characteristics.  Dig into their answers.  Tell them what their role was on the team.  How did they know they achieved the goal, or failed.  What did they do change based on what they learned, and what was the person's specific ownership/deliver element with that?
4) Take a lot of notes during the interview.  What did you ask?  How did they answer?  Develop shorthand for flagging the good and bad, so you can distill it later, and/or ask follow-on questions.
5) Develop a firm opinion.  Are they a strong hire?  A Hire?  A No Hire?  Or, a dreaded Strong No Hire?  Be ready to explain to the other interviewers why you said so, and be able to explain the questions you asked, and where they fell short.  This is where your notes are critical.

There are a few other tips/tricks in there -- hopefully that gets picked up in the Slideshare, including:
* Some questions I almost always ask at beginning/end of interviews, and why, such as "What did you do to prepare for this interview?", "What 3 changes do you think we need to make to our product, to blow away our customers", and "What 3 adjectives would your past co-workers/managers use to describe you?"
* How to structure interview loops, and why I recommend interviewing many candidates at once, if possible - it makes it so much easier to spot passion & preparedness when you interview several candidates on the same day, or in succession.
* How to prepare all of the interviewers (everyone should have assigned characteristics to interview for; everyone should agree that they will independently determine a hire/no-hire vote with detail supporting it; debrief within 24 hours)
* Why spending more than 2 minutes on a resume walk-thru is lazy/pointless, and a way to get quick overview, but force them to tell you the story of why it makes sense that your role is perfect for them (and you)
* What to look for with refererences (evidences of 'greatness'; dig on anything where they aren't raving about a candidate; everyone has dev areas)

I mentioned it on the final slide of the presentation, but it benefited greatly from contributions from Neil Roseman and Mark Suster (noticing a trend here?)

How to find investors for your startup

I'm often asked to make introductions to investors, and the flow normally goes like this.

Startup: "We're ready to raise money.  Can you make introductions to investors?"

Me: "What investors do you want to meet?  Why are they a good fit for your startup?"

Startup: "..."


In all seriousness, it's very common for entrepreneurs to forget that investors have areas of focus, and the more they can target their potential investor pool, the better.  It shows investors that you're thorough, and increases the chance that your eventual investors can help you, because they've seen your industry before, they have relevant connections (other investors that like your space; bus dev partners; interested acquirers), and obviously have a deeper passion for what you're doing.

Some ideas for how you do this:
* Go to a white board and list your competitors, or even those in tangential spaces.  Then, go to AngelList or Crunchbase and find their investors, including Angels, Seed Funds, and Venture Capitalists
* Find conferences that focus on your industry.  Then look at the attendee lists and sponsors.  You'll often see the investor pool that's of interest, and you'll also likely find corporate investors (who get less coverage on Techcrunch) and below-the-radar contacts for you to consider.
* On another white board, list all of your wealthy friends or past coworkers.  Particularly focus on those who you think would absolutely rave about you.  They may not eventually invest in your company, but when they make introductions for you (because you'll ask them to do so), you know that the message they deliver will be extremely positive.  And, of course, they'll listen to your first pitches, to give you feedback and help you improve/hone your message.
* Talk to your friends (who know you well) and ask them for their list of favorite, most supportive, investors.  Again, they may not be as likely to actually invest in you, if they focus on other areas, but with a strong referral they're much more likely to meet with you, give you feedback, and possibly know other investors who may have a passion for your space.

Then, when you do reach out to people, you can include some of your lists, along with why you think they'd be interested in what you're doing.  When I see those lists, it makes it easier for me to remember if I have good contacts for them, and those lists also help spur other ideas (it's always easier to review a list than look at a blank page).  Plus, it make it fast and easy for you to really personalize your introduction mails, and shows that you do your homework and are detail-oriented (and respect/value my time, and the investor's time).

These ideas are all pretty basic, but are often overlooked.  What other suggestions do folks have?

Update: Joe Wallin suggested this great post by TA McCann - Raising Startup Funding - 7 Things you Need to be Prepared

How to ask for introductions (to investors, potential employers, etc)

I know this post has been written before, maybe even on this blog, but this issue comes up so frequently, that I can't be doing any harm by writing it again.  A variation can be found on Mark Suster's How to Ask for Help Favors and Intros post, but his goes into a lot more detail -- I'm going to focus on just two key parts of the introductions process.  And Tony Wright's How to Ask for an Introduction post is probably where I mentally stole this from (he tweeted a reminder, and I do remember reading and loving it). 

Many times per week, I'm asked to make introductions for people or startups.  I'm happy to do them, but the askers need to know that they truly do pile up, and if you don't make them easy for the person you're asking, you really lower the likelihood that we can help you.

So, here's my advice:

1) Make sure that I know you and/or your product well enough to make the intro.  If it isn't a deep connection, then you're actually putting my reputation at risk by asking me to do this for you.  And I don't always have the time to get to know you well enough.  It sounds harsh, but it's true.  So, focus your introduction requests on people who will rave about you.  If you don't know any of those people well, then you're putting the cart before the horse -- instead, start developing some of those relationships first (read Lines not Dots -- another great Suster post).

2) Make it very easy for me to make the introduction.  In fact, make it idiot-proof.  I always ask people to "write the introduction for me, and write it as if you're me, introducing you".  That's not (just) about saving me time.  It's because it allows you to put the introduction into context (i.e. you saw they invested in startup/industry x which has some similarities to what you're doing), link to any demos (people love functioning sites/apps), include any attachments, and include any imminent travel plans when you'll be in their neighborhood (even if you're lying, and will book the trip as soon as they say yes).

That's it.  Repeat steps #1 and #2 above and you're requests for introductions will go much better.


p.s. Here's another great post on this topic from Roy Bahat at Bloomberg Beat.

What job should you take, or company should you pursue?

This question comes up in various ways, multiple times per month, and it came up in a chat I was having with Seattle angel investor Ken Glass today as he mentioned giving similar advice to some students recently.
Either it's someone asking me whether they should go work for a startup, or for a big company. Or it's someone who asks me my advice about which job opportunity to take (or pursue), when they have several options.
My answer is almost always some variation of, "go for the option where you're working with the best boss, and the best team, and for a company/product that you're excited about." Don't optimize for salary, or even title; and potentially pick your 2nd or 3rd choice company, if it means working for a star, and with a great team. If you do pick well, you'll follow that person's rise through the organization, and you'll have more opportunity than you know what to deal with. That same great manager will make sure you get exposure and recognition for your efforts. And they'll tell you when you screw up, and help you avoid repeating mistakes. They won't sugarcoat this important developmental feedback, and you'll love them for it.
It's hard to exaggerate how much leverage this simple choice can make, as it can fundamentally alter your career trajectory in good or terrible ways. I've seen people make the wrong decisions, and you can literally see the ripple effects through their resumes for years and decades. And at the same time, I regularly see it in positive ways with young stars -- making these smart choices early on will benefit you for a lifetime.

What I read, who I actively follow, and how I consume it

Running of the Bulldogs, from

I admit that this post is mostly to just get something new atop my blog, since I update it so infrequently.  But someone last week asked me what I read every day/week. 

I'd refer you back to an older post, because amazingly, those are still all on my daily reading list -- for startup industry just follow Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, Ben Horowitz, Paul Graham, and a few others.

In addition, I really enjoy reading Scott Orn's daily blog that he calls Kenny Kellogg, which I get in a daily email format.  It's old school, in that he picks 1-7 links per day and sends them out. I think there's some format to it... like videos on tuesdays... and 7 reads on saturdays.  But, really, I just love the filtering he does for me.  I find something great in every mail.

For Seattle tech news, I like getting the daily email from GeekWire.

I also really like the daily mail from Twitter that picks stories/tweets that it thinks would be interesting to me -- again, it almost always finds a few that I really like.  Yeah, I like getting emails -- that way I can read or ignore from my inbox.  Else, they pile up in my feed reader.

On that note, since Google Reader shut down, I've found NewsBlur to be a nice replacement.  I think Danielle Morrill made that reco.  On that note, the startup-data mails from her new company, MatterMark, are excellent so far.

For regular professional updates, I like reviewing LinkedIn Connections and Nimble emails each day -- I regularly reach out to folks who I see updates on.

Peace out.

p.s. that photo has nothing to do with this post.  It's just awesome.  French bulldogs absolutely rule.  If you don't agree, face it, you're an idiot.