Whom Should You Hire at a Startup? (Attitude Over Aptitude)

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 | 77 comments

Whom Should You Hire at a Startup? (Attitude Over Aptitude)

This post originally ran on TechCrunch.

Startups.We know the mantra: Team matters. Is this philosophy exaggerated? Overrated? Cliché? No. Team is the only thing that matters.

Whatever you’re working on now, the half-life of innovation is so rapid now that your product will soon be out-of-date. Your existence is irrelevant unless you continue rapid innovation.  Your ability to keep up is dependent on having a great team of differing skills. Individuals don’t build great companies, teams do.

The nature of the Internet and global knowledge is such that even if you’ve stumbled on to a super interesting area of innovation there will be many teams tackling the same problem at exactly the same time.  If you develop something novel that catches a spark you’ll have the world gunning for you over night. In this globally connected world product leads disappear in nano-seconds.

The company with the best team on the field will win. This will be the team who hires the most talented people, channels them in the most productive configuration and gets the most output from their unique capabilities.

So how exactly do you assemble such a team?

1. Only hire A players
There’s an old saying, “A players beget A players. B players beget C players.” Why? Well, A players are discerning and tend to only want to join somewhere where they perceive other A players are. B players tend to have slightly more self-confidence issues so they tend to hire people slightly worse than themselves – thus C teams.

Is this a universal truism? Of course not. But it is general pattern matching. And it’s why VCs tend to look for uber-talented founding teams. We know that if you start with ho-hum founders you’re less likely to assemble a world-class team.

So if you’re trying to scale your team be focused on quality. Don’t sacrifice. Don’t hire too quickly just because you raised money or because you feel pressure to make things happen. The minute you compromise on quality you’ve already begun the descent.

Aim high.

2. Find people to “punch above their weight class”
I wrote an entire blog post about this in the past highlighting my belief that you should hire people who “punch above their weight class.” But what does that actually mean?

It means that many management teams I know feel the need to hire people who have “done it before” and frankly many VCs encourage this. It’s a mistake. When you hire somebody too early who has already “done it” you often find somebody that is less motivated in tough times, less willing to be scrappy (as many startups need to be), more “needy” and less mentally flexible / willing to change their way of thinking.

Importantly, you also find people who are too quick to undermine the authority of the founders. They “know more.” You don’t want sycophants – don’t get me wrong – you want people who challenge your thinking and a meritocracy of ideas. But you don’t want team members who openly question your judgment, your authority. At least not publicly.

So what do it mean to “punch above one’s weight class?” It’s a boxing analogy. It means a welter weight who wants to fight in the heavy-weight category. It means a “young Turk” who has something to prove. It means somebody who held the director of sales in their last company but in this company wants to be VP. Their last company said, “you don’t have enough years of experience.”

You said, “Eff experience. I want to know whether you can deliver. If you can, you’re golden. You’ll go a long way. If you can’t – you’re toast. Are you up for it?” It’s Tristan Walker of FourSquare. They hired him when he was an MBA. He had no right asking for a senior biz dev role at one of the hottest companies in the US. But he was ready to punch above his weight class. And he pushed for it.

And heavy-weight he has become. He is out innovating people with 10 years’ his experience. He is hungry. He is an A player. His innovation and execution are proving his worth.

3. ABR: Always be recruiting
In the entire time I was an entrepreneur I think I never really stopped recruiting.

In my busiest days I was still taking early-morning coffees or end-of-day beers to meet as many people as I could. Sunday mornings often became recruiting coffee sessions.

One of the “tells” for me of a management team that will not be extra-ordinarily successful is that they’re not always recruiting. I’ve seen it before – I send a talented member to a team and they say to me, “we don’t really have a role for that person.”

Really? I always have a role for talented people. I may not have a BUDGET for talented peole – but I always have a role for them. What role? Who the F knows. But let me at least have a coffee and feel out their enthusiasm, talent and ambitions.

I might choose to do an upgrade on my existing team. I might be grooming them for when I have more money or more revenue. I might not be able to persuade them now but I want them to know my company so that when I’m ready to step on the gas I have a list of A players I want.

Sure, the challenges to me are obvious:
• How can I afford them?
• How do I motivate them?
• If I bring them on board now, how do I not reduce the motivation from those that I have already hired?
• Should I upgrade existing staff or hire them laterally?
• Can I persuade them to join when they have other choices?

If you’re not dedicating a large chunk of time to continually “recruiting” then you’re high. Or maybe you’re “low” – as in “not likely to succeed.”

Remember. Always be recruiting. ABR.

4. Don’t worry about exact “roles”
I think the most limiting factor that stops startups from recruiting is the “we don’t have an open spec” or “we already have somebody doing that role” excuse. Don’t let that be you. Your team can always make room for David Beckham. Lebron James. Keith Rabois. Sheryl Sandberg.

Get out there and find them. Ask others for intros to their talented friends. Meet talented people and sell them the vision. Get them exited about what you’re doing. Be relentless.

If they’re amazing, then be radical. Give them controls that they don’t have in their current company. Allocate them enough options to salivate. Convince them that even if they stay only a year they’d learn great stuff that would be valid for the rest of their future. You might need several meetings to bag top prospects. But if you never start you’ll certainly never hire them.

5. Attitude over Aptitude

If you’re doing a great job at continually recruiting and if you have a company ready to hire several people, at some point when you have enough of a pipeline of talented people you need a way to separate them. I have a long-standing mantra, “attitude over aptitude.” This is assuming a raw minimum of MIPS in the candidate. They need to be seriously smart / talented in their field to make the minimum grade.

But within this “minimum acceptable talent level” you still have a wide variance of “employee types.” Let’s be honest – some uber talented people are PITAs. I never hire them. One bad apple spoils things for everybody.

You don’t see it coming. You figure, “sure, they’re a pain but they produce such high quality work I’m willing to put up with them.” Don’t. The last thing you need is some rat bastard fomenting trouble.

They’re the ones who are talking pop at cocktail parties when they’ve had one too many. They’re having private lunches with other employees talking about how they’ve lost faith in your vision.

When you hit internal moments of doubt you need the team members who say, “Guys, we can do this! We’re up against the ropes but we’re not down. Let’s dig in.” You need team members who do that when you’re NOT there. You need … mafia.

If you have a trade-off between somebody who is more talented but a “bad seed” versus somebody who is very talented (but perhaps less so) who is a motivator – I’d hire the latter any day of the week.

Choose attitude over aptitude.

6. Culture matters
Along the same lines as aptitude I would say that “company culture” matters. Know what your principles are. Know the kind of people you want. Know what makes a member of your team. What traits are important to you? What values to you want to embody?

Try to set out guidelines for hiring. Try to live them yourself or people will see through it.  As times get tough you’ll value this culture. Even in uber successful times where you’re hiring like mad you’ll want to know what somebody who embodies your culture is like.

The best book I ever read on this topic was Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos). It’s a must read and has great advice on building a company culture.

7. Don’t over-sell
Finally, I always tell management teams not to “over sell” and I never do so myself.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t sell hard on the virtues of your company and why you’re the next Google – you should. If for nothing else you want all of the talented people you interview to spread the gospel whether they join or not.

What I’m talking about is this – if somebody is thinking about joining but you can tell they’re not convinced don’t cross the line to get them to join. What does this mean?

It means don’t tell them that they’re stake will make them $20 million if you’re not convinced it will. Don’t promise them that their role will be much bigger than you’re planning. Don’t promise revenue or growth faster than you know you can achieve.

Sell hard, sure. But don’t over sell.

Why? Because if somebody is not convinced in their own mind and you arm-twist them to join they’re bound to be unhappy and eventually leave. I’ve seen it a loads of times. You promise the world. You don’t deliver. They are frustrated. They feel duped. They express this to others. Now you have more than one problem.

And it’s never a good thing when a high-profile hire quits unexpectedly. It causes otherwise happy people to second-guess things.

So sell, by all means. But don’t over sell. Don’t promise unrealistic things. Don’t over promise.

So that’s it.

So go and schedule your next coffee meetings. Increase your number of interviews. ABR.

  • Pfbonoff


  • http://www.mealdrop.com Michael Zaro

    @Vinnie, HumphreyPL is right. It might sound cliche, but you’re gotta keep grinding and things will fall into place. I’m one of those non-technical founders and had no idea how i was going to build my startup. Like Mark said i was ALWAYS recruiting and networking to meet more potential hires.

    I’m a university student and was looking throughout campus for someone to partner with, i went to all of the networking meetings, programmer meet-ups and incubator speed-dating events. I was using FB, LinkedIn, and other resources to find someone but it ended up being Twitter that saved the day. I made what was apparently a somewhat insightful response to a tweet and a local CEO (who’s company has been on the Inc 500 list several years in a row) PM’ed me to see if i wanted to “talk shop sometime.” I followed up and despite his busy schedule we were eventually able to meet. He asked me to pitch the idea, i did, and he liked it. He asked what i needed and he put me in touch with three people that i would likely never have been able to approach on my own. My partner and I then had three options to choose from and got the best partnership possible.

    Just keep working at it and pay attention to ALL communication channels. Great connections will often come from random places.

  • Random Internet Guy 23

    Exactly. That’s why I agree with Michael, role players are very important. A team full of nothing but “A” players is a recipe for disaster.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BE2VQXNL7GAV2RMD2XK6Z2HESI Janet Trevor

    Hey, I like this. This is certainly an interesting post about who to hire and who to “avoid”.

    And I do agree with you – there are many uber talented people out there, let’s call them the (A people – the “Awesome” but “A-hole” people). You get the point. You can’t fit in two Ram heads in one cooking pot.

    Attitude is definitely better than Aptitude. Thumbs up!

    Travel & Tourism

  • http://www.1newidea.com Ken Lawler

    I couldn’t agree more, sometimes you have to go for the people with the passion. Yes, years of experience is nice, but if they’ve lost that drive they aren’t going to do much for you.

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    Very interesting Mark, and in my case rather timely.

    But I think you skimmed a little bit on the attitude/aptitude thing. I know you set a baseline level of MIPS, but it wasn’t totally concrete.

    Let me give you a soccer analogy…

    I was a decent footballer, and, more than anything, I’ve always had a good idea of how the game should be played (gleaned from many years of standing on the terraces as a youth at the Mighty Liverpool Football Club.)

    I’ve played many games with people with an unbelievably positive attitude – they would run all day, defend when all the superstars were up front trying to score goals, and be the life and soul in the pub after the game.

    Only problem? They couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. No ability whatsoever…

    Sometimes it would break my heart, but I would have to leave them out of the team. I often despised the more talented players who felt the world owed them something.

    But, at the end of the day, you’re in it to win it. No?

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    As someone who once – while living in Birmingham – briefly followed Aston Villa (I’m actually a Rugby fan and follow Wales) I understand your reference to soccer players David. Having also spent time on the farm growing up, I’m also quite familiar with the relative proportions of a cow’s arse, but I suggest your choice of comparison is really not a particularly accurate parallel in reference to Attitude v Aptitude and startup team-player requirements here!

    Firstly, I don’t believe anyone here, least of all Mark, is suggesting that an absence of ability can be ignored: That surely would make no sense. This is simply a “relative” value issue when considering an option to choose one candidate over another where relative abilities are so close that there has to be some other arbitrating criteria.

    Secondly: Playing soccer – even in a league series – is typically a bunch of singular related events within a relatively short time frame for any given game against opponents whose performance capabilities are usually well known at the time of the game hence game plans can be hatched and practiced, strategies and tactics developed, and clearly being able to actually “manage” the ball via head or feet is a critical skill typically requiring great and lengthy practice for star performance within a well defined set of rules and environment.

    On the other hand, a typical startup is anything but a soccer game nor part of a soccer league series. Most proficient coders can become so without anywhere near the amount of practice of a soccer player to become a star and can also develop their skills as the startup game unfolds over a much longer time period. Aside from coders, most other roles can also be mastered – in my view – much more readily because there are generally much more forgiving and easier to recoup/retrieve missteps that can be made in the course of developing a winning startup than you could ever have to win a soccer game.

    Obviously, in either case, the singular objective is to win but I strongly agree with Mark that Attitude trumps Aptitude for all of the reasons Mark and others have offered here and this never means that aptitude can be ignored in the overall scheme of recruiting and team building.

  • http://twitter.com/justinstoddart Justin Stoddart

    This article is full of great insight Mark–thank you. I would assess that to attract the types of people you mention, the leader of the company has to be this. We attract what we are.

  • http://twitter.com/kkbrough Kelly Brough

    Keyser, I was thinking the same thing, though on reflection I think the A player analogy applies perfectly once a company has grown beyond new start up phase and is hiring rapidly. This is something that Tony Hsieh also talks about in ‘Delivering Happiness’ when he describes his experience building LinkExchange. It is definitely worth holding out for the A players during a fast growth curve.

  • http://profiles.google.com/tam.le03 Tam Le

    Hi Mark – great post.
    What do you define as ‘talent’? I’m curious as talent means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Do you personally look for someone more big picture or analytical or (insert characteristic here)? Thanks for your insight.

  • http://www.nelking.com nelking

    Punch above their weight class. Exactly. Especially in Portland where the whine is usually there aren’t not enough experienced executives so we don’t get the level of VC money and that’s why we’ll never be like x start-up city/region. Every be-there-done-that executive was given a chance at some point to prove they could.

  • Jon Callaghan

    Great post, Mark. Excellent advice.

    Our investment criteria: People, people, people!

  • http://david-noel.com David Noël

    A little late to the game – to me, this is the best post you’ve ever written. I’ve made Attitude over Aptitude my mantra when hiring.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ericrrod Eric Rodriguez

    I strongly agree with the “don’t oversell” piece. I did contractor work for a promising start-up for some time, and eventually got the full-time employee offer.

    The offer process used guilt-trip and other sales-y tactics, and also suggested that I could reasonably expect my stock options to buy a house after full vesting.

    I felt disrespected by this as I could quickly do the math and realize that the stock value would have to appreciate ~35,000% before it was in that ballpark. This experience just left a really bad taste in my mouth in the remaining months I worked there, and was certainly the beginning of the end. It was ultimately a major factor in my eventual resignation.

  • John Price, CEO Vast.com

    Mark, great post! I learned this lesson from one of the greatest. In 1988 I was a kid working at an AI startup, Neuron Data and I had the good fortune of getting to meet Bob Miner, Oracle Co-founder. I was alone in a meeting room with him during a break and I thought now is my chance to get wisdom from the best. So I took my shot and said, “How does the Co-founder and VP of Engineering of one of the greatest companies on the planet spend his time?”. Expecting to get an answer that would require an MBA to understand, I was shocked when he said “That’s an easy one, recruiting”.

    I find that “ABRAP” (I took the liberty to add “A” “P”layers to your acronym) is the hardest lesson to teach your employees in a high growth startup. I believe it is the CEO’s job to make it his number one priority. With the competition out there for engineering talent getting back to the levels in the late ’90s, if it isn’t.. your dead.

  • http://www.rjjohnston.me RJ Johnston

    Truer words are rarely spoken. Great mind, great article, thank you.

  • Michael Settle

    So much of this goes to the heart of what I coach that I find myself in awe, Mark, Thank you,

  • http://21lives.com Etienne Garbugli

    Very interesting. I certainly about attitude over aptitude but, I’m not sure how a startup can keep A player prospects close if they’re not hiring them.

    Recruiting is very competitive, talented people always have many opportunities. Even the best vision can’t keep the right people waiting.

  • http://twitter.com/herringunderfur anne

    During my recent job hunt a few founders I spoke to got wrapped up on whether I’d done something directly vs aptitude. Maybe it was because I’ve spent some time at a very big software company… Have also found that a lot of the “attitude” in the job postings is turning me off. Maybe I’m getting old, but it seems like I’m not cool enough for some of these start-ups. I suspect this might be related to the lack of women in tech. :(

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    Clearly you get enough kudos for your sharing Mark but every time seems to be even more interesting and better than the last.

    After reading this post, at first I thought that a post I wrote several months ago on a related aspect dovetailed right in here but I hesitated to connect … until I then read your more recent post about “Why Startups Need to Blog (and what to talk about …)” and now we also have the post about your lunch with John Greathouse by John: http://infochachkie.com/lunch/.

    So here now is my six-pennyworth in regard to hiring from my own direct experiences – not just for a startup but for any business that realistically seeks to grow: “Team Meritocracy? Team Diversity? ~ Can the former be achieved if the latter is a constraint?” http://bit.ly/96ZKw7

    Really looking forward to seeing you in person this coming Thursday when you will be with us at the TechFounders meetup at the UCSD Robinson Auditorium as organized by Brant Cooper.

  • Esteban

    Having the aptitude is one thing, but having the attitude to enable one To Change is another.

  • Erika

    Great advice for startups! – and 6 out of 7 are really applicable to young entrepreneurs. Specifically, “don’t over sell” – although enthusiastic, it’s so important to not over invite, over promise, and over predict.

    As a young entrepreneur, although people are always interested to hear what you’re doing, they are not always willing to jump on the team! How can young entrepreneurs attract “A players”. I would really love to see some tips for youth with regards to this point.

  • http://twitter.com/SVSearch Linda Tuerk

    Thank you. I find myself beating my head against the well with some hiring execs– now I’ll just refer them to this article!

  • http://twitter.com/SVSearch Linda Tuerk

    Thank you. I find myself beating my head against the well with some hiring execs– now I’ll just refer them to this article!

  • http://www.ichange.com Stu MacFarlane

    Mark, I couldn’t agree more on the importance of attitude. Your post inspired me to reflect on my startup experiences to try to draw lessons from the types of attitudes I have brought into my companies, whether they are employees, board members, or investors.

    I have concluded that there are really only 4 types of attitudes, and every person I’ve ever worked with falls in to one of them:

    1.  The Victim.   This is the person that constantly thinks the world is against them.  They crumble at the first sign of controversy, and require high levels of maintenance just to maintain a level of functionality.   They create a giant sucking sound as they pull positive energy from all those around them.  Value to a startup:  very negative.

    2.  The Climber.  This person is all about stepping stones to further his own career.  He is worried about titles and tends to draw clear lines around his roles and responsibilities, pushing out those that step into his territory.  He’s always has an eye on a promotion or his next gig.  Value to startup:  could be positive for short bursts but ultimately a negative.

    3.  The Soldier.  This is the guy that is in it for the team and the company, who wants to do well in his job.  He will probably never shake up the organization and may never become senior-level leader, but he plays an important role.  He will be the last guy to leave if the ship starts to sink.  Value to startup: very positive.

    4.  The Superstar.  These are very rare people that have the soldier’s loyalty, but are the ultimate problem solvers.  Controversy and uncertainty tend to create energy in these people and they have an extraordinarily high degree of faith that they can affect a positive outcome.  A good entrepreneur is by definition a superstar, and if that entrepreneur is lucky, he can surround himself with 2-3 others like this.   Value:  exponentially high.

    While a person’s behavior can alternate between these personality types based on external factors, I believe that each person has a dominant attitude type that will be a primary driver of behaviors over the long run. The hard part is recruiting 3’s and 4’s into the organization while filtering out the 1’s and 2’s.

  • Anonymous

    I came to connect this blog from one of the Korean blogger who’s living in Silicon-Vally. I translated this article into Korean language so that Korean startups could be motivated as well. After being translated, over 69 people “liked” it through facebook and 107 people “retweeted” it. And many CEOs in Korea totally agree on your thought. http://nottoday.tistory.com/238

  • NJP

    I love this article. My struggle is finding the A players. I don’t have contacts into the VC world since I found local funding. I am in Chicago in a medical start-up and have no idea where to look for talent. I am totally new to this stuff so I expect my “experts” to know more than I do. Too often they have not thought everything through and I have to step in and manage them more than I want. I am not talking micromanaging, it is big stuff like my marketing manager not knowing who our competition is.

    How do I find the A players????