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Hiring Fast vs. Hiring Slow
06.12.11
There's an old adage, "Hire Slow, Fire Fast." Seems to make sense right? Take your time to make sure you make the right decision but if it turns out to be wrong -- correct it immediately, don't let it linger.
 
Then I saw a posting by Mark Suster entitled, "Hire Fast, Fire Fast" [link]. This seems to be be around the "Blink" idea of always be in hiring mode, trusting your gut, and then if you make the wrong decision -- correct it immediately.
 
Depending on the startup, which job they're hiring for that's difficult varies widely. Typically, hiring technical talent is tough -- but I know startups where hiring technical talent is easy. Other times, the startup will have become really adept at hiring in general, but then they expand into a new area and then hiring that position is really difficult. I've even known startups that just want to hire general, versatile "business" people and think that's really tough.
 
I had trouble figuring out where exactly I landed between the two approaches and then realized that I sort of think of this as a false dichotomy. In fact, I would approach it in a 3rd way. Here's how I think about it:
 
1) Give yourself options
 
This is straight out of "Inside Steve's Brain" [link] -- basically a book covering Steve Job's product management principles (not directly from him but from someone who has covered Apple for 20+ years.) If teams present Jobs a set of mockups, he'll ask for 3 sets -- that way he can choose among them. I've started to do the same myself. The reason is because if only 1 proposal is shown -- that's sort of the "right" proposal or at least the base from which things emanate. That locks your thinking in. Why not have that one and then have 1 really extreme and wild one and another that's really conservative? Maybe you end up choosing one of them or maybe it'll push your thinking into developing one that's in between, say, the middle of the road and the wild one -- or maybe it'll even push your thinking to go even further than the extreme one. You want that same type of freedom in evaluating candidates for a job.
 
This is the area I see (bad) compromises happen more often than anywhere else. People are so desperate to fill a job that they start overlooking faults. Now, I want to be clear about something here. They're often not overlooking faults actively -- it's not, "I think this person is a bad culture fit, but I'll hire them anyway." What I see is, "People are telling me this person is a bad culture fit, but I disagree with them." Of course, that could be true -- people disagree. That being said, under stress, people can make different evaluations -- but you don't always know if you're making a different decision in the moment. What's actually happening is, "I'm not sure about whether or not this person is a good fit. Some people are telling me they're a bad fit. I think I can make it work." This is bad. That's why you want to have options. Let's say you end up having 3 options as potential candidates:
 
Candidate 1: Good technically but bad culture fit.
 
Candidate 2: Weak technically but good culture fit.
 
Candidate 3: Mediocre across the board.
 
None of these are too promising right? Think about candidate 1 vs. candidate 2 for a moment. Under stress, you might hire candidate 1. If you're just starting out and don't know any better (or maybe a little lazy) -- you might hire candidate 2. There's no reason that you can't hire "good technically and good culture fit" and by having multiple candidates lined up, you're likely to step back and say, "Let's keep looking." That's hiring slow.
 
2) Good at their job
 
Pretty straightforward right? I think this is the area that is least likely to be compromised -- or at least actively compromised. You make an offer to someone -- you make it with the expectation that they're good at their job. My only caveat here is to make sure that you know that they are actually good or not at their job. If you don't know the job that well (and this happens in startups all the time when you're hiring for a job that you yourself haven't done or aren't that familiar with) -- it's hard to know. Obviously companies get around this by already having people they trust (that already work for them) to vet new candidates. If you don't have that -- figure out how to solve it. I'm often asked to interview late stage candidates for just this purpose. Find equivalent people you trust when you're trying to make the first or second (or a critical) hire.
 
One other thing that helps in this area -- options. Even if you've never worked with a designer, if you line up 10 different portfolios -- you're going to have an opinion of good vs. bad, better vs. best, what you like and dislike. If you only look at 1 portfolio, it's much more difficult -- even if you have a lot of experience.
 
3) Good cultural fit / do I want this person in my office?
 
I think that's the thought exercise to ask -- "Do I want this person in my office 12 hours a day?" Because that's what's going to happen. You see them at 8am, what do you think? You're getting a snack in the middle of the day, what do you think? You're there late at night -- still happy with them? If you don't have an opinion on whether or not you want them around or not -- if you have concerns about whether or not they might fit in for whatever reason, you need to really step back. This is a problem that definitely won't go away. Fortunately, this is just about institutional / mental will to make the right decision. Odds are reasonably high that you and your team will be able to hire people that you can get along with -- mistakes will happen, but odds are reasonable you can get this right. If you're not sure, take them out for a beer or drinks or something -- see them in a social venue. Get as much information as you need so that you can have an opinion on whether or not they'll fit into the company culture or not.
 
But what if you've been looking for someone for a really long time -- seen tons of candidates, you've effectively already given yourself tons of options, right? You don't need tons of options all at once, yes? Not really.  I totally agree with the idea to always be hiring (if you can afford it) -- coming across someone who you think could be great and acting quickly. But here's the key -- it's acting quickly when you're not under duress. If you're under duress, you're liable to talk yourself into bad hires and use the fact that you've seen what you think are all the candidates out there as justification that you know this is the right hire. If you're being strategic and taking advantage of an opportunity -- go for it. Options help reset you -- at the minimum you'll be actively choosing among several candidates (so presumably you'll get the best of that lot) -- but on the other end, you're much more likely to say things like, "Wait, I saw someone better before." or "This is the best of what's out there? I don't believe it."
 
It's a pain to give yourself options -- I'll freely admit that I don't always do this. Here's what I would say here though -- if you don't give yourself options, just be straight with yourself about why. If it's because you feel totally comfortable this is the right person and looking around more is a poor tradeoff -- go for it. But if it's out of laziness or time pressure, acknowledge that to yourself. 
 
Sometimes it makes sense to hire fast (when you have enough knowledge to know what you're looking for AND you're not under stress to make a hire) and sometimes it makes sense to hire slow (when you haven't checked off the 3 main boxes -- giving yourself options, hiring good people, and hiring people you want to work with.) Bad hires are way more damaging than no hires. Don't let circumstances dictate what happens to your company and your company's culture. Be vigilant and flexible in your approach.

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