“It started happening last year, during one of our biggest growth spurts yet.” VP Technology Scott Epter is sitting across from me, a mug of coffee resting on his knee. We’re talking about Exago’s Client Advisory Board meeting, an annual two-day conference where we employees get to hike, dine, and talk shop with the clients we’ve come to know so well on calls and through email. It’s a high point of our year, getting to interact with these developers and product managers from SaaS companies across the country. Epter continues, “I remember multiple people coming up and saying, ‘Your team is incredible. How do you find such good people? How do you train them so well? How is it that you have such a collection of high-quality support people working for you?’ So I told them about our stringent hiring process, which you know about.” I do indeed know about it. Not only did I experience it as an applicant a mere fifteen months ago, but I’ve helped interview at least a dozen potential hires since then. I’m not a manager, and I’m not in HR; but I’m part of the team, and my company has decided that means I have a say in who joins it. Exago’s staff has nearly doubled in size over the past year and has gotten markedly positive feedback from prospects and clients alike on those hires. We figured we must be doing something right and so decided to share our recruiting practices with the software community at large. Tech startups face a unique set of challenges when it comes to curating talent, and it helps to know how others have navigated those hurdles. Which brings us to hurdle number-one: finding recruits who will help propel the startup forward.
The Quest for InitiativeUnlike well-established companies, startups need all the manpower they can get to keep the business afloat, but they’re limited in the resources they can put into payroll. This means they need high returns on their hires, but what does this mean in practice? Startups are famously chaotic and riddled with inefficiencies because they’re still finding their footing. Responding to market pressures, establishing a brand identity, and designing workflows requires tremendous flexibility and continuous revision. New hires therefore can’t just be skilled subject-matter experts—they need to be initiative-takers, too. We have this whole ‘Be Your Own CEO’ mentality at Exago. It’s a mantra popularized by co-founder and CEO Mike Brody, who begins each company meeting with this message embodying his hiring philosophy. Brody believes that you should “hire people with a long-term perspective” and that the people you hire should be “highly self-motivated to succeed.” Exago managers look for people matching that description, people who get legitimately excited about having control over their professional lives.
“When I talk about people who take initiative, I mean people who will spot inefficiencies and suggest small changes that makes a big difference.” – Scott Epter VP TechnologyWhen the startup climate shifts (as it invariably does), creating a need where there wasn’t one before, initiative-takers naturally move to fill that need. They don’t just wear many hats; they collect them. Epter cautions not to confuse initiative with aggressive careerism, however. “When I talk about people who take initiative,” he says, “I mean people who won’t be content to just stay with the status quo, who will spot inefficiencies in how we do things today and suggest small changes that will make a big difference.” For high-growth organizations like startups, employees with a knack for spotting and eliminating inefficiencies are invaluable because not only will they do their jobs, they will also free up valuable resources in the process, creating room for growth. Identifying the initiative-takers in a group of job applicants means discovering what kinds of problems each candidate loves to solve. Interviewers will literally look for a spark of enthusiasm or curiosity from applicants, some evidence to support their claimed interest in a subject. The best candidates display a quintessentially nerdy penchant for sharing their enthusiasm with others; the worst fail to speak knowledgeably on topics they purport to know. Support Manager Jeff Kalpakis helps devise questions for recruitment interviews but says it’s sometimes the boring or seemingly uninspired questions that get you the insight you’re looking for. “You never know what will get them diving deep into a topic and showing their extensive knowledge on a subject. We look for that inquisitiveness to reveal itself in the interview.” But of course, initiative isn’t everything in a small business. New recruits need to mesh well with their respective teams and the company as a whole.