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Startup lessons from Ben Silbermann, Founder and CEO of Pinterest August 30, 2012

Posted by johnvrionis in 2012, hiring, management, start-up, Summer Program.
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As a part of our Summer Fellowship Program, we bring in influential speakers from around the valley each week to share their insights, lessons learned and tips with our teams.  The program has now been in place for six years, so with recent fellowship classes I have been fortunate to pull from our list of alumni when curating the speaker list. One of those alumni, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, was generous enough to join us this past week for lunch with our fellows and alumni from past years.

During lunch, Ben shared details of his background and thoughtfully explained the journey of how he came to be CEO of one of the hottest startups in the consumer internet space.  He also shared a number of insights and lessons which I think we can all learn from:

Hire Great People, regardless of if you have a defined role for them:  Ben shared that one of the things he is thankful he did in the early days was to hire people that he thought were great people even before he knew exactly what their role would be. Great people, he explained, can add value in various roles and often provide key solutions to problems that arise throughout your lifecycle.

Learn from No:  Whether you are seeking funding, making offers to potential employees or trying to build partnerships, as a startup you are going to hear the word no a lot.  What makes Ben a great entrepreneur is that he recognizes that most of the time, people are saying no for a good reason.  He had the patience, self-awareness and intellectual honesty to evaluate the situation and make the necessary changes.  Whatever the reason for No, Ben stressed the importance of using it as opportunity to learn and to correct so that you are moving your company into a position where you can start getting some yeses.

Decide what will make you happy and commit 100% to doing it:  One of the things Ben said he learned early on was that while being an entrepreneur meant that he had control over what he was building and doing, it also meant that he lost control over a number of things like a steady paycheck or the resources of a large organization.  But, ultimately, the tradeoff was worth it for him to keep going.  His advice to the group may seem simple and obvious, but it can be hard to follow!  He was convincing – you have to find what makes you happy, because ultimately, that is the person you have to answer to first.  Building a startup is really hard, but if you are doing something you love or building a product you are passionate about, it is one of life’s greatest rewards.

Foster your co-founder relationships:  Like any relationship, you are going to have some ups and downs as founders so it’s important to foster a good, highly communicative relationship with your co-founder(s) so that you can make it through those rocky days. Again, it may seem fairly straightforward, but it is one of those things that requires consistent attention and can make all the difference.

Recognize what you don’t know and tackle it head on: This was less of a tip and more of an anecdote that Ben shared, but one that I thought was worth mentioning.  Every weekend, he reads a different business book in an effort to hone his business, marketing or technical skills.  Having a ready appetite to learn and grow as a person and a leader is no doubt a part of Pinterest’s secret sauce and something I encourage any entrepreneur to foster throughout their careers.

It was tremendous to have so many alumni back at Lightspeed and thanks again Ben for your time and thoughts.

If you found this post useful, follow me @jvrionis or Lightspeed at @lightspeedvp on Twitter.

How to interview key hires II: Behavioral interviewing September 10, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in hiring, HR, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups.

Recently I posted about how to interview key hires, focusing on the three areas to test a potential hire on:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical skills and cultural fit are relatively easy to interview for (although you may need to borrow advisers or friends with the technical skills of the function that you are hiring for to help you with the interviewing).

Performance skills tell you how well they can do a job. These include characteristics such as attention to detail, problem solving, initiative, leadership and team work. I have found that behavioral interviewing is the best way to test for performance skills. From SUNY Brockport:

Behavioral interviewing is a style of interviewing that was developed in the 1970’s by industrial psychologists. Behavioral interviewing asserts that “the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar situation.”… Behavioral interviewing emphasizes past performance and behaviors.

First and foremost, it is important that you and your co-founders and other key leaders in the company agree on what performance skills you are testing for. While ideally you would like all your key hires to be great at everything, there are likely a set of 3-5 performance skills that are critical. For example, someone in a sales role might need to have a strong customer focus, an ability to influence and persuade, experience negotiating and good relationship management skills. A product manager might need to have high attention to detail, product vision, skills in working across functions and expertise at planning and prioritizing. Agree on what performance skills are important in advance.

Once a short list of performance skills has been created, each interviewer should develop a different question to ask the candidate about this performance skill. These questions should focus on asking about specific past experiences and outcomes. For example, if the performance skill being tested was initiative, questions [and interpretive guides] could include (with a credit to Novation’s SkilAnalyzer):

Tell me about a situation in which you aggressively capitalized on an opportunity and converted something ordinary into something special. [Did the candidate put a unique twist on a routine situation to yield positive results? Was there an accomplishment of little magnitude or that should have been expected of anyone in that situation?]

Describe something you’ve done that shows how you can respond to situations as they arise without supervision. [Did the candidate take reasonable and quick action with an appropriate amount of information or research, warranting the independence? Was there use of authority inappropriately, excess procrastination, or a bad decision?]

Think of a slim sales lead that you converted into a big sale. How did you do it? [Did the candidate follow up on a lead that offered little chance of success, and move it to a success level that justified the effort? Was there a trivial effort, possibly with insignificant rewards?]

Described a time when you voluntarily undertook a special project above and beyond your normal responsibilities. [Did the candidate volunteer for a task despite an already full workload and succeed without undue compromise to other responsibilities? Was there an insignificant addition, or sacrifice of other areas?]

Many people have good ideas, but few act on them. Tell me how you’ve transformed a good idea into a productive business outcome. [Did the candidate generate a meaningful action plan to bring the idea to reality? Was there a haphazard, unrealistic, unproductive transformation?]

Tell me about a time when you anticipated an opportunity or problem and were ready for it when it happened. [Did the candidate prepare an approach that would be ready to launch upon the event’s occurrence? Was there a slow trial-and-error response to the event, and resulting in only modest benefits?]

For these or any other questions that you ask, make sure that you keep the candidate talking about a single, specific instance that occurred in the past. Don’t let a candidate talk about generalities (“I always like to …”), or about how they would react (“If I got a sales lead like that I would…”). You are looking for a simple structure: Situation; Action; Outcome. Make sure that you get all three in detail.

Probe carefully to understand who was involved in decisions and what was the candidates work versus the work of people around them. Press on any instance of “we” to see what exactly the candidate did, versus what her team mates, reports or boss did. And make sure you know what impact their actions had, whether positive or negative, major or minor.

It is hard to make up stories about past experiences. That is why behavioral interviewing works so well. You’ll be surprised just how much a candidate will tell you, and how much it tells you about them, when you follow this approach.

How to interview key hires August 25, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in hiring, HR, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups.

Startup founders often need to hire people into areas that they don’t know anything about. This can be a technical founder hiring a VP marketing, a business development founder hiring a VP Engineering, or a product management founder hiring a VP Ad Sales. Often these hires are some of the most importantthat a company makes as they fill the holes in a founding management team.

There are three things that you should test a potential hire for:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical Skills: These are the skills strictly required to do the job. They are typically based on training or past experience. Examples include ability to program in Ruby on Rails, ability to run an Search Engine Marketing campaign, ability to sell 6 figure ad deals to movie studios etc. Resumes provide a good first screen for technical skills.

If you do not know anything about the field of the candidate that you’re hiring, your ability to discern their level of technical skills is limited. You should have a domain expert (who does not need to be an employee of the company – advisers, investors and friends can fill this role) interview your candidate to make sure that their expertise matches their resume. Having more junior employees within that function interview the candidate (ie having the team interview the boss) can be helpful but is not always enough. Often more junior employees don’t fully appreciate the full scope of their bosses’ jobs.

Cultural Fit: Companies are groups of people, and all groups of people have culture. This can include styles and modes of communication, work norms, modes of decision making and many other elements that can be difficult to define. Any team members can interview a candidate for cultural fit.

You have to be careful not to let “cultural fit” become a code word for suppressing diversity. The key question to ask is not, “Is this person different from the norms of our company culture?”, but “Could this person be effective in their job given the norms of our company culture?”. For example, consider a startup comprised only of recent engineering graduates with a norm of getting to work around noon and working until 3am, that is considering hiring a VP of Marketing who has to leave the office at 5pm to pick up her kids from daycare. It isn’t reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be in the office at midnight. It is reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be able to do all the required communication and coordination with the engineering team during the five hours that they will both be in the office together.

Performance Skills: Whereas Technical skills tell you if a person can do a job, Performance skills tell you how well they can do a job. These include characteristics such as attention to detail, problem solving, initiative, leadership and team work. Anybody can interview a candidate for these characteristics. However, there is a trick to doing this effectively. Asking someone “how tolerant are you of ambiguity?” is not a good differentiator. One of the most effective techniques I have come across is called behavioral interviewing. When I was GM of Netscape I put my entire team through the Skill Analyzer training from Novations to learn this technique of interviewing. I thought it was extremely helpful in creating a structured, standardized interviewing process.

Later I’ll talk about some of the key elements of Behavioral Interviewing.

Best practices in hiring June 8, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Entrepreneur, hiring, start-up, startups.

Marc Andressen’s latest post on how to hire the best people you’ve ever worked with is long but useful reading for all entrepreneurs. It reminded me to post a hiring process that I recommended to some entrepreneurs recently; I figured I’d paste it from the email as it may be of broader interest:

1. Get resumes prescreened against a profile from a recruiter (or from some referral source you trust like me or friends in the industry or whatever)

2. For resumes you like, do a phone interview of no more than 30 minutes – you’re looking for reasons to say “no” at this point

3. For people that you like on the phone, have one person do an initial interview in person for one hour. Ideal is to aim for end of day, say 4pm or later.If it IS working out, make sure that others are available to meet afterwards if the first interviewer likes them so that you don’t have to bring them back. But If its not working out, be frank about it, and don’t be afraid to cut the interview short rather than wasting your time and theirs. You can just say “thanks, bye” and not waste anyones time.

Make sure that you have a standard set of questions that you ask people interviewing for the same job. I personally prefer “behavioral interviewing”. e.g. focus on behaviors and not just skills. Skills you can test quickly and from resume. But behaviors are things like “Can you tell me about a time when you had to launch a new product – a release 1.0, rather than an upgrade of an existing product”; “We work on short deadlines here – can you tell me about a time when you had a project to do on what you thought was an unrealistically short timeframe”. etc. You frame up a specific behavior that you need and ask them about a time when they faced that same behavior. They often tell you what they WOULD do – make sure you keep them focused on a REAL SITUATION and what they DID do. Then look for behaviors in their answer that would either fit or not fit.

4. If you like ’em, make an offer almost right away. Its a hot labor market right now, so know what “market comp” is beforehand (we can help with this; so can a contingent recruiting firm”) and the best folks are not on the market for long.

5. Reference check yourself (ie don’t rely on the recruiter), and do it obsessively. Not just the people that they supply you with – look deeper, call people you know at those companies, ask the references for other people that they worked with etc. This is a massive time suck, and you will hate doing it, but it is the single most important thing that you can do.

6. Once you find people you like, sell them hard and from every angle. [Your investors] can help with this, so can partners, other employees etc.

7. Its not likely for top calibre talent that you can bring them on as a contractor first, then transition to full time. Some employees (a small minority) prefer this becasue they are test driving you as much as you’re test driving them, but don’t count on it.

8. If its not working out, don’t let it fester – move quickly to terminate. You’re too small to be able to afford people who are a bad fit and you can’t carry dead weight. And people rarely come around – your first instincts are usually right.

If you forget everything else, make sure you remember #5. Reference check obsessively. People don’t do it anywhere near enough.