Fat Hiring for Lean Startups

I have been following the lean startup movement for a while now. I’m sure a lot of it was in practice before becoming a full-fledged movement. But it has brought a common language and set of principles to how products are developed and brought to market that I think is just great. Like all movements, its scope has expanded over time. “Lean” is now an entire philosophy for building startups. And to me there is one place where lean has no place: Hiring.

To understand why hiring needs to be fat, not lean, lets first look at the core principles of lean startup. Lean startup is built on agile development and iterative customer development that starts from some minimum base product (the absolute minimum thing that the market could theoretically use) and evolves over time based on measuring, customer feedback, etc. It’s all about speed, feedback loops and iteration cycles.

You can’t apply this to hiring. If you did, you would hire fast. You might get lucky and get someone good. But most likely you would not. A startup is a collection of people. And there is a huge difference between a good hire and a great one. Taking the time to find the absolute best person in each role can make a huge difference in how your startup performs. Especially since most startups have one person in each role.

There is no such thing as a “Minimum Viable Hire”. And iterating or nurturing a “so so” hire into a great one, either cannot be done or should not be done.  So, when it comes to hiring you need to take the opposite approach. Don’t hire lean, hire fat.

Fat Hiring

Fat hiring has no iterations and it has a slow feedback loop. It is an ongoing commitment on the part of founders, company execs to always be hiring, promoting, building your bench (your roster of potential new hires), and looking for great people even if you don’t have an immediate opening.

Principles:

Hiring never stops. Your budget may only allow for a small handful of hires, but you should always be on the lookout for great people. If you find a really amazing person, find some money to hire them.

Good is the enemy of great. Don’t settle for OK hires. Hold out for great ones. Even though you’re dying without someone in the role. And even though its slowing down your customer development process.

Focus on outcomes. Traditional job descriptions suck. Most startups cobble together some Frankenstein job description from parts of other job descriptions. Take the time to figure out what outcomes or results are expected from a given role and what attributes the person needs to have in order to achieve those outcomes. This focuses your hiring effort and weeds out weak candidates (since the results they are accountable for are clear).

Be process-driven. Too many startups have an ill-defined hiring process. They bring people in for conversations. They hire based on gut. It doesn’t work. You need to have a structured hiring process that systematically tests fit against the outcomes and attributes that come from your well thought-out job descriptions. This process should involve superiors, peers and subordinates of the person to be hired.

Try before you buy. This is again counter to speed and lean, but even well thought out hiring processes are imperfect. Wherever possible, try a candidate before committing. This could be through an initial contract, testing during the hiring process, an initial probation period or all of the above.

There’s probably more to fat hiring. This is not intended to be a manual (and I don’t pretend to have it all figured out). All I’m saying is:

- As you embrace lean principles in your startup, remember that they don’t apply to hiring.

- Hiring is absolutely core and mission critical. Without great hiring, the rest does not work.

So, take the time to hire fat and hire right!