Entrepreneurship is risky; hiring employees is even riskier
Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. October's topic is hiring.
It is a great honor to close out the October series on hiring here on Silicon Prairie News. I have read both Brad's and Brent's post from earlier in the month and I'm hoping I can share some great insight like they have.
I'm a big fan of Mark Suster. Mark is an investment partner at GRP Partners and blogs at Both Sides of The Table. In March 2011 he wrote a blog post that I have bookmarked and read often. I am drawn to his post and this topic so much because Mark says when hiring employees, always choose "Attitude over Aptitude." In a region like LA, or even in NYC and The Valley, where there is more abundance of people with the same aptitudes, attitude really does matter. You have the wrong attitude – you are fired. Most of the time these employees will just go find another startup a few miles away and probably experience the same outcome eventually. I'd like to change it up for us in the Silicon Prairie and say "RISK + Attitude over Aptitude" is important while hiring in this region.
Why is risk so important in this region? Let's face it. You don't see a startup in the Midwest raise $41 million dollars in VC money with an idea for a mobile app. Only to have it fall on its face and then supposedly get acquired for $5 million because of patents or because of the developer talent. Yes, I am speaking of Color. Once that happens here, I will eat my words. Ultimately, this region is best cut out for those who can handle a splash of risk and can embrace failure.
There is a philosophy that my co-founder, Levi, and I abide by that I would recommend to any startup in the region. Your idea and your vision for the company does not mean a single thing if your team isn't willing to take the same amount of risk that you are. If you have a year of cash to put an idea on the map, tell your current/potential employees that. If you aren't sure someone has the chops for a riskier environment, bring a potential employee on board for 2-3 months in a contractor or part time role to be sure they can handle the train ride to Risktown. (I have no idea where Risktown is, but I'd probably be mayor.)
Many people say entrepreneurs are crazy. I tend to agree, but it's a good kind of crazy. You throw a product entrepreneur and a technical entrepreneur on the same team and you are sure to need a weekly shipment of padded walls in the whiteboard room. What brings order and focus to the entrepreneurial mind is to surround yourself with an A-team of employees. And remember, they need to have a great attitude and be risk tolerant! When Levi and I started Goodsmiths, obviously we weren’t knitting scarfs and crocheting in the office. The fact is, we both see a tremendous opportunity to build a better marketplace that ultimately gives small business owners a way to become medium sized business owners. Both of us knew early on that if we went after this market we needed to surround ourselves with people who were smarter than we were. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know how to do something while hiring. In areas where you need help, look for it and tell that person you need their strengths.
How we hired at Goodsmiths
So here is how we went about hiring for Goodsmiths:
We worked through several graphic/web designers before finally finding Rachel McClung, who hands down is one of the best designers in the region. Rachel's attitude towards design fit our company's goal to a T! Rachel is someone who is never afraid to step outside of her skill set in order to advance the mission of Goodsmiths. This is essential. We would be paralyzed without Rachel's ability to take her own personal risks, in most cases being asked to expand her core skillset, so that Goodsmiths can be the best it can be. She is someone you can always count on.
Hiring lesson: Create an environment that rewards employees to step outside of their comfort zone and take risks, even if that means there are a few stumbles. If you accept your employees' risks, they are more likely to accept yours.
Brandon Ruschill was a young guy who Levi talked to at a Rails event in Des Moines. He was early to the event and stayed late. His hunger and eagerness to learn immediately showed us his incredible sense of intelligence (and humor). And most importantly, Brandon was ready to dive in head first to Goodsmiths and our startup atmosphere. He is fearless and we love it!
Hiring lesson: Give your employees a place to learn and grow their skills beyond your idea and you will find your most fearless followers.
Eric Heikes, an entrepreneur himself, moved to Des Moines because he believed in what we were creating (besides the fact that DSM kicks ass). We knew Eric could handle the risk, and his actions demonstrated his optimistic attitude toward what we were building. Being entrepreneurs ourselves, we give Eric the freedom to keep some of his own business ventures moving forward. This is a mutual respect that goes a long way.
Hiring lesson: Hiring other entrepreneurs who are ready to be part of a team means you have another partner who knows how to persevere through the sweat and some sleepless nights.
Timing is everything. When we first met Riane Menardi at the SPN job crawl, we wanted to hire her because she fit perfectly into our A-Team when it came to involvement in the handmade community. The fact of the matter is, it just didn't work out right away. But we kept an eye on her, and as Mark says in his blog post, ABH = always be hiring. Riane is a perfect fit for our niche, she is passionate for makers, and is involved in the handmade community. Riane is a product of the startup scene and there was no need to test out her stomach for the ups and downs of startups. Riane brings words like "Bam" and "Moar" into our daily lives and for that she is awesome.
Hiring lesson: Hiring individuals who know nothing but a startup environment automatically bring a "startup mentality." They understand they won't be sitting in a Herman Miller chair (yet) and may need to take a turn cleaning the kitchen. But most importantly, they can help you nurture a startup mentality for other team members who are new to it.
"You are in a market who needs a mom figure," was what Deb Gore-Ohrn said to us when we first met. Deb is the office mom, Wednesday yoga instructor (downward dogs and moar) and mother to several cats. Deb brings to the team 18 years of experience from Meredith Corp. and knows the handmade niche better than anyone else on our team. However, you can't get much different than a $1 billion corporation and a startup. I needed to make sure Deb understood the core differences before she was hired – especially the risk that she would need to embrace. Deb's response to me questioning her on this? "I feel like this is where I'm meant to be. I know I can bring tremendous value, I understand the risks, but this is where I want to be right now in my life." Bingo.
Hiring lesson: Be upfront and honest, but don't forget to give yourself enough credit. Our environment was exactly what Deb was looking for, but we only felt comfortable that she was with us for the long haul after we had divulged everything we could about our current position and future goals.
Ultimately, it is my opinion that your team and startup will be light years ahead of your competition when you can show up to work everyday without worrying who's reaching for their barf bag because of the vulnerabilities of a startup. So create your own risk barometer and attitude scale and make sure that each employee you hire passes both with flying colors!
Lastly, having built several products and companies in the last five years, I have learned a lot when it comes to hiring employees. For those young entrepreneurs who are just getting started, it is important to remember that your idea isn't fully executed by yourself. And you have to be an entrepreneur + a psychologist + a leader. This might be a scary proposition for some, but for those who truly believe they are changing the world, it's a hell of a ride. Take your team with you to Risktown.
Credits: Graphic courtesy of James Eliason. Photo courtesy of James Eliason.
About the Author: James Eliason himself is a product of an entrepreneurial family. And while some people might be born with a slightly higher tolerance for risk, Eliason believes the biggest factor in being successful in a risky environment is to surround yourself with supportive people. James’ dad is an entrepreneur and always has a “lesson learned” to help James make informed decisions. James’ grandfather, while he did not start up his own business, took a huge risk by moving his entire family to Alaska in the 1970’s to become the chief engineer on the controversial Alaskan pipeline. Other family members have started successful businesses in the Pacific Northwest and Australia, and are constant reminders of how persevering through risk can reap great rewards. James is passionate about providing support to others who are wading their way through the risks of business, whether as an employer, peer, or friend.
Find Eliason on Twitter, @jameseliason.
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