Better Product Managers, and Product Management

Hiring the RIGHT “Big Company” People for Startups

Here is a story I’ve heard many times:

“Yeah, he seemed like a great candidate; had a lot of success with Similar Product, had exactly the kind of experience we really needed on the team, We really thought he would be the guy who could take us to the next level, but he just… hasn’t been able to deliver / isn’t the right cultural fit / just doesn’t seem to work well with the team.”

And I can always predict the reason: the candidate used to work at Some Big Company.

Big Company people are not universally bad for startups. In fact, you’ll never grow your startup without them.  But lots of them are not the right hire for your startup.

At KISSmetrics, I recently hired someone from a Big Company, and just acquired a co-worker from a Big Company.  Both of them are great additions to the team, and already bringing a needed infusion of energy, experience, and different perspectives.

But that hasn’t always been my experience.  I’ve worked with Big Company additions to startups that actually made me dread coming to work in the mornings.  I’ve even hired a Big(ger) Company person that I had to end up firing.

So how do you get it right?  What are the tips for finding the right Big Company people for your startup?

Here are the 3 traits  I’ve found that the great hires have in common:

Action

Lots of potential hires have ideas.  Surprisingly few have actions — that is, they’ve researched you, they’ve tried your products, they’ve identified areas where you need to improve and done something about it.

As an applicant, you have limited visibility into a company and their priorities. But life in a startup is always full of uncertainty.  You need people who are comfortable saying, “based on the information I have, this is what I will do / have done”, not people who wait to act until someone tells them it’s okay to do so.

Fusion

Having launched a really successful product tells me one thing: that you launched that successful product, at that company, at that point in time.   It does not mean that you can necessarily repeat that feat with this product, at this company, and this point in time.

Great candidates can take bits of past successful processes and blend them with new realities and constraints.  They have the insight to understand the context of past successes (team size, technical savvy, budget, 400lb gorilla bargaining power, tools, target audience) and adapt their experience to where they are now.

Another way of saying this is, there are 2 kinds of domain experts: the ones who have had 20 years of varied experiences, and the ones who have had the same 2 years of experience, repeated 10 times.

…and possibly the most important,

Impatience

Things move 10x faster at a startup than at a Big Company.

Your Big Company candidate ought to be squirming with impatience in their current environment.  They want their ideas to be implemented faster.  They want to stop with the extensive analysis and start experimenting.  They crave doing things vs. talking about them and planning them for next year.

If they aren’t frustrated and impatient and being scolded for trying to shortcut process now, they’re going to have a horrible culture shock when they show up at your office.    They’ll want to re-create the predictability of their old environment, which usually results in an employee who hides beyond process or cuts off new information that may spur a changed decision.

An impatient candidate will still probably have some culture shock.  But they’ll react in the opposite way: the energy will invigorate them to work harder and welcome new information and use it to look for the ways they can best contribute.

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  • http://qpx.woodworkerxyz.info/power-team-400/ Power Team 400

    [...] Hiring the RIGHT “Big Company” People for Startups The Experience … They have the insight to understand the context of past successes (team size, technical savvy, budget, 400lb gorilla bargaining power tools, target audience) and adapt their experience to where they are now. [...]

  • http://twitter.com/tsummit Tom Summit

    I like the term Fusion and “the same 2 years of experience, repeated 10 times” example.
    I have found, the longer someone stays at a big company, the  tougher it will be for them to thrive in the startup world. 1 -4 years will be the easiest, but once they have been there  for 8 years (obviously not impatient) the probability of being successful in a start up decreases.

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