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The Art of Recruiting

Originally published
Originally published: 8/1/2006

The art of recruiting is the purest form of evangelism because you’re not simply asking people to try your product, buy your product, or partner with you. Instead, you are asking them to bet their lives on your organization. Can it get any scarier for them, and tougher for you, than this?

Hire better than yourself. In the Macintosh Division, we had a saying, “A players hire A players; B players hire C players” — meaning that great people hire great people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them. (If you start down this slippery slope, you’ll soon end up with Z players; this is called The Bozo Explosion. It is followed by The Layoff.) I have come to believe that we were wrong — A players hire A+ players, not merely A players. It takes self-confidence and selfawarness, but it’s the only way to build a great team.

Hire infected people. Classically, organizations look for the “right” educational and professional backgrounds. I would add a third quality: Is the candidate infected with a love of your product? Because all the education and work experience in the world doesn’t matter if the candidate doesn’t “get it” and love it. On the other hand, an ex-jewelry schlepper like me can make it in technology if you’re infected with a love of the product.

Ignore the irrelevant. This is somewhat redundant with the prior point, but it merits repetition. Often a candidate’s educational and work experience is relevant on paper but irrelevant in the real world. Would a senior vice-president from Microsoft with a PhD in computer science be an ideal employee of a startup? Not necessarily — this poor guy has been working for a company with $60 billion in cash and 95% market share, and he woke up every day not worried about the competition or customers but the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. The flip side is also true: the candidate — using a jewelry analogy — without the “perfect” background could be the diamond in the rough.

Double check your intuition. Everyone has stories about the candidate that they “knew” would work out who turned out to be a nightmare employee. Or the employee they “knew” wouldn’t work out despite a lack of qualifications who turned out to be the employee of the decade. The problem with intuition is that people only remember when their intuition was right — truth be told, their intuition was probably wrong as often as right. My recommendation is that you ask every candidate the same questions and take extensive notes. You might even conduct the first interview by telephone so you cannot judge the candidates by their appearance. In particular, startup founders believe they have a good “gut feel” for candidates, so they conduct unstructured interviews that are way too subjective, and they end up with lousy hires.

Check independent references. How many of us have limited reference checking to only those provided by the candidate? I know I have. Can we be more stupid than this? This often happens because we don’t double check our intuition: we like the guy, so we only call the references he’s provided because we don’t want to hear that we like a bozo. Do as I say, not as I did: check independent references — preferably at least one person that he worked for and one person that worked for him.

Apply the Shopping Center Test. As the last step in the recruiting process, apply the Shopping Center Test. It works like this: Suppose you’re at a shopping center, and you see the candidate. He is fifty feet away and has not seen you. You have three choices: (1) beeline it over to him and say hello; (2) say to yourself, “This shopping center isn’t that big; if I bump into him, then I’ll say hello, if not, that’s okay too;” (3) get in your car and go to another shopping center. My contention is that unless the candidate elicits the first response, you shouldn’t hire him.

Use all your weapons. Once you’ve found the perfect candidate, use all the weapons at your disposal to land him — not just salary and options. More important — and more telling — is the attractiveness of your vision for how you’ll change the world and the other employees (who doesn’t like to work with smart people who are kicking butt?). To this armory, add your board of directors and advisors who should use their sway to sign him up. And finally, throw in the resumebuilding potential of working for a great organization like yours (let’s not be naive, here). Once you decide you want a person, pull out all stops and go with shock and awe to land him .

Sell all the decision makers. A candidate seldom makes a decision all by himself. There can be several other people contributing to the decision. The obvious ones are spouses and significant others, but it can also be kids, colleagues, and friends. With Asian Americans, it can even be parents because Asian Americans are perpetually trying to make their parents happy. In the interviews, simply ask, “Who is helping you make this decision?” And then see if you can make them happy too.

Wait to compensate. A common mistake that many organizations make is using an offer letter as the starting point for negotiation. This is very risky because you don’t know what reaction this first data point is going to have. If the candidate is Asian American, for example, he might show it to his mother; his mother might be offended by your lowball offer and then tell the candidate to forget your organization because it’s dishonored your family. An offer letter confirms what everyone has agreed upon. It is the last step in negotiations, not the first one.

Don’t assume you’re done. Garage once recruited an investment banker (mea culpa #1) from a large (mea culpa #2) firm. After weeks of wooing and several offers and counter offers, he accepted a position with us. He even worked for us for a few days, and then he called in sick. Late the next night, he sent me an email saying that he had accepted an offer from a former client of his old investment bank. I learned a valuable lesson: never assume that your recruiting is done. Frankly, you should recruit every employee every day because when they go home at night, you might never see them again if you don’t keep the lovin’ going. 

Guy Kawasaki is a managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm and a columnist for Previously, he was an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer, Inc. where he was one of the individuals responsible for the success of the Macintosh computer. He is the author of eight books including his most recent, The Art of the Start which can be found at

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