How we hire at SmugMug
Apologies for the lack of an egregious pun in my title. I’m afraid I don’t have the talent for it that Mike over at Atlassian has, but he called me out in his Life is a Hire Way post so I’m compelled to respond.
First of all, we don’t have all the answers. In fact, I doubt we have many at all. Hiring is *very* difficult. One could argue that it’s the most difficult thing when building a business. If you’re really good at it, you probably get it really right 33% of the time, really wrong 33% of the time, and the rest of the time you sorta get warm bodies in seats. Not exactly stellar.
SmugMug has 20 employees and we’re in our 6th year. So we haven’t done a lot of it here, but we’ve run other companies, and what we have done here has been interesting. So far, we’re well above the percentages I mentioned above. Almost every single one of our hires has been perfect.
Here are some of my insights:
Get the right people on the bus (and get the wrong people off). Jim Collins wrote the best business book of all time, Good to Great, and his chapter on people is prophetic. You’ve got to hire the right people, no matter what. If the right person knocks on your door, and you don’t have a position for her, hire her anyway. Find a way. Then find a seat for her. Keep moving her from seat to seat until there’s one that’s just right – but get her in the door first. Likewise, if someone doesn’t belong on your bus, get rid of them. Keeping them around longer will only damage your company and morale. One of our very best hires, Andy Williams, kept knocking on our door. We knew we wanted to hire him, we weren’t even sure what we wanted him to do, and we knew we couldn’t afford him. We found a way, we found a seat for him on the bus, and he’s had a profound impact on our company.
Hire for passion first, talent second. Given a choice between a world-class, stellar developer who wasn’t in love with our vision and a passionate hacker with limited experience, I’ll take the passionate hacker any day. Talent can be taught and learned, passion can’t. Of course, there has to be a foundation there – hiring someone who’s never touched code to write heavy-duty software isn’t wise. But you get the point. Passion is vital. (And I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often talent AND passion go hand-in-hand once you weed out the dispassionate).
Passion for the job, not passion for the company. I’m thrilled when I talk to people who are passionate about SmugMug and want to work here. I truly am. But what I’m really looking for is a passion for your specific job. Do you love taking care of customers and want to be a SmugMug Support Hero? Do you eat, drink, breathe, and sleep datacenter operations and dream of a fully-managed well-oiled machine devoid of human contact? Does improving customer interaction with their priceless memories make your heart beat faster? You’re our type of person. Passion for the company is icing on the cake. Kathy Sierra’s excellent blog has an interesting take on this concept, too.
Look for failure. SmugMug wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t tanked another company and wasted lots of my own money. I learn best from failures, and I believe others do, too. I don’t want you to hide your failures – instead, I’d rather you highlight them, explain what went wrong, and most importantly, what you learned from the experience. Too much success without struggle breeds overconfidence and can stangate growth. Everyone blows it. Anyone at SmugMug can attest to the fact that I talk to myself when coding and the most common phrase I utter is “Don, you’re so dumb!” You’re going to fail from time-to-time at SmugMug, too. How you deal with it is important.
Getting stuff done. There is definitely a place in this world for people who do pure research. I love those people, and I love the magic they invent. There isn’t a place for that at SmugMug, though. We’re a family of doers. I spend close to 90% of my time thinking about a problem before I start working on it, but when it comes time to pull that trigger, I *move*. There’s no room at a tiny company for people who don’t move at a frantic pace.
Embrace diversity. Another fantastic book is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. In it, he’ll open your eyes about group thinking and why innovative ideas come from diverse groups. If everyone thinks the way you do, not only will you never have new innovative ideas, but you’ll never be called upon to really think about and defend your ideas. Having spirited debate inside your company is vital to success. When I’m about to propose a new idea at SmugMug, I *know* people in the company are going to attack my idea before I even walk into the room – so I come mentally prepared to do battle. This sounds scary, but in reality, it’s a good thing. I’ll have thought through my idea to the best of my ability, but the 19 other people at the company will also do the same thing, and they’re all a lot smarter than I am. Vastly more important than their intelligence, though, is the fact that they all think differently than I do. They see the problem differently, they see the solution differently. And the idea gets that much better after it’s been beaten around the room.
Hire your own customers. This has turned out to be the single most important hiring decision we’ve made. And it builds upon all of the other items above. Through our strong user community, we’ve been able to identify stand-out people who are already familiar with our product, passionate about helping people use our product, and in love with the idea of working their magic here at SmugMug. The vocal, passionate true believers – you know who I’m talking about, they’ve cornered you at parties and forced you to buy a TiVo – those are the ones to get on the bus. Get them on the bus, re-arrange some seating if you have to, but likely this is their dream job and likely they’re a dream hire. Almost all of our best hires have come from our user base.
So there you have it. There are probably others that’ll come to mind, but those are the biggies.
And since I think this is a great Meme to spread, I’ll tag 5 other people I know and see if we can get some more insight: Jonathan, Tim, Craig, Stewart, and Ashely. (I’m trying to find out if Ashley has a blog or not, she’s a recruiting manager at Google. If not, I’ll replace her with another tag.)
UPDATE: Craig Newmark just got back to me with his answer. He insists his recommendation is to “turn hiring over to someone who’s good at it” and mentions Jim Buckmaster. Alas, Jim doesn’t blog AFAIK, so I can’t pass the tag along. Oh, and Stewart is traveling. Let’s hope Tim, Jonathan, or Ashely come through.