“Why haven’t you hired more people in 2 years?”

What making a ton of bad hiring mistakes has taught me about building teams.

We’ve been screening several candidates for a bunch of different positions at DeepSource, and a particularly impressive candidate asked me during our conversation, "It's been 2 years since you started the company, but there are only 18 people. Why haven’t you hired more people in 2 years?".

I love it when potential hires ask me such thoughtful questions. It gives me a peek into how they evaluate a new job opportunity, especially with an early-stage startup. It also allows me to tell them more about my own thinking and explain the company’s mission slightly better. Questions about hiring are my favorite because it involves a certain kind of meta-thinking when you’re having this conversation in the hiring process.

Post-mortem of a bad hire

My co-founder and I have made our fair share of hiring mistakes in the past six years of our startup life, including, for the most part, the first startup which I had started right after college. Every time we’ve had to let someone go, we’ve sat down and introspected why we had to come to that stage. I am a strong believer in the notion that there are no bad employees, only bad hiring managers. So if I’ve had to let someone go, it was because of my fault and mine alone. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but you know what I mean.

We concluded that most of the bad hires we’d made fell into one of these buckets.

  1. They were hired out of desperation. We had bitten off more than what we could chew and got overwhelmed with deadlines, which led us to conclude that we need more people, and we need them soon. So we said yes to hiring without too much diligence or everyone saying a strong yes for them.

  2. They were hired for something that we hadn’t figured out how to do ourselves first. There was a pattern for this one and something that we repeatedly did. As tech founders, marketing and sales didn’t come naturally to us. It was easy to think that this one person can come in and do things magically. Well, guess what? It rarely works.

  3. Hired without having a repeatable process in place. This is a corollary to the previous point. But even if you’ve figured out how to do something, it isn’t easy for a new hire to perform well if you haven’t systemized the process.

Our hiring principles

If you think hiring is difficult, try asking someone to leave.

We realized that the best way to optimize for good hires, especially in the early stages of a startup, is to hire deliberately. Of course, there would be situations when you can’t afford this — but beware that it comes with a trade-off of the possibilities of making a bad hire being greater.

We’ve come to put some principles in place that help us we’re not making the same mistakes again:

  1. Hire only after writing the exact job description and getting it reviewed internally.

  2. Don’t hire for a position if you expect them to deliver or take accountability for critical projects or KPIs within 3 months from joining.

  3. All of the founders should be on the hiring panel. So should at least 2 team members they are supposed to work with, in addition to the person they’d be reporting directly to.

  4. Only hire someone when there’s a strong yes from everyone on the hiring panel. No exceptions.

  5. Trust your gut.

These are some very general principles that would apply to all early-stage startups — with some exceptions, of course. As more people get involved in your team’s hiring process, it is worth reiterating to them these principles. After all, explicit is better than implicit. Hiring is too important to be left to individual preferences.