One of the stupid things I did when I first made money was start an indie music label.
It was the early 2000’s, online music was just beginning to take off, and I wanted to learn more about it from the inside. I thought I could see many parallels between the tech startup industry and the music industry and I thought I could use those insights to my advantage.
I was right about the market similarities. Like in the music industry, everybody entering the tech startup industry wants to be a star — nobody wants to start out as just a member of the band.
And like in the music industry, most founders fail to understand that whether you succeed or not depends much less on your star potential and much more on the accidents of chance and unfair control over distribution enjoyed by the majors (major labels in music, big tech and VC funds in tech). Like in music, the stories we hear about in tech are about the people who found creative ways around all the obstacles; never the stories of the people who failed to do so.
When I started my label, I worked hard to find the artists I believed had the experience necessary to succeed — people who’d played and sung in other successful bands, who’d been signed to majors in the past, who’d produced great work.
I believed that my job was to hire the most experienced and qualified people, because that was the kind of talent my label needed in order to succeed.
Those people were hard to find, harder to persuade to join, expensive, came with high expectations, didn’t work very hard and had nothing in common with each other, so they didn’t try to help each other succeed.
If I had my time again (and I don’t) I would instead spend a lot less time and money per artist, and spread my bets on a much bigger roster of artists, and I would instead focus on hiring artists with a great cultural fit.
Artists aligned on culture and subculture would care more about each others’ successes and try to support each other instead of leaning on me all the time. Distributors and booking agents would associate my label with a particular subculture or sound, and come to associate my artists with a particular audience demographic they could count on me bringing to their stores and venues.
It require me to have my ego under control, to accept that I can’t make stars happen myself, that the hurdles in the industry are all controlled by the majors, and the best I can do is hire people who can learn really fast about how to be a better artist, respond to what their audience wants to hear, and work their arses off, even when it seems like they won’t succeed.
How to prioritise
How do you apply that metaphor to tech startups?
Well, when I speak to a founder with a hiring problem, they’ll tell me they’re having trouble finding the talent they need, and I’ll ask them to prioritise what they’re looking for.
Are you hiring for experience first, skills first or culture-fit first? Most of them will prioritise those three things this way:
- Culture fit
And you can see them write job descriptions and job advertisements that reflect that: we’re building a fintech startup on this tech stack and we’re looking for someone with 5+ years experience building a fintech startup on that same tech stack.
You should be skilled in using the following checklist of developer tools. Oh yes, almost as an afterthought, here’s a half-thought-through set of general platitudes about what it’s like to work here, so you can get some sort of idea of what our culture is like.
That prioritisation is backwards. It should be:
- Culture fit. You’ll can’t afford to pay this person what they were earning before, so if they don’t love being part of the team, don’t love the mission, and don’t feel valued for more than just their skill and experience, they’re not going to stick around. People with a strong culture-fit will help their coworkers, mentor more junior staff, seek speaking opportunities at industry events, write a blog post and share it on their socials.
- Skills. You probably can’t afford the person who’s an expert in the skills you need, and you definitely can’t wait for them to change all your existing processes and tools to their preferred set in which they feel comfortable and an expert. So select for people who can prove to you they’re a fast learner. Their job will change dramatically in the next five years, so the ability to learn new tools and methodologies quickly to an acceptable standard to move forward is vastly more useful than someone doggedly refusing to learn something new because they’re expert in something else.
- Experience. If your startup goes according to plan, you’re hiring someone who can recruit, manage and lead five people who each do the job you’re hiring them to do today. What are the chances that someone with eight years of experience in doing the current job is going to be a great leader of that function in a management role? If you need experience, it is experience of the customer’s industry, experience of change and disruption, experience of living and working with uncertainty and risk.
Recruit people who want to build a subculture with you, who care more about your customers than any of your competitors, who aren’t trying to be the best at anything but can’t wait to learn enough of a new skill for it to be helpful in their work. And unless you’re already a major label with money coming out your ears, don’t hire major label artists because they have never had to find creative ways around the obstacles to success.