Why "Hire Slow, Fire Fast" Is A Bunch Of BS

The startup community loves to latch onto a corny catchphrase, but this latest gem to guide hiring isn't just dumb, it's counterproductive.

“Hire slow, fire fast” is well on its way to becoming the favorite cliché of startup founders, consultants, entrepreneurs, and wantrepreneurs alike, quickly joining the esteemed ranks of such august chestnuts as “growth hacking,” “big data,” and “fail fast.” It’s like saying “synergy,” “innovation,” “the cloud,” or "We’re the (recent billion dollar valuation company) of (recent untapped vertical)” at a VC pitch. Just. Stop.

Because like many clichés, “hire slow, fire fast” is not only overused--it’s also complete bullshit.

If your doctor gave you six months to live unless you got a liver transplant, would you hold out until you found the PERFECT liver? Or would you find the best liver available this very second and figure out how to make it work?

Call me pollyannish, but I would take the latter.

Recently, I wrote a post at 500 Startups about how we handled User Experience and Design for a new product at my startup, Speek. Most commenters got it and seemed to agree with my approach. However, one design manager (not a founder or early employee) from a later-stage funded consumer web company with a bird logo (which shall remain nameless) took issue with my statement that you cannot hire one single employee who is great at both UX and design. He disagreed, saying that you should wait and find someone perfect. In other words: “hire slow, fire fast.”

Well, if I were a middle manager at a company far past the startup stage with a few hundred million in the bank, and I had joined that company after it had reached market saturation--which, incidentally, is basically the same as working for an old established enterprise--I’d probably have that stance too. Unfortunately, I am the founder of a seed-stage startup.

No matter how you spin it, as a startup we have between 6 and 12 months to live. We live by figuring out how to hit a hockey stick-shaped growth curve. We figure that out by hiring a very small team and spending day and night applying our collective expertise in a series of product, marketing, and user-acquisition experiments. We measure the crap out of the results, then rinse and repeat.

For an early-stage startup founder, doing anything slowly is simply not an option.

You need to get good at finding great developers and other people who will fill key roles very quickly. You throw them in feet to the fire and start iterating. They will either thrive or they won’t. Those who don't are either going to be unhappy and go find something else to do on their own, or they won't and you unfortunately will have to fire them.

The “fire fast” part of the cliché is right, as painful as it may be sometimes. The “hire slow” part is just total bullshit. And it exists precisely because it is not painful, at least not in the short term. The person who says it gets to drag their feet and then pat himself or herself on the back for being so reasoned and considered, a true sage of the technoscenti.

Don’t get me wrong: Under no conditions should you bloat your staff. That would be suicide at a cash-strapped startup. You should, however, identify the key roles you absolutely need filled for successful product iteration and then hire great people to fill them fast.

Too much wringing of hands and holding out for the perfect hire for a role is just as devastating as hiring the wrong person--potentially even more so. Letting the wrong hire linger for too long is the worst possible scenario of all.

So that’s it. Let the hating commence. But before I go, and Imma let you finish, I swear, let me get out of the way some of the initial hating for them:

“In the long term, waiting for the ideal person to hire is actually cheaper.”

In the words of The Big Lebowski, “well that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” I feel a strong urge to remind you that, again, startups don’t have the luxury of long-term thinking. We have 6 to 12 months at the onset.

“Hiring quickly, rather than slowly, goes against running your startup in a lean fashion.”

It does not. I am not saying “hire more,” I am saying figure out exactly what you need, and then hire quickly. A hiring mistake is correctable; recruiting slowly and taking too long to fill a role are not.

“There are lots of good people out there who can do both user experience and design.”

Sure there are, buddy. You can find them all here, actually.

--Danny Boice is the cofounder and CTO of Speek, a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link. Find Danny on Twitter at @DannyBoice.

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Kulinski]

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16 Comments

  • Michael Muryn

    Hire slow does not mean to take too much time and wait 6 to 12 months for the startup death. However, in such a short timespan, hiring the wrong people has probably greater chance to bring your company down, even if you hire quick and fire fast. Just like when you mean to "hire fast", you do not mean to "hire too fast" or "hire too fast the wrong people".

    Some say "we don't have time to waste". Exactly. How much people-time hiring the wrong person cost versus the time it take to hire someone? Plus with the wrong one, you need to fire him and hire another one. I'm sure you're not gonna fire the one you just hired after a day.

    Here is how I rank it from best to worst:

    • Hire great people quickly
    • Hire great people slowly
    • Hire wrong people quickly
    • Hire wrong people slowly

    For the same result, hiring quickly is obviously better. However, hiring the great person is always better. Distribution of talent is not 50%/50%, especially if the role demand a major league player.

  • Lary

    Danny Boice misinterprets the phrase "hire slow, fire fast" as if you should lollygag in hiring and do it so slowly that your start-up fails. He claims that you just have to get better at hiring great people quickly. Good concept, but it does take more work to find superior talent, to separate the wheat from chaff, to check references, to dig deep enough to make sure the candidate fits the culture and can truly perform the job for which they're hired. The phrase means "don't be hasty" not "drag your feet" when it comes to hiring. If you study how much time CEOs spend reviewing the resume of a person they are about to interview (often, less than 5 minutes), and how much time they spend developing a job description (very little), you'll see why so many hiring errors are made at any pace. Speed, without the rigor of a disciplined process, is destined for failure.

  • Usman Sheikh

    If you have the capability of "Firing Fast" then the adverse impact of "Hiring Fast" is drastically reduced. Most startup founders have difficulty in "Firing Fast". It is far easier to bring someone on than it is to let them go. This problem is magnified if you are a first time founder. 

    Your article does bring up key points of having a sense of urgency and making snap decisions and moving forward. It should also come with a "warning" that this strategy will require the founder to make the same decision when he/she makes a mistake as well.

  • Aviewofthought

    I think, just to toss another bit in, that "fire fast" is also a potential error. What I have seen is founders/managers fire people they did not understand, even though those people were productive and good for the company.

    Granted, management skills, while easy to buy, may not be easy to become proficient at. But it seems to me that startups may lack the people skills to really do a good job of team building and especially, team maintenance.

  • Desmond Sherlock

    Listening to this debate, to me, is laced with too much dogma on either side. I don't think that running a startup is a science, yet, but an art and to state processes and systems as though they were facts grips with me and sounds like  two religious leaders disputing who's god and dogma is better.

    I prefer more conceptualising rather than factualizing, but hey, that is just me.
    Here's to uncertainty.

  • wyclif

    This is good stuff. By the way, "hiring for culture fit" is also bullshit. If taken to extremes, you'll find yourself with a nice little cultish and narrow-minded team on your hands who engage in mass groupthink and don't know how to work together because they can't identify and separate good ideas from bad ones.

  • Camilo Acosta

    Based on the comments below, it sounds like you really should've talked about "how to hire well, quickly."  I don't disagree with that.  I do disagree with simply "hire quickly."  Cultural fit is as just important as skills and both are tough to find in a speedy manner - but not impossible.

  • Che Guava

    I have never heard this "saying", but I agree.  It is unbelievably naive and shortsighted.  

  • Dead Beat Victim

     

    It is a lot easier to hire someone when you
    have no intent on paying them....if it is not your money and doesn't cost you anything
    it makes it a much easier decision. Seems like your Communiclique start-up has
    the reputation of using consultants and never paying for the services they
    rendered.

  • jared wilson

    I think you said it perfectly "not luxury a startup can afford."Which also goes back to the previous article you wrote and linked to above.From your previous article, your "UI/UX unicorns" are out there. The problem is startups just can't afford them nor attract the talent since 99% of the time they are strapped for cash and would rather spread that funding across multiple disciplines. This may come as a surprise but there are designers who are amazing copywriters and user experience professionals, designers who are amazing developers even developers who are amazing copywriters. Even producers who are amazing designers!Mind = BLOWN!You can hire a designer who is amazing at UX, but if you cant afford to pay for their full service they are not going to offer it. Doesn't mean they are not schooled in IA and user paradigms. Role definition is something that is lacking from the hiring process. There is a common theme in this article as well. You seem to rather want to burn thru employees, potentially getting a sub par product rather than try to attract talent. Getting a reputation as a sweat shop isn't something that is going to help that and the tone in the article comes across as having an itchy trigger finger - not good. A company with a "Turn and Burn" hiring policy is not something I would want to have associated with my company especially when your company is based online, and the talent you are trying to attract is akin to the 1%'r of the internet. Overall you seem to want Ferrari's but will settle on a 1996 Civic's painted in barn red if you can have it today. Maybe that is just a commentary on the state of startups in general.Ultimately this seems true "Instant gratification is not soon enough."

  • Danny Boice

    There's no question about the importance of hiring great people.  I doubt anyone would dispute that. My point is that founders should be proficient at hiring great people quickly. 

  • Jonathan Petrides

    Danny, admire the boldness but think you're missing a key point here. "A hiring mistake is correctable", yeh true, fire them, but also it can be damn painful on your team culture everytime you fire someone and can get particularly messy if you've HIRED QUICKLY and chucked out a contract too fast. It's tough to get right, but we've found at Penda Health, that if you have a really compelling solution to an exciting problem and a killer team/culture to boot you can get people to work for a good few weeks on free trials and REALLY make sure you're hiring right (while of course serving that need YESTERDAY as opposed to waiting). That way fill the role and avoid entanglement in the FIRING pains by delaying the big hiring and contracting decision.

  • Danny Boice

    Totally agree with what you said.  My broader point is more:  "If you're running a startup be good at hiring great people quickly.  Also be good at firing shitty people quickly If / when you do screw up with hiring."  However, waiting around is not a luxury a startup can afford.  Big companies and corporate america may or may not be different - luckily I don't know ;)

  • Patti Pokorchak

    How do you get 'good' at hiring if you've had no experience in hiring?

    Especially sales and marketing people are exceptional great sellers of themselves and don't deliver. I know, because I've hired both good/great people and duds. It can be a $500K - $1 million mistake which no one can afford! I've got the spreadsheet if you're interested - I didn't believe it at first either!Try using a tool like RoleFit Survey http://www.ascentii.com/index.... - takes minutes to see how suitable someone is for that job so you eliminate those who aren't. But it still takes people making judgements over people and that will never be foolproof.

  • Mmcs

    The first time I saw this phrase I reacted the same way. Who has the luxury of drawn out ultra careful hiring processes? The good ones will be snapped up yesterday and who will be left tomorrow are the ones who swim too slowing to get away! There is a great book on out called From Hiring to Firing that offers some insight on managing issues after hire and when to make the decision to dismiss and move on. Here the link: 

    http://www.silvercreekpress.ca...

  • Bobby Burns

    Simplistic maxims are deceptive and often counter-productive. However, some truths - while not simplistic, are still true. And as a general rule - start-ups aside - taking time to hire well as opposed to thoughtless and desperate hiring is essential. And firing someone who needs to be fired sooner than later is always beneficial. I've seen it hundreds of times with my clients. I've also seen far too many suffer from poor, impulse hires and avoiding letting someone go who is costing them in time, money and in morale.