"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.
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Kulinski]