Weird Hiring Tactics That “Just Work” From Three Killer Startups

These days, finding the right talent requires a little creativity. Here are three unusual approaches to hiring.

Weird Hiring Tactics That “Just Work” From Three Killer Startups
[Image: Flickr user photologue_np]

How do you lure new talent? During a tech industry boom like this, exciting products and swanky offices certainly help, but that’s not all it takes. These days, creative hiring practices can go a long way. We spoke with three companies about the innovative ways they hire and inspire the best employees.


Hire People From Your Community

At DuckDuckGo, an anonymous search engine based outside Philadelphia, new employees always come from the community of users and hackers already immersed in the product. It’s no coincidence.

“As a small, tight-knit team, culture fit is the most important thing and that’s why we only hire full-time staff from within,” says Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo. “I call this process ‘inbound hiring.’”

Weinberg says inbound hiring involves only hiring people that send you “inbound” requests. These are people–perhaps users, or someone you’ve met in a coffee shop and told about your company–who contact you directly without being prompted by an ad or a tweet offering a job opening.

Inbound hires might not even be looking for a job. They’re often just a user who reaches out because they want to get involved in some way, whether it’s offering their time on an open source project or making a feature request. To Weinberg, the willingness of these people to reach out with no obvious financial incentive makes them the best kind of potential employees.

Any potential hire that is looking for a job at DuckDuckGo–even if they are a great candidate–must first be active in the company’s open source community before they can become a full-time employee.


Inbound hiring, contrary to what you may think, isn’t something from the latest fad book for recruiters. Weinberg actually came up with the concept based on a hunch and decided to run with it. After being the sole employee of DuckDuckGo for four years Weinberg hired the company’s first employee based on his method in September of 2011.

“Past experience taught me that traditional search and hiring processes don’t often identify the candidates that offer the best cultural fit,” Weinberg says. “Inbound hiring looks more closely at one’s motivation and drive versus their specific experience and skills, and shows what they’re capable of instead of solely focusing on what they’ve already accomplished.”

Inbound Hiring: Slow, But Worth It

Weinberg admits that inbound hiring takes a bit longer than traditional hiring processes, but he says it has helped DuckDuckGo create a passionate, entrepreneurial, and creative team that has strengthened the company’s larger community and helped them effectively manage DuckDuckGo’s large growth, particularly in the past year with the company now handling over 100,000,000 direct searches monthly. Since the first inbound hire in 2011 the company has grown to almost 20 people and every single full- and part-time employee has been an inbound hire.

Of course, telling a stellar job candidate that first they’ll have to sign on for no pay before going full-time may be discouraging. Given that, it’s easy to wonder if DuckDuckGo has missed out on any excellent hires.

“It’s difficult to say since this is the only process we have had. But probably,” he admits. “The flipside is that we have very low attrition because everyone is an excellent fit for the long term.”


But inbound hiring does have its limitations.

“I think it works for us in particular because of the company and company culture we’re trying to build,” he says. “We are a very mission-driven company and we also want to stay small with a team of very talented individuals that can operate with relatively little management overhead. In other words, if we set out to hire 50 engineers tomorrow this process wouldn’t work well.”

As for those companies that might want to give his method a try?

“Develop a community around your mission,” he says. “Without both this process will not work.”

Ask Full-Time Recruits To Start Part-Time

With all the hype around messaging apps today–thanks to Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion–you’d think a growing messaging company like Kik, which already has 100 million users, would want to snap up the best hires right away. But instead, anyone who wants to work for them is limited to being part-time at first.


“There is a better way to assess potential candidates for hire than the traditional interviews that everyone hates,” according to Kik CEO Ted Livingston. “Kik has a very different approach. We still do interviews, but the most important part of our decision is our part-time process.”

“When we have candidates we’re seriously considering, we offer them the opportunity to work with us on a part-time basis on a project related to what they would be doing if they joined the team full-time. We pay them for their time, and we set it up so that they work side by side with their potential future colleagues. They join us for the meals we bring each day, so they have a real chance to get to know the company–and we get to know them at the same time.”

A startup asking potential employees to work part-time at first seems like the perfect way to turn good candidates away. After all, what if the candidate already has a full-time job and can’t take the financial hit by leaving it for a part-time one?

“Sometimes this is a challenging process,” Livingston admits. “For candidates who are working full-time in another company, we offer them the option to work evenings or weekends, to take a short vacation from their regular job, or to open-source a project that would show us their chops, and join us for a team event to assess their fit.”

Understandably, Kik’s process would seem to appeal more to freelancers. Since they have no full-time job to leave, they have the flexibility to scale back their other work to fit their new part-time gig at Kik into their schedule.


Those that do sign on to Kik’s hiring process will commence their part-time project, at the end of which the candidate presents their work. The candidate is then discussed among Kik’s “hiring tribunal.” This tribunal is made up of people who have worked with the candidate during their project. The hiring tribunal then makes the final decision about whether or not to offer the candidate a full-time position.

While it’s obvious those looking for a full-time job right away may be put off by Kik’s hiring process, Livingston says the company’s process ultimately works best for both the full-time hires and Kik.

“As a result of our process, we have a very low level of both voluntary and involuntary termination at Kik, and we have a very high level of confidence that new hires will be able to fit into both our culture and our work style by the time they start.”

Trust Your New Hires To Show Up Without Giving Them Any Set Hours

Sam Decker is the CEO of Mass Relevance, a company that works with over 350 high-profile clients to create real-time consumer engagement by aggregating, filtering, and re-displaying content from any social network to any digital property using its SaaS platform. If you’ve seen those real-time social media polls on CNN or The Today Show, chances are Mass Relevance’s solutions are behind them.

Unlike DuckDuckGo and Kik, Decker believes the best way to get and maintain great employees is to go through a traditional hiring practice. After that, however, employment at Mass Relevance is anything but conventional. The company abides by a principle it calls Freesponsibility. With Freesponsibility there are no set work hours and there’s also unlimited vacation time for every single employee from the day they start.


Freesponsibility grew from Decker’s beliefs that everyone in the company should be treated as an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs, after all, rarely do their best work working a set 9 to 5.

While hiring someone you just met and then telling them they have no set hours and can take a vacation tomorrow, if they so choose, may sound a little crazy to most employers, Decker believes other companies should look into the practice because he says Freesponsibility isn’t simply built on a foundation of blind trust, it’s built on a psychological and social phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect.

“The no set work hours and unlimited vacation are just a small part of a much bigger idea,” Decker says. “The Pygmalion Effect says that the more trust you put in someone, the more they will fulfill that trust.”

While Mass Relevance’s Freesponsibility may seem radical, it’s not the only company empowering employees in this fashion. Indeed, companies like GitHub and Valve work on an open allocation basis, while Medium, Whole Foods, and Zappos employees work as part of a Holacracy.

“We’re hiring people that love what they do, we provide challenges and task them with solving problems in innovative ways every day,” Decker says when I ask how he can be certain employees won’t take advantage of Freesponsibility. “We have created an environment where people want to come to work.”


“Where we’ve hired wrong is we have people taking advantage of the perks that come with the values. We hire and fire based on our values, so if someone takes advantage, they won’t be around long,” Decker says. “But they were also never the entrepreneur, the problem solver, the innovator we were looking for. Those types of people want to forge their path and make their mark within the company, and you have to show up to do that.”

And there’s absolutely no rules surrounding Freesponsibility?

“We haven’t found that we need to make rules surrounding it,” Decker says. “By instilling the bigger idea of Freesponsibility–solving problems and taking initiative–we don’t have to babysit people.”

Decker also notes that Freesponsibility has paid off exceptionally well for the company from both a business and a cultural perspective.

“Business-wise, we hired one team member for our Sales team and he has taken the initiative to completely shape the Sports vertical. It is now our fastest growing vertical and Freesponsibility allowed him to create the path, identify opportunities and best practices, and build a team to support goals.”


“Culture-wise, several team members have initiated passion projects, like a monthly foodie series and summer movie series. The things bring our team together to enjoy learning new things completely separate from their roles. It allows team members to shine and share things that matter to them outside of their day-to-day.”

As for the advice Decker would give to other companies who want to commence a system like Freesponsibility, he says it’s the individual company’s leadership’s mentality that will determine if it’s successful or not.

“It’s about initiative, passion, freedom to grow the company within the company. You give people the trust and freedom to come to the table with good ideas that make a difference and they will. Hire well, cultivate talent, and give your people the freedom to achieve incredible things.”

Most of all, he says, “sometimes you need to know when to get out of the way and have faith in the talent you’ve hired.”