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How To Balance Youth And Experience When Building Your Staff

Skew young and you miss insight, skew old and you miss new perspectives. Kayak cofounder Paul English shares how he hit the right balance.

How To Balance Youth And Experience When Building Your Staff
[Photo: Flick ruser Travis Swan]

Kayak cofounder Paul English says he’s found the key to building a successful startup team: the perfect mix of youth and experience.

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Paul English

English has very purposefully concentrated on building an age-diverse team at his newest venture, Blade, a Boston-based accelerator for startups. On his staff of 20, English has a mix of equal parts sprightly college-aged 20-somethings and seasoned executives.

His first five hires were all in their forties. English said he basically picked the five best people he’s worked with over the past 20 years.

“And when we got together, we were immediately like: We’re too old,” English said. “So the next few people I hired were in college or had just graduated.”

English said that he’s come to the realization that having an age-diverse workforce is key to success, especially if you’re looking to build exciting new products for the masses.

“They love working together…it creates a great vibe,” English said. “If you popped your head into our office one day, you would see one of our college kids dragging their chair and laptop to one of our seasoned executives’ desks, working together on some tech problem.”

English said age diversity wasn’t on naturally on his radar. But he came around to the recruiting strategy after an awkward moment a few years ago.

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At Kayak, English had been looking at buying an iPhone app created by brothers studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The youngsters were talking about how their app works in social media, and one of them looked at the roomful of employees in their thirties and older and said: “Well, you are all too old for Facebook, right?”

It was an eye-opening moment to English. While he knew the brothers were wrong about older Facebook users, he realized that there are mobile applications popular with young people that his team wasn’t as familiar with. “I told my manager: We need to hire some 21-year-olds,” he said. And that’s basically what kick-started Kayak’s internship program.

After Kayak sold to Priceline, English carried the strategy over to Blade, which he started in 2013. Blade is an intense startup accelerator, basically working to cofound and launch companies offering direct-to-consumer services.

Blade invests between $250,000 and $2 million in tiny companies for an equity stake. But Blade is picky; it works with no more than three companies at a time. English said he spends more than half of his time looking to recruit and hire the best and brightest start-up teams for the companies they’re investing in.

At Blade, about half of the 20-person staff is in their early to mid-twenties and the rest are in their thirties and forties, with experience working at Kayak, Zappos, and other places. English said it means on a daily basis, younger staffer will sidle up to one of the more seasoned executives who have built applications used by tens of millions of people and pick their brains.

“The young people just love having all this experience at their fingertips; it’s created a very good culture,” he says.

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And it’s made for some lively debates.

One of the companies that Blade has taken under its wing is a new mobile application called WiGo, pronounced “wee-go,” which stands for “Who Is Going Out?” The app allows users to see and organize nights out with their friends. It was founded by 22-year-old Ben Kaplan, who’s taking a break from the College of the Holy Cross to work to develop and grow the app at Blade’s Boston offices.

During the redesign of the app earlier this year, there was a lively debate about whether to use a database of address locations to help users better organize their plans. Older workers in the office were pushing for a database so people could figure out exactly where they wanted to go. But the younger employees wanted to forego the specifics and keep the app “more dynamic, fun, and laissez-faire,” English said.

The youngsters won out. Which isn’t a big surprise, given the college-centric audience. The app is currently only available to those with an .edu email address. And so far, the app is growing fast. Since the redesigned WiGo 2.0 launched at the beginning of the school year, the app is growing faster on college campuses than even Facebook did in its first few months, English said. WiGo is now used on 800 university campuses.

“There are many things about that app that are natural for a 20-year-old but aren’t as natural for those of us who have toddlers or who have more regimented lives that come with getting older,” English said.

What does this recruitment strategy mean for bright tech hopefuls in their late twenties and thirties? English says he’s not excluding any age. He’s out to hire the best of the best.

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“When we bump into people who are amazing, we hire them regardless of people’s age,” English says. But he will continue to look for younger workers to balance out his more experienced hires.

English is also looking to hire more women. The tech sector has a real problem with hiring women, and English admits he, personally, doesn’t have a great track record on gender diversity. “In tech, it’s really hard. But important,” he said.

With a daughter who’s a senior year of college and about to hit the job market, English has been thinking about gender diversity in the tech sector even more. His goal is to invest in some female tech entrepreneurs. And in the next few weeks, English will announce a new addition to Blade’s board of directors, a well-known female CEO.

About the author

Jennifer Liberto is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. who writes about entrepreneurs, technology, financial policy, small business, health care, politics, and parenthood.

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