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Advice on a good problem to have: How to hire in an economic downturn

In his weekly advice column, Maynard Webb says now is a great time to be ambitious.

Advice on a good problem to have: How to hire in an economic downturn
[Photo: Viktoriia Oleinichenko/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. How do you hire in a time like this?
—Founder scaling a startup

Dear Founder,

I love this question! It’s a great time to hire. With so many talented people having been let go, this is as good a time as ever to recruit.

Usually there’s a war for talent, but now there’s a surplus of good candidates. In addition to those who are dealing with being furloughed or laid off, there are others who are at companies whose prospects have dimmed. Those people may be loose in their seats even if they are not active on the street.

When the dot-com bubble burst and the meltdown of 2000 ensued, eBay was fairly unaffected. We were thriving and growing, and we still had lots of job openings. We took full advantage of the precarious time to bring in amazing recruits.

Full disclosure: We did make some mistakes, including running a full-page ad in a local paper for a job fair we were hosting and neglecting to mention that it was a “technology job” fair—we were only looking for engineers, product managers, database administrators. With so many people looking for work, we shut down the freeway and people were lined up to enter the job fair. I remember being outside, handing out drinks and swag, and apologizing as I asked, “Are you here for a tech job?”

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While this is an amazing time to hire—you have an opportunity to access great talent, and you are offering an opportunity to someone who really needs it—the truth is, it’s always a good time to hire. Meg Whitman used to hire people at eBay even when she didn’t have a current job open for them but was confident that she’d have a job for them in the future. Sometimes this created tension because there wasn’t a well-defined role for them when they joined, but more often than not, they soon landed big operating roles. This got me into the practice of always looking for talent and generally having one or two “ready-now” recruits to woo for any critical position. Marc Benioff does an amazing job of continuously scanning the industry, knowing the top talent, and building relationships even if he is not recruiting for a specific job right away.

This is a great time to acquire talent, and, as always, make your company attractive to potential hires by being the best place to work. That means:

  • Have huge aspirations. Be inspirational with what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Be humble. Never stop trying to get better.
  • Be fun to hang with. Care about your people. You want your people to say that working at your company was the best and most fulfilling job that they ever had. That’s never solely about money; it’s about being a part of something meaningful.
  • Foster a culture of inclusion. Make sure you’re building a place where each member of your diverse and talented team can feel like they belong.
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