Drift’s Hiring Philosophy and How to Make It Work for Your Startup

Drift Hiring Principles

Recently, our Director of Learning and Development Kari asked me: What’s different about our approach to recruiting?

That got me thinking. Because like other companies, we see people as our lifeblood. Without recruiting, a startup is dead, right? If you can’t attract talent, you can’t take care of the customer.

But when they’re stressed against a deadline, when competitors are right on their heels, when someone isn’t working out… most companies retreat and try to fix it all themselves.

The difference at Drift? We go look for people. We know that building a team is the only way to dig ourselves out. It’s ingrained into us as the solution to all our problems.

That doesn’t make hiring any less complicated, of course. We’re dealing with individuals, all at different stages of life and motivated by different things. To hire the right people for the job, to have people say “yes,” we needed to nail down certain principles.

Including the “impossible” ones, like hiring on the spot.

What I’m going to do here is lay down hiring principles that worked for my co-founder David and I, in case you’re unsure where the boundaries lie, and how you can apply them to your own startup hiring process.

We’re not consensus-driven.

One of the most dangerous things a startup can do is to hire based on consensus.

The problem is, ego brings biases to the process of recruitment and selection. Whether the interviewee is a peer, a superior, or an individual contributor, there’s often this feeling like, This person might be better than me. Not everyone is ready to accept that.

But here’s the thing: You’re supposed to be trying to hire people who are better than yourself or your team.

You need to detach bias from the decision-making process, which means you need to detach the decision from the team. That’s a job for hiring managers.

At Drift, “consensus” is a dirty word. Our hiring managers ensure as few people make recruiting decisions as possible. We have someone in sales responsible for sales hiring. In product, we have a person responsible for all product hiring. The same goes for marketing and customer success. Four qualified, full-time hiring managers in total, and their only focus is recruiting.

That gives us enough coverage to make hiring decisions without pushing them down the ladder, where we have less experience, less comfort with risk-taking, and less confidence making decisions that calibrate across the organization.

What teams can do, though, is provide feedback. So while it’s the hiring manager who owns the post-meeting follow up and makes the ultimate call, we do bring others into the loop.

We use a flexible feedback loop.

Our interview process is fairly structured. It has three stages: pre-interview, post-interview, and in the middle, an interview loop. That’s where we bring in several people — including executives — to interview the candidate in turn.

People often ask me why I get involved in the loop. I tell them it’s for four reasons:

  1. To help sell the company. Candidates want to know who they’ll be working with, right? An interview loop makes for a much better hiring experience. Not only can candidates see how organized we are, but they get to meet our amazing people. That’s key.
  1. To collect data. The more data we have to hire the right person for the job, the better — so it’s important that everyone in the loop brings something to the table. Take product engineering, for example. To one interviewer, we’ll say, “You’re responsible for understanding this person’s skill at building a system. The next interviewer has to find out their coding abilities. The next does the “who” interview, the mechanism we use to understand a person’s past achievements.
  1. To spot red flags. These separate those you do hire from those you don’t. I’ll get into examples later.
  1. To train interviewers. Interviewing and decision-making are valuable skills to learn — among the most valuable for anyone who wants to lead a team or start their own business. By giving people the opportunity to compare their opinion to the hiring managers’, we can help our people build good judgment.

Of course, the process doesn’t always go as planned.

Not long ago, we had a candidate drive the long distance from Maine. He could have come back for an executive interview. But for the sake of speed, Keith (our Director of Recruiting) asked him, “Hey, what about doing the interview right now?”

So we pulled together an interview team right off the floor. We did the entire loop in a day. We still followed the process, but we had to be flexible.

The timing isn’t always ideal, but we get it done. There’s no reason why you can’t if you do all interviewing at headquarters. We need a team that’s flexible, because in the end, it’s all about moving quickly.

We take speed seriously.

Regardless of the size and success of your startup, speed is your strongest hiring weapon.

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Time and time again, when we’ve lost a candidate, it’s because we hesitated to make a decision. We asked for others’ input.

We’ve since learned that every time you look for someone to back up your decision, you slow down the entire process of recruitment and selection. This ties back to our greater recruiting principle — that only the hiring manager drives decision-making.

Another thing that slows down the process is a bad hire. Going forward, the hiring manager might want to be more careful. Let’s slow down. Let’s do more checks. Let’s involve more people. And we’re back to square one.

If you don’t act fast, you will lose candidates to competitors. If you do act fast, you have a shot at winning against even the best companies in the world. If those companies take weeks to answer a candidate but you have an offer in hand, who are they likelier to choose?

I had this conversation with a teammate recently when we flew in a candidate from Florida. When I suggested our recruiter, Charline, have his offer printed and ready to sign, the hiring manager freaked out. He’d never given an offer without a background and reference check.

The lesson: Background checks have nothing do with offers. Don’t let them take away from the interview process. Instead, optimize for the post-meeting by having the offer printed. As long as you get the offer down on paper — and make clear it’s pending — you can always rescind if necessary. It’s all about taking speed seriously.

And I mean, really seriously.

So what does that look like, in terms of time frames?

As a rule of thumb, from the day we hear the name of a potential candidate, we take no more than seven days to give that person an offer in writing. If it takes longer than seven days to make a decision, we have a problem.

And the interview? Pre-meeting, full loop, and post-meeting all happen on the same or next day.

Hiring 7 day timeframe

There are always exceptions, of course. A C-level executive should take longer. (But even then, you should move with speed.)

Let’s talk about the opposite exception: the famous offer on the spot. This is something all execs should empower their hiring managers to do.

Remember, job transitions are emotional decisions. Not logical. Candidates have to be upset where they are. If you can catch them at the magic moment they’re upset with their manager or company and excited about yours… that’s the best time to sign. At Drift, it’s the moment we signed about a third of our team.

We look for red flags.

Okay, back to those red flags I mentioned.

And these are important, because it’s hard to find people who check every box you’re looking for. You might not even be able to get that information from the interview. What you can often get a sense of is warning signs.

At Drift, we look for three:

  1. Are they solely motivated by $$$? Instead, we want people who enjoy what they do, believe in the company’s mission, take care of their customers, and feel proud to represent and grow with us.
  1. Are they arrogant? Arrogance is displayed in many ways, but most often in the ways people talk about their past experience and compare themselves to their peers. We want people who are confident but coachable and open to learning how we do things.
  1. Are they unprofessional? Negative? Just difficult to work with in general? You know the type: people who don’t want to be team players, don’t want to work hard, don’t give useful feedback. It creates a terrible environment.

Hiring red flags

Again, you might not find these in the interview. And you can’t just look for hints of a red flag — you have to be certain.

The important thing to understand is that you will make a bad hire at some point.

All too often, people optimize for hiring perfection. I think we need to optimize for failure. Once you’ve made a bad decision, you need to be able to resolve it quickly.

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Now that we’ve covered what to avoid, what should you look for?

We tie recruiting to customer success. 

Every founder says it: When we look for new talent, we don’t want to compromise culture fit. This is vague and hard to describe. What they mean is, they don’t want to sacrifice values. In our case, we keep to our leadership principles, which absolutely define the kind of people we want.

At the end of the day, we want people who can get shit done. Otherwise, they won’t be able to keep up with how fast we move as a company. But don’t get me wrong — we’re not spending all our time on what’s best for the company. We want to solve quickly for the customer.

That’s what you want to be looking at. Does this person have something the company needs to serve our customers better? Do they have the drive to serve our customers instead of serving themselves?

If you hire people who care only about solving interesting, challenging, technical problems or only about getting paid, you won’t be able to make the customer successful. I’ll admit it: We have a lot of customers desperate for more help using conversational marketing, and we need more customer success managers. Do you?

For every hiring decision, are you asking yourself: Are we putting the customer first?

Final Thought: Always Be Searching

Recruiting for a startup is difficult. It’s really a numbers game, like sales.

You go at it hard. You won’t succeed at first. And you have to be ready for people to tell you no.

So, the biggest difference between success and failure in recruiting is that, despite all the obstacles, you never give up. Even when you think you lack the budget to hire, you’re always looking. It’s rare enough to find unicorns that when you do, you find a way to make it work.

Too few people realize they need to dedicate serious time to startup recruiting and give up after a few failures. I know, because I’ve been there myself. I’ve gone months without hiring a single individual. Then people get on my case. Did you lose your mojo? Do people even want to work for you? It’s terrifying, like in sales when you miss your quota for the month and you’re like, That’s it. I can’t sell anymore. If they fail to hire the right person for the job, execs tend to throw up their hands and focus on what they do better.

But the reality, for any executive in the startup world, is this: If you can’t recruit, you’re so much less valuable than if you could.

We Drifters consider hiring just as important as building or selling a product. Because if you can’t do either of those things well, you can always bring in people who can. And if you have the right people, you’ll be able to win.

That’s really my motto. Build teams first — the products will follow.