Startup Class Lecture 11 Notes – Company Culture and Hiring

These are my notes from Lecture 11 of the Startup Class taught by Sam Altman on building culture and hiring. Sam Altman facilitated a panel with Ben Silbermann of Pinterest and John and Patrick Collison of Stripe.

My notes from the previous lectures are here.

What are the core pieces of culture you’ve found to be important?

Ben Silbermann:

  • What the people we hire value
  • What we do every day and why
  • What we choose to communicate
  • What we choose to celebrate

John Collison:

  • Transparency is huge.
  • If everyone believes in the mission and has good access to information within the company, that gets you a huge amount towards working together productively.
  • It helps forgives the things that break in a startup.

Patrick Collison:

  • Culture is a resolution to a bandwidth problem.
  • You can’t do everything yourself and so hire more people. And so the organization gets larger and larger.
  • Culture is the invariants you want to maintain as you make fewer decisions yourself.

What do you look for when hiring initial employees to get culture right?

Ben Silbermann:

  • Very inductive: Looked for people that I want to work with and I think are talented
  • We initially hired people like ourselves
  • Looked for 3-4 main things:
    • worked hard, high intensity
    • low ego
    • creative: some of our first employees were some of the quirkiest people I’ve met
    • wanted to build something great
  • Folks came from all over: ads from craigslist, tech events etc

John Collison:

  • The first 10 hires are very hard because no one has hear of the company.
  • But those 10 hires are vital because they influence the organization more than any other 10
  • We mostly looked at first and friends of friends because that was our network
  • The people we hired tended to be early in their careers (in some sense “undervalued”)

Patrick Collison:

  • We looked at it almost like value investors
  • In terms of common characteristics,
    • Genuine
    • Like to finish things
    • Cared a lot and didn’t want things to be off

How do you identify who the good people are, especially as an inexperienced founder?

Ben Silbermann:

  • First off, you can’t always get it right, so when you know you made a wrong hire you owe it to them and the company to tell them where things aren’t working out and let them go if they don’t improve
  • Before you can hire the best people, need to figure out what really good looks like in the field you’re hiring for. A good way to do this is to talk to someone who is already world class in that field and ask them what traits they look for, what questions they ask and where such people are usually found
  • Built out the Pinterest interviewing process over time to screen for quality, making sure to do two things:
    • be very transparent about why the idea is great and what they’ll be working on
    • make it clear why the problem is hard because smart people are attracted to working on hard problems
  • References are very important: try to figure out what the person is like to work with.

John Collison:

  • Have the confidence to interview the way that works best for you
  • At Stripe, we flew candidates in and worked with them for a few days before making a decision

Patrick Collison:

  • For the first 10 people, try to work them for a bit before hiring them. It’s expensive but important.
  • In terms of how do you identify great, I try to answer the question is this person the best of their friends at what they do. It’s a bit sensitive to how they pick friends, but I’ve found it works better than the concept of “10x”.

Once you’ve hired people, how do you onboard them?

Ben Silbermann:

  • Initially, hired cause we needed that person a long time ago and so we would set up everything (dev environment etc) for them and get them off the ground running.
  • Now we have a week long program which is constantly being refined, with the goal of learning about them and ensuring they learn about the important parts of the company and team

John Collison:

  • We try to get them up and running quickly: try to get engineers to commit code the first day and people in business roles in real meetings on the first day
  • Quickly give people feedback including feedback on how they’re adapting to culture.

What have been the biggest changes as the company has scaled?

Ben Silbermann:

  • Tried to ensure teams were as nimble and autonomous as possible.
  • Created abstracted units that had engineers, designers, writers
  • Almost like a startup of startups

Patrick Collison:

  • AS time goes by, the time horizon you think about becomes longer
  • That plays into hiring and the kinds of people you’ll hiring
  • Early on, you don’t have the luxury of hiring people who need time to ramp up
  • A year or two in, you can start investing more in people with potential than people who already know what you need.
  • Startups tend to not have the principle agent problem where what’s good for the employee might not be the best for the company. Due to that, we can make everything transparent and have tried to scale that transparency even though it’s hard to do so.

John Collison:

  • In terms of scaling transparency, a couple of things helped:
    • Changing the tools: added weekly all-hands with decks
    • Changing the culture around it: creating norms that made it okay to share ideas and not fear criticism.

How do you convince people to join a startup?

Patrick Collison:

  • The risk/potential makes it interesting for many people
  • Startups have longer working hours in the early days but it normally shouldn’t be a massive sacrifice.

Ben Silbermann:

  • Tell them what their role would be and why the problem is hard
  • Don’t whitewash it though

John Collison:

  • The personal development angle also helps and the fact that they get to actually affect the outcome which isn’t true at Google.

How does your user base affect your hiring strategy?

Ben Silbermann:

  • We screen for ambitious people who are excited about the problem
  • They have to use the product but don’t have to people that have been using it every day for the past few years.

John Collison:

  • Finding people who are passionate about your product can also be a good way to find potential hires.
  • They’ll be easier to convince to join since they already are passionate about your product.