After hitting my one year anniversary of working as a cofounder of General Task, I took some time to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past 12 months. As I started making a list of the lessons learned, I realized I have actually learned quite a lot. And many of these are things that I wish I knew before I got started. I decided it would be worthwhile to write down and share what I’ve learned, so that others can benefit from my experience.
I also want to be transparent and say that I am driven to return to blogging partially because we’ve launched the beta version of General Task publicly and I want to help spread awareness of our excellent free task manager, which I would encourage you to try if you haven’t already: https://generaltask.com/
My team is incredibly passionate, hard-working and talented and I love working with them every day. We are now at eight people total: two technical co-founders, four engineers (one of whom is also our PM), and two designers. I am very proud of the team we’ve assembled at General Task, and that is largely because of our hiring strategy. In this first article, I share what I learned this past year about hiring effectively.
Don’t hire too quickly!
I learned this the hard way. When I first got started with General Task, I prioritized building my team above nearly everything else. I left Robinhood on October 15, 2021 with no team and two weeks later I had two people working full-time with me. Three months later, we were up to five people full-time. A couple months after that, seven people. It felt great to have a solid team in place, but we hired way too quickly, and it caused several problems:
- I spent too much time hiring at the expense of other priorities
- I was not prepared to manage that many people
- Our burn rate grew very quickly
- We scrambled to find enough important work for people to do
- The team was engineering-heavy at first and often got blocked by design
When the economic environment worsened throughout the first half of the year, we opted to freeze additional hiring to prevent our burn rate from growing any further. Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to us. All of the problems listed above went away. I stopped recruiting and focused all of my time on making our product and team better. I got better at people management. Our burn rate stopped increasing. And we optimized our internal processes so that now our team was scrambling to get important work done, rather than us scrambling to find important work for them to do. We became much more resourceful and generally better at doing more with less.
It can be tempting to look at hiring as the solution to almost any problem you currently have. But before you hire someone for a new role, ask yourself:
- Is it worth my time to find and interview candidates for this role?
- Do I have the capacity to be a good manager to this person?
- Is there plenty of important work for this person to do?
- Can we afford the additional burn?
- Will this person fully integrate into our culture?
Chances are, you don’t need to hire all of the people you think you do, at least not right away. And if you are resourceful, you can probably find what you need from your existing team.
Hire for passion, grit and character over experience and skills
I strongly believe in the growth mindset: the idea that your abilities and skills are not set in stone and you can change yourself over time. If you believe in this mindset, you should primarily hire people not based on their current abilities and skills but instead on where you believe those abilities and skills can go, and the rate at which people can improve. I have found in my own experience that the people who can most quickly improve are those who are passionate, hard working, and don’t give up easily. That is how I have hired at General Task, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Many of the people who joined the General Task team had somewhere between zero and six months of experience when they joined, and I have seen an incredible transformation of these team members from beginners to top performers who would be in the upper echelon at any major tech company. And some of our more experienced employees have stepped into roles they’ve never performed before, and have quickly gotten up to speed.
Now, I should say, this approach is not for everyone: just as important as it is to hire people who don’t give up easily, you cannot give up easily on the people you hire. You need to genuinely believe in them, coach them, and support them as they strive to rapidly meet and then exceed a very high bar for performance. There’s a common saying: “whether or not you believe you can do it, you’re probably right.” I believe this is also true more broadly: whether or not you believe your team can do it, you’re probably right. And the harder you push, the more support you need to give at the same time.
Also, I think it is very important to hire people who have good character. This is something that is unfortunately harder to change in a person than abilities or skills. If you hire people who are honest, responsible, caring and fair, then your company will naturally be more honest, responsible, caring and fair. And I think those are good things for a company to strive to be. You will enjoy working with your team more. And potential hires will notice: One of our most senior team members chose us over competing offers in big part because of the positive, warm energy of our team.
Hire people you know
Four of the eight people on my team went to Menlo School, my high school. I have known some of them for more than ten years now. We even had an intern from Menlo School this past summer! And I consider all that a good thing. I believe a big part of our success in hiring is from hiring people we knew already. There are a couple of benefits from hiring this way.
Firstly, you know what you are getting into. If you are thinking of hiring someone you know, you probably don’t need to waste time doing several rounds of interviews because you already know what you need to know: what is this person capable of? What will it be like working with them? Especially if you are looking primarily for passion, grit, and character, you will probably have a better sense of those things from people you know than you could get out of any number of interviews with people you don’t know.
Also, working with people you already know makes it easier for people to become quickly integrated with the culture of the company. You get some of it for free in the relationship that existed before you worked together professionally. And I have found that those who have known me for longer can sometimes also feel more comfortable raising concerns and giving me frank feedback they might not have if we only knew each other in our professional capacities.
And while it is certainly important to have diversity of perspectives when making decisions, it is just as important if not more important for teams, especially startup teams, to be cohesive and resilient. And that happens more naturally when people know each other well. There’s some level of commitment to making things work, no matter what, when you are connected with your team in ways that go beyond a simple professional working relationship.
Work with people part-time first if you can
In the year before I left my job at Robinhood, I worked on General Task part-time as a side project. I quickly realized that I struggled to get motivated when working alone, so I began finding people I knew who were interested in working on it with me. Every month or two, I would organize a small in-person hackathon with this group where we would work together in a different location for a couple of days and make as much progress as we could. When I started looking for people to join me full-time, I looked to these people first, and was able to hire four out of the five or six people who worked with me during those hackathons. In doing this, I discovered that hiring people after working with them part-time has a couple of key benefits.
First, you get an excellent sense of what it will look like to work with someone full-time. No amount of interviews or even take-home projects can equal the amount of information you will get from actually working with someone part-time. Instead of asking yourself “will this be a good person to work with?” which can be hard to answer, you can simply ask “do I like working with this person enough to work with them more?” And that is often a much easier question to answer.
Second, this person gets an excellent sense of what it will look like for them to work with you. If you have built a good work environment and your team is fun to work with, then the opportunity to work full-time sells itself, and you don’t have to try as hard to convince them to join.
I am incredibly proud of the team at General Task, and I believe we are well-positioned to execute on our very ambitious mission to make knowledge workers more productive. It’s in big part due to the hiring principles outlined above, and I hope these principles can help you too.
And don’t forget to check out General Task! https://generaltask.com/