I love salty Danish licorice. I grew up with the popular, tongue-numbing Nordic treat, and I continued to enjoy it when two friends and I started Zendesk from Copenhagen. Little did I know this acquired taste would serve a special role in our critical early hiring after we moved the company to San Francisco in 2009.
In our process of recruiting for an important position soon after our move, I offered one of the candies to each candidate when we met. One candidate took the tiniest bite of this already tiny hard piece of licorice and then said, “Oh, that’s delicate,” and saved the rest for later. She tried to be very polite, but it was obvious she thought it was the worst thing she had ever tasted.
We couldn’t hire someone like that. People need to be honest. I needed her to say, “Good Lord, that is terrible!” Or something that would have revealed what she was really thinking. We needed people who possess a combination of being real without being mean and offending people. We needed people who were authentic.
When building a company from the ground up, hiring is one of the most critical and daunting decisions entrepreneurs face. The earliest employees work together almost like family and they lay the foundation of a new company’s culture. Founders need to figure out their own “licorice test” to find candidates that match their values.
At Zendesk, my co-founders and I followed some uncommon approaches to finding candidates with the right traits. Salty licorice may be the most unusual, but we had quickly learned the importance of hiring for attitude and characteristics rather than only skill. We followed an unofficial and unconventional checklist that hopefully other entrepreneurs can adapt to their startups:
We learned not to hire people who were too fixed on a specific role, because it changes so fast. We look for people who are multitalented athletes, who enjoy doing many disparate things and have the stamina to stick with it.
Look for travelers
We asked people, “Have you traveled?” We love people who have explored, have moved around, love adventure and are good at figuring stuff out. That shows curiosity and open-mindedness. And that was what we needed.
Bring on people who aren't offended by swearing
There’s a lot of swearing when building a company -- and there’s a lot worse that happens too. People who get ruffled by bad language will probably have trouble rolling with all of the other less than perfectly pristine moments.
Focus on attitude
Having people be humble -- never arrogant -- sets the standard for employees. You have to hire for attitude. All the other stuff people can learn. Attitude is something you can’t learn.
Today, “hire for attitude, train the skills” has become a more popular Silicon Valley practice, and from our early year until today this mantra has been a key factor in helping build our team. It attracted people who could interact in a semi-crazy environment and have fun, and led to new hires who didn’t come with lots of demands but shared our mentality that it was going to be a lot of hard work to make our business a success.
Hire for differences, not similarities
Try to have many cultures and backgrounds as possible, otherwise your company may become a posse of young white men in jeans and hoodies. But having diverse backgrounds creates a much better culture. There is a tendency to think that everyone needs some common ground but that’s a myth. A diverse workforce enables the company to make sure no predominant group sets the tone; instead, the company finds its own common tone.
Any company, large or small, can benefit from pursuing potential candidates who possess the traits above. Focus on building a scrappy team who will argue, push and demand more of those around them. To build such a team might require an unconventional checklist of traits, but the end result will be worth it.