Hire for attitude and aptitude.

Yesterday, Sam Altman (former President of Y Combinator) tweeted “If you hire for extreme amounts of aptitude and drive, and put those people in positions that are ‘ahead’ of their career trajectory, you are almost guaranteed of success”.

I smiled when I read this tweet, because in my own career as a serial startup CEO, I found this to be 100% true.

One of my initial hires at my very first startup was a guy who responded to our job posting by sending his resume and cover letter, dedicating the entire cover letter to telling me that he had none of the qualifications outlined in the job posting but that they were exactly the qualifications that he wanted to someday have. I hired him for his attitude and ambition and that decision paid dividends to the company for many years. He eventually went on to a dream position at a larger company and while I was sad to lose him I was happy that my leap of faith had been good for his career, as well as mine.

At my last startup I hired as CTO a guy who had zero experience as a CTO, but he was one of the smartest most driven people I’d ever met. Literally. He not only drove the success of the company as CTO for an entire decade, he eventually became CEO of the company.

So hiring “under qualified” people and putting them into positions where they could grow and thrive was really a hallmark of my career. I’m fond of saying that you can teach people the skills they need, but you can’t teach them attitude and drive. Those things have to come from within.

I’m always amused when I see job posts that say things like “Must have 5+ years experience with JavaScript”. Because I’d much rather hire a smart, driven person with 1 year JavaScript experience (and give her all the support she needs to grow) than hire someone with 5-years experience and a crappy attitude.

For startup founders today, I honestly think Sam Altman’s advice is more important than ever because of the current recruiting environment. If you are a tech startup, trying to recruit the same people as Google and Meta, you are going to lose that battle (or go broke trying). So your recruiting process really needs to be looking for the “diamonds in the rough” that Google and Meta miss. That’s the only way you’ll be able to compete and build a great team in today’s environment.

In the world of startups, there is nothing more important than the team. Nothing. So as a startup founder, being able to recruit and manage a great team is likely to be the most important driver for the success or failure of your venture.

Great leaders put people into positions where they grow, thrive, and succeed. Their success becomes your success.

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Bret Waters

Bret Waters

Silicon Valley guy. I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford, run the 4thly Startup Accelerator, and coach startup CEO’s at Miller Center. Also, I love fish tacos.