From 2 to 34: Hiring a Remote Team for an Online Startup

Without a doubt, one of the most difficult tasks when expanding an online business is the hiring of excellent programmers. When we began in 2008 we were just 2 co-founding engineers who took on the work of the first prototypes; today, 7 years later, our team is comprised of 34 superb developers distributed throughout the world in 12 different countries. But how did we do this?

In the following article we would like to share our complete process for the successful hiring of new employees, divided into 4 steps, each of which on average takes 1 month of time to execute.

But first, a few words to put things into context. Our company uses the internet as a means to search for insurance, financial, and in the near future tourist services in order to help those in Latin America save time, money, and energy when trying to find the best option to fit their needs. The main reason why we needed to hire employees working remotely was to expand our services quickly and successfully to other countries in the region. Additionally, working remotely gave us the possibility of accessing excellent professionals that perhaps we would not be able to hire if we were limited to one single location.

1) First we do the work.

To begin with, the most important thing that serves as a starting point for the success or failure of this process is that we (the founders) do the job ourselves with our own hands and our own time. We should do this for at least one week, ideally for one full month. This includes any position, including customer service.

The advantages are:

  1. a) We will be able to give a clear description of the job that we are seeking instead of being general and irrelevant, with no added value, as can be seen generally in sites such as oDesk. In this way, the candidates who apply will fall in line with what we truly need.
  2. b) When the time finally comes to decide on one candidate or another, we will be clear on what we are looking for: a full or part-time employee, creative or procedure-oriented, with past experience or not, university degree or not, etc.
  3. c) Lastly, in the future we will be able to evaluate in detail if the person is doing their job correctly or not. Otherwise, how will we be able to supervise a person if we do not know the details of what they should do?

Once we have done the work and understand exactly what we are looking for, it is time to put out the offer in public. Based on our own experience with MT in these past 7 years, the best way is through our own network of contacts. This includes previous work-mates, family, investors, providers, clients, etc. Another alternative is through our own current employees and their contacts.

2) We don’t ask for Résumés.

Once we begin to receive people interested in coming on our team, we focus on asking them to respond to specific questions in order to get to know them more as people (and NOT that they send us a résumé):

  1. a) Why would you like to work for our startup?

This first question helps us know more about what motivates them as individuals, in other words, what they are looking for in their work life in the long run. This enables us to identify if this person fits in or not with the culture of our team. This question greatly determines if we continue with the process or not, and we are looking for specifics. People who are looking to make an impact are some of the best people to hire for a startup.

  1. b) Can you give us an example of code that you have personally developed in order to solve some problem?

This allows us to know the quality of their work in a direct way, without losing time, in addition to understanding their mental processes for solving problems with success.

  1. c) Can you briefly tell us your history? Where you were born, your family, your favorite activities?

As can be seen, we are still not asking them for their résumé, but we seek to know them even more, which at the end of the day is the most important.

Having a university degree is not essential in making our final decision. On the contrary, we have shown that the best programmers are those who learn to write code on their own. One of the reasons justifying this point is that with each day new technologies go out on the market and those that have the gifts and capabilities to learn on their own will be the first that can empower our start-up to overcome challenges in the future.

3) Personal interview

This is perhaps the step that most of us as entrepreneurs prefer to avoid, but we don’t recommend that. When the candidate successfully passes the previous point, it is time to have a personal interview with them, and in our case we use Google Hangouts.

Here we take the time to explain in more detail about our company, our history, and who makes this possible. Then we discuss the position, the benefits, and work method. Finally, we answer their questions, doubts, or suggestions.

Generally we have between 3 to 5 members of our team participating in the interview; the idea is to create an open and transparent environment where the candidate can get to know the culture of our team as well as us getting to know him or her.

The goal is to explain to them the exact details of the selection process, what are the following steps, and finally we ask them if they are interested in continuing or not.

In a startup, the culture is highly important, a new employee can help build upon it or they can completely destroy it, even more so when we have recently started. Regarding culture in a business venture, I recommend watching this class from Stanford University, with Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb.

Some questions that can be used during this stage are:

  • Can you tell us what a normal day for you looks like, from the time you get up till you go to bed?
  • Can you share with us some of your goals for the mid and long-term? These can be professional and/or personal.
  • What would you like for us as a company to offer you?
  • If you had a billion dollars, what would you like to do?
  • If you knew you had just one year left to live, what would you do with your time? What would you invest in?

As can be seen, all of these questions are open-ended, the idea is that the candidate can share as much as they are comfortable in sharing and at the same time, we are able to know them as much as possible. Once you do this, you will be surprised at the amount of things that one can learn just by asking them a question and letting them express themselves freely.

Note: We should never forget that everything we learn from these consultations will help us choose with more accuracy who is the ideal candidate. If we do our job right, this is good for us, and also for them, because if done correctly we will both benefit. No one wants to be hired only to have us say a couple of weeks or months later that we didn’t do our job right in hiring them and they are not appropriate for our organization.

4) We make a decision and delegate the project.

Now we are getting to the definitive and key part of the process. Once we are interested in the candidate and the candidate in our startup, it is time we get to action. We hire the person as an external consultant, we pay them what they indicate to us is an adequate amount per hour and finally we assign a project which takes around 2 weeks.

This project has to meet the characteristics of being a real project that is definitely a concrete and integral part of our company. However, at the same time, it should not be critical or necessary for our day to day operations. Thus, if this project fails, it will not impact the growth of our company.

And lastly, it should be a project in which the candidate should definitely interact with other parts of the company (design, sales, marketing, etc.). The interesting thing here is that we will observe in real time their way of communicating with the rest of the team. For an employee who works remotely, the talent of being able to communicate clearly, precisely, and efficiently is something highly valuable that is not negotiable.

Before delegating the project, we make sure to have a coordinator on the project and assign a deadline; the objective is to measure their level of proactivity, a quality that every remote employee should have, without the need for us to always be pushing them from behind so that the project gets done correctly and on time.

Through this mechanism we not only measure their technical capacities but also their interpersonal skills (communication + proactivity) and we are thus in condition to decide whether or not to make another contract with them. As can be seen, the process results in being a little longer than we would like, but the most important thing is that it guarantees our ability to successfully form a remote team in the long run.

As a final recommendation, I have seen this process fail terribly more than once, leading to the closure of the startup, besides leaving the people without work. It is for this reason that this process for building a remote team, in the beginning (up to 20 employees) it should be we the founders who carry this out from one step to the other and have a presence in all four stages. Under no circumstances should we hire a third party to do this for us, in the same way that we would not hire another company to implement the source code of our software that is the heart of our work. And that which gives life to the heart (the blood) are the people that work day in and day out by our side.

Author: Hernán Amiune Co-founder of MelhorTrato, education platform in Brazil. Passionate about developing entrepreneurial culture for Latin America.


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Written by:
Professor Cristian Rennella, The Catholic University of Córdoba. Programmer for the company MT, and focused on financial education for Brazil. Currently he is an angel investor for business ventures based in Latin America having a global reach.
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