Should You Hire Experienced Candidates or Train Inexperienced Ones?

May 27, 2014

9:39 am

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Startup founders often favor hiring younger, less experienced candidates who are willing to learn. These people are often used to getting paid less, they feel more grateful and motivated, and they’re still pliable – not set in their ways about how “things should be done,” which can be rather tough to deal with in a small team. Is this the best approach?

Upfront Ventures general partner Mark Suster believes it’s better to hire people who haven’t held an authority position before and thus have something to prove – scrappy people who “punch above their weight class” – rather than bringing on corporate bigwigs with experience.

Blackboard and SocialRadar cofounder Michael Chasen doesn’t necessarily believe you have to pick one or the other (age vs. experience); instead, he recommends a healthy balance. He says:

“Enthusiasm, fresh perspective, and untapped potential are all potent qualities. I believe a management team works best when stocked with a combination of seasoned professionals and driven younger people. The vets can inspire and mentor the newbies, and the newbies can reinvigorate the vets. Everyone has more to learn.”

Think about it like the Minor League farm system in baseball. You can bring on talent, then season them through the various minor league levels before they’re finally given a shot in the major leagues.

Las Vegas-based Zappos uses an approach similar to this called the “pipeline” strategy, where most of their hires are entry-level and they have a structured training program to move them all the way up to vice president. This strategy was partly inspired by executive Fred Mossler’s job at Taco Bell at age 16. According to him, Taco Bell had a policy where new hires earned a star for learning key skills like making beans, grating cheese, or mopping the floor, and employees were eligible to become managers after collecting all 35 stars.

When evaluating young people as potential hires, what you’re looking for is a growth mindset. This is a concept developed by Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck. Amy Pressman, president of Medallia, Inc., explains that people with a growth mindset “believe they can develop their most basic abilities through dedication and hard work and that brains and talent are just the starting point. These are the people who will not only push themselves to contribute as much as they can to the team, but also will push their teammates to become the best versions of themselves.”

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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