Startups face challenges that can be compared to alien invasions. Each coming in hard with its own set of threats. It could be the market, competitors or your product possessed by a Demogorgon from the upside down!
Whatever it is, it’s up to you to recruit your group of Avengers and like Fury, you can’t depend on Hammer Tech or consultants. They may fit candidates to your skill requirements, but picking out superheroes is your job. After all, most of these challenges may be alien to you and on a tight budget, you don’t need another corporate slave with years of experience. You need someone who applies their skills creatively or “heroically” to these challenges.
What you seek is a level of conviction, creativity, out-of-box thinking and sometimes the ability to go beyond the call of duty. This is where an interview methodology I recently discovered could help you recruit your next superhero!
The Ownership Question
This question should be asked towards the end of your interview and may take anywhere between 10 mins to an hour depending on your satisfaction with the answer. It’s like a catch you off guard type of question, but far different from something like — “So, where do you see the Avengers in the next 5 years!?”
The ownership question turns the tables around and subsequently makes the candidate both creator and decision maker in the process. I’ve seen a candidate’s eyes glow like crystals made of creative juice and it’s a sign — you’ve spiced things up!
The basic principle to apply is to give the candidate fictitious ownership over a product or service of their choice all with the help of a guiding question. Then ask them to devise a plan to tackle a problem (real or fictional) with that product or service. They identify this problem as well. That’s how they take ownership right? Note, their solution should highlight the skills they listed as part of their job application.
This problem can be real or completely fictional, big or small and the solution need not be right. It’s now a test for creative application of skills.
1. Start with the guided questions -
I ask the candidate to name a product or an app they really like or hate. Let’s call the company that created it X and let’s hold it down to apps for now just for easy relatability. Usually, an app they like is on their phone, so you ask them to open it. Next, draw ownership — “You now work for company X, can you identify an issue that they may currently face, have faced or will face in the future with this product?”. Remember, it can be real or fictional, but candidates often identify something they perceive as a problem they might understand or be able to solve using the skills and knowledge they already possess.
2. After they identify -
Candidates more often than not identify a problem they think is real if they were working for company X. Remember, it can be big or small. Now, it’s time to ask them to use their skills to develop a solution for it. Give them paper if they’d like to illustrate.
3. What should you seek?
There are multiple things you can infer from this quick, but effective exercise. It’s open to your discretion, but let me suggest some for you -
- How sensitive is the candidate in solving the issue? Do they believe they are the right ones?
- How well or deeply do they describe applying their skills at each level of solving the problem?
- What’s the process of determining the solution? Do they find subproblems along the way?
- Do they reach a solution or something close to one and can they make it believable?
- Is the solution unique, crazy, something that blows your mind or catches you off guard?
Mainly, through the process and its solution you can identify positive keynotes like the creation of - abundance, stability, trust, optimism, understanding, usability, marketability, etc. Remember, the solution need not be right by your standards, but it should showcase an applicant’s ability to take bold risks and rack their brains when it’s actually required.
That’s a load of Hulk smash! We need an example of course! Our experiences may never align, but I’ll try to connect the dots for you.
As an example, we will assume a diverse set of job roles — a designer, a machine learning programmer, and a customer service representative. We will also assume for simplicity’s sake, that all 3 of my applicants apply for one of each role respectively and choose the same company X and their product Y.
X = a social media giant like Facebook.
Y = their popular chat application WhatsApp.
Begin, by telling each candidate that they work for Facebook and in the WhatsApp team for the same job role. Next, ask them to identify an issue they think they can solve. Of course, WhatsApp is a pretty darn perfect app to choose, so be open to the creation of non-existential problems and scenarios.
Identified Problems -
- Designer — “It's the right time for WhatsApp to create a night mode”
- Programmer — “They could maybe track the sharing of spam posts better?”
- Customer Service Rep — “Middle-aged and older adults struggle to do certain tasks on WhatsApp like share contacts”
Solution Process -
Each applicant begins to think up solutions using their skills. Now, this is where you play an interactive role in the solution process. Ask simple yet intriguing questions, its really an open slate.
Designer — Draws up a wireframe with a toggle button and a half moon. Describes the inverted colour change that would appear and that it can be set to turn on automatically at a particular time of day on an easily accessible settings drop-down menu.
Programmer — I am going to store a fixed id or hash to identify every version of this image, have the ability for users to report the image or video and then compare it to a database of pre-classified spam posts based on parameters like the level of virality, degree of group forwarding, blah blah, la la, etc.
Service Rep — These people can just open a chat like any other with a service agent like me and in about 20 questions I can help them share a contact with another person. Easy!
As you can see, it’s hard to draw up a common example that would fit any role and don’t expect a brief articulation of an applicant’s idea. However, even an answer as simple as the last is a sign of being able to use something that already exists, which is the core chat feature everyone is familiar with and also what most senior users who usually depend on family members for such tasks like contact sharing, would find more easily accessible. Nowadays, that job can be done by chatbots in just 3 questions of course!
What to infer?
As described earlier, “multiple things” for example the designer’s sensitivity towards blue light emitted from phone screens that affect a user’s sleep and can be blamed on their late night texting adventures. Or, the programmer’s understanding of image classification and the use of several parameters for classification that validate’s her algorithmic approach.
As I said, there is really no right or wrong answer and it all depends on your satisfaction with the identified problem, the process of arriving at the solution and finally in the believability of the solution itself.
The beauty in this approach is that you don’t always require domain expertise when hiring for the role. This is useful when your startup is still in its fledgling stages and the hiring is mostly your portfolio. It’s also on point with the hire slow methodology. You need people with creative potential cause you are constantly under the stress of staying ahead of those challenges your startup is facing.
It would be nice to hear if some of you applied this methodology or a similar version of it. So, please comment on your thoughts and let everyone know if you got a candidate to take ownership in their interview and helped justify themselves enough as problem solvers that should be working for you.
For those of you who’d love to experience my version, we are hiring - https://xamplay.com/careers. Please, apply only if you have the required skills of course! Now that you know my methodology, you might think you could be well prepared. However, the interactive nature of this exercise keeps it challenging, exciting and always fresh. The experience is never expected to be the same.
A big thank you to Sushanth Shajil who encouraged me to start writing blogs like this and helped provide the initial validation I required. He is our lead designer at Xamplay — xamplay.com, a talented writer of books like Unspoken Ardour and many high-quality blog posts. Do check them out!
I did my best to articulate this one, so I really hope it helps other entrepreneurs like me find their next group of superheroes. Till then, happy hiring!