How to Build a World-Class International Team

In June 2010, I traveled to Hubli, India to run the NextDrop pilot. With $18K in hard-won funding from Clinton Global Initiative, the iSchool and Berkeley Big Ideas, we set out to: 1) crowdsource information on water availability 2) validate that residents needed and would pay for that information.

By day, we surveyed households on their water problems and willingness-to-pay and talked our way into government offices. By night, I learned to appreciate the subtle variations of South Indian thali and trained myself to survive a dormitory where mosquitoes were kings, and I, their dinner.

Before I knew it, the summer was over, and it was time to hand the keys to a local team. We’d budgeted for a full-time person and an intern to continue building our user base and running experiments, while the founders worked on developing the technology and fundraising back in Berkeley. Only one problem there. I’d never hired anyone before.

As far as I recall, our hiring process consisted of circulating the opportunity at the foundation where we were located and interviewing three candidates with an interview tool we improvised. Not good!

After we raised $450K funding to grow NextDrop in 2011, we’d compound this initial error by doing more of the same. We built a great local team to help us get users, instead of recruiting people more capable than us to lead the key functions we needed: engineering, operations, and sales.

Recruiting Directors

These days, my approach to building an international team has changed completely. When starting out in a new country, I first focus on recruiting a Director — the person who will lead our efforts in that country, act like a founder, and own the hard problems of building out our team, nurturing relationships, and adapting our mission to the local environment. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be able to accomplish these objectives as effectively as a gifted local — if I can, something is wrong!

I focus on two main questions when hiring country directors for LaborVoices, where we’ve built teams to lead our work in Bangladesh and Turkey.

Will we like talking to each other?

As simple as it sounds, this is the key question to answer early in the interview process. As your relationship will be 95% based on communication done via the internet, you’d better enjoy it. As Kohl put it to me once, think of it like this: “Would you enjoy talking to this person, not just about work, but about any topic?” Finding someone who you enjoy communicating with is the difference between being energized versus wiped out on a daily basis.

Can I be this person’s coach?

A whole lot is contained in this question:

  • Does the person have the founder mindset — the desire to get things done and help the company turn difficult corners, without being managed or pushed every step of the way?
  • Is she coachable — will she be receptive to ideas about how to approach problems and resources to use, with the understanding that she’ll ultimately be doing the heavy lifting?
  • Is she capable? Does she have the raw talent and specific skills the position requires, and the willingness to learn in areas where she’ll need new skills?

Building a Pipeline of Talent

So how do you find and recruit the perfect Country Director? Getting world-class people to join your team requires a great pipeline of talent. This is where things can get tricky, especially if you’re an unknown startup, operating in a country where your networks aren’t developed and you can’t afford recruiters. While there’s no magic bullet, we’ve found a few things that work well:

Leverage the best job boards in the country

In Bangladesh, for example, a single post to consistently yields hundreds of applications. While the signal to noise ratio is poor, with some screening effort, you can add valuable talent to your pipeline at a low cost. Screening tip: require a carefully customized cover letter and automatically reject all applicants who don’t meet that bar.

Rev up your networks

Several months before we launch in a new country, we typically make a trip there, where we focus on rapidly activating our networks. We tap our partners, funders, customers, and personal networks to amplify our message and talent outreach. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a meeting. The hotel lobby becomes our meeting point of choice, to maximize throughput.

Play the long game

As in many areas of business, inbound works better than outbound. For that reason, we try to prepare for the long term. We attract talent to LaborVoices by building out our reputation through press and key partners. We invest in our personal networks, by spending time on them every week. And finally, we build good karma, by being as kind as possible to everyone in our process. A small kindness in your interview process — like taking 5 minutes to call the candidates you don’t select to let them know your decision — can make a huge difference in turning even those that don’t join the team immediately into long-term friends.

Stay tuned for part II, where I’ll give the low-down on how we run hiring, from defining a position, to making an offer.