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Junior hires are not worth it

I’ve heard a lot of people say this in the past. Do you agree with this sentiment?

I disagree—junior hires can indeed be worth it.

Although, there is a HUGE caveat. Allow me to elaborate…

Hiring Is My #1 Job

One night, I was having dinner with one of my investors. And he said something that has stuck with me since:

Founders should fire themselves from as many jobs as possible.

At the time, I couldn’t have agreed more. After all, as a founder, your job isn’t to be Superman. You can’t do everything on your own. Okay I lied. In the beginning, you’re going to be doing everything. But over time, you simply can’t be doing everything. That just doesn’t scale.

Instead, your role as a founder really boils down to two steps:

  1. Identify what needs to be done.
  2. Find people who can do it better than you can.

So, while I still agree with my investor’s statement for the most part, I’d argue there is one job a founder shouldn’t fire themselves from: Hiring.

Of course, there are some possible exceptions to this. I don’t know what it’s like to be the CEO of a late-stage company. So I can’t really claim that hiring is still a job for the CEO of a large enterprise. But for the stage I’m at (< 20 people), hiring the right people is my main priority.

With this being said, let’s revisit and revise my earlier statement:

Founders of early-stage companies should be the ones doing the hiring.

So if hiring is my #1 job, then I should probably get good at it, right? Right.

What does it mean to get “Good” at hiring?

It means you can identify and convince high-quality people to join your team. Plain and simple.

But not exactly easy to do.

Who is (and who isn’t) a “high-quality” employee is obviously subjective. What constitutes a high-quality team member for your company may not work well for mine. Each organization has different values and standards.

Generally speaking, I’d classify the qualities we measure people by into two buckets: universal and role-specific.

Universal Skills

The fundamental qualities that each company cares about, regardless of the role, are what I call “universal skills.” Once again, it’s important to note this differs from company to company.

For example, Coinbase cares about clear communication, positive energy, continuous learning, and efficient execution. On the other hand, Amazon prioritizes customer obsession, ownership, thinking big, and frugality, among others.

Obviously, there could be some overlap in the qualities each organization emphasizes (e.g., be a decent human being). But it’s the nuances that build and shape each company culture into a unique one.

Role-Specific Skills

In the other bucket, we’ve got what I call “role-specific skills.” Essentially, these are capabilities that are specific to the employee’s role in the company.

For example, when I’m hiring a full-stack engineer, I’m looking for the ability to write clean code, write tests, debug effectively, use Git efficiently, etc. If I’m hiring a business operations team member, I’m going to examine their organizational skills, prioritization abilities, Excel know-how, etc.

You get the gist ;).

Of course, in an ideal world, any hire you make has the universal skills you desire as well as the role-specific skills you want. People who check both boxes are what I would consider as “Senior” (i.e., more experienced).

Why?

Because it’s unlikely that a “Junior” employee has the role-specific skills just yet. They simply don’t have the experience. They are fresh and unproven.

Now, this doesn’t mean they can’t perform the job. Rather, it just means they don’t have the role-specific skills coming into the job. But they can certainly learn those role-specific skills after starting.

**Case in point: **I joined Andreessen Horowitz as a Partner on the deal team when I was only 23 years old… One could say I was junior AS FUCK! But I reckon they took a chance on me because they saw I had the universal skills they cared about. They figured I could learn the role-specific skills on the job. And I sure as hell did.

Sure, junior hires require some work to get them up to speed. But it’s important to remember you’re hiring them for their potential, not their experience.

Obviously, a junior hire isn’t going to come aboard and hit the ground running. But neither are senior hires, per se. There’s always a learning curve for any employee to become productive. The upfront investment in training and on-boarding junior hires just happens to be much higher than it is with senior hires.

So, are junior hires worth the upfront investment?

Now, the big question you’ve been waiting for: Are junior hires worth this initial cost?

Well, here’s the answer: It depends!

Okay, I admit… that answer’s not really satisfying. But it’s the truth.

Knowing when it’s worth it and when it’s not is one of the most difficult aspects of being a founder. And boy is it hard! But to succeed and grow, you have to get good at it.

It only gets more complex when there are tons of starry-eyed juniors who want to join your team. They’re filled to the brim with passion, energy, and eagerness to help make your vision a reality. You can feel the raw excitement and enthusiasm in the air around them.

And this can be a nice, refreshing change of pace compared to some of the jaded seniors who’ve got the “been there, done that” chip on their shoulder. But it only makes your decisions more difficult.

So, how do you cut through the noise and make the right choice?

The Art of Figuring Out What Makes a Great Junior Hire

There are definitely awesome junior hires out there. But for every good junior, there are 10 bad ones. So the key skill early-stage founders need is to be able to distinguish a good junior hire from a bad one efficiently and effectively.

Unfortunately, this is a skill that can usually only be developed through experience.

I’ll admit, I haven’t exactly perfected it myself just yet. Actually, let me be blunt—I’ve fucked this up quite recently at TruStory. The ugly consequence? I had to fire two junior hires, including my second engineer only three months into the job.

But mistakes are lessons, right? Sometimes, they just happen to be awfully painful ones.

After going through the trial and error of two unsuccessful junior hires, I went back to the drawing board. I needed to figure out where I went wrong.

One possible solution stuck out immediately: Only hire senior people going forward. But that just didn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE the senior folks on my team. They’re seriously a dream to work with.

But I was a junior once. Everyone is or was at some point. So I knew it was possible to find and hire good junior team members. And after evaluating a few more junior candidates, it only confirmed this truth. Many of them seemed to have incredible potential. It would be an injustice to ignore this.

So I spent a lot of time analyzing why I fucked up my first two junior hires. I also reflected on my previous experience as an employee. Eventually, this work resulted in a hypothesis. I’ve tested it out, and long story short, I recently made two junior hires who are flourishing in their roles.

Here’s what I’ve found:

**The key to effective junior hires is REALLY knowing what universal skills are important for your company. If they have these universal skills, the role-specific skills can be learned. **

Of course, this becomes obvious in retrospect.

The mistake I made in the past was either not knowing the right universal qualities to look for or not being honest with myself when these universal characteristics were missing.

For example, I once prioritized “genius” over everything. I was captivated by the person’s ability to have great ideas, but didn’t measure whether the person can actually get shit done. Ideas are great, but execution is everything. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. What a silly and painful mistake, right? But it was also a damn good lesson.

As I once said, I’ll pick the disciplined non-genius over the lazy genius, every damn time.

Anyways, let’s get back to the point. Focusing on getting the universal skills right has helped me get exponentially better at identifying good junior hires versus bad ones.

Every founder and company will have a different set of universal skills they care about. But for anyone curious, here are the universal skills I now look for before making a bet on a junior hire:

  • Discipline
  • Effective communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention management

If you have these skills, the rest can be learned. I can teach you everything you need to know.

Of course, now the tough question is: _How do you actually measure these skills? _

Let’s save that for the next email ;). After all, this is a newsletter, not a book! For now, I’ll end this one by saying this:

It’s not always possible to hire the perfect team. But you can, at the very least, build a kick-ass one. And sometimes, this means creating and growing that team yourself.

Junior hires can be worth it if you know what you want and you’re honest with yourself when evaluating them.

Only hiring senior team members is a short-sighted strategy. Sometimes it’s better to hire for potential, not experience. If you want to build a company that can scale, you need a little bit of both.

Okay, folks. Gotta get back to building TruStory. See ya next time!