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Interviewing Software & IT Leaders
"Build the best teams that you possibly can, and don't make compromises. This is very, very hard to do as there's pressure from so many areas to ramp, to grow fast. Push back and say, it's gonna hurt us more if we just take someone who's okay", David Bizer, HackFwd.
David is Chief Talent Geek at HackFwd, one of the leading startup programs in Europe who focus exclusively on investing in software developers as founders. Part of his role at HackFwd is to identify, evaluate and develop startups. Prior to HackFwd, David has run staffing for Google, as well other software companies, such as Netscape, being responsible for talent management, human resources, and recruitment. Originally from Sudbury, Massachusetts USA, David currently lives in Paris, France.
Michael Ni: It's Michael Ni, CMO at Avangate, and today we'll be chatting with one of the leaders who's helping to bring forward, cultivate and launch great ideas into the software world. We are lucky to have with us today David Bizer. David is HackFwd's Chief Talent Geek. He's basically the front door because at HackFwd it's about finding the right team. David's experience in staffing, talent management, allows HackFwd to identify, evaluate and develop the top 1% of technical founders in Europe. David, I would love to start with just a quick introduction to yourself and HackFwd.
David Bizer: Sure. Hi, Mike. It's a great introduction you gave. I wish everybody could introduce me as eloquently. Basically, I work for HackFwd and we are one of the leading startup programs in Europe. We focus exclusively on investing in software developers as founders, and I've been doing this for almost the past three years now. Prior to that, I spent six and a half years running staffing for Google in Europe and prior to that, working with other software companies, most notably I guess Netscape, running staffing for them. So I've spent a long time with talent management, human resources, and recruitment, and that's what I do today at HackFwd, identify, evaluate, develop startups.
MN: Well, certainly, something we see a lot and we work across literally thousands of software companies and see that pressure on the early companies, that founding team, the early talent, certainly very critical. So let's go ahead and jump right into some of these questions. First of all, one thing that has come up, you know, to provide some context to the companies you typically focus on, what do you see in terms of some of the trends, the companies that are coming to you as well as what are some of the software categories that you're investing in or looking to invest in?
DB: If you look at trends, I think HackFwd's investing outside of the trends, so to speak, at least the trends in Europe. I spent a lot of time in the past week or so looking through startups across the region because I'm involved with a couple of awards initiatives, and you see lots and lots of companies doing mobile applications, lots of social, lots of copycats, unfortunately. And so what we're looking for, really, are things that stand out, things that are unique. And so I wouldn't say that we really align with trends, but we're looking for the right team, which again most investors will say is their first priority, but we've defined it in a particular manner. That is, one, that people are extremely technical. We believe deeply that in order to have a great product you have to have phenomenal people that can build great product. So we really go in depth into looking at, are these people technical? Can they scale a product massively? After that, we look at the type of business that they want to build, and in the beginning we looked a lot at consumer-focused internet companies. And the reason for that was basically we felt anything B2B would require too much in terms of resources when it comes to commercial efforts and building out a sales team. We didn't think our investment would go far enough to build that kind of a company.
Having said that, a couple of our investments have gone from B2C to B2B and we do look at B2B now, but we still look at it with that same view as to whether or not they can build out the commercial aspects without massive sales force investment. So we look at all kinds of different products, but they are all internet, software, almost exclusively cloud-based products, whether they'd be mobile applications, games; we've invested in photo, we've done task management, social commerce, and affiliate marketing. So really widespread. To us, it's up to the technical capability of the team.
MN:Certainly the cloud has made B2B much easier to deliver and frankly to distribute. And we've seen that model certainly change worldwide as well for startups and companies of all sizes. But you know, that said, focusing on the topic of talent and passion, you clearly work with many types of entrepreneurs. What do you think are some of their key challenges in terms of putting a team together? Is there a recipe you see for overcoming these challenges?
DB:Well, it's definitely a challenge, and it's a challenge for everyone, because the type of talent that most of these companies are looking for is quite rare. Most companies will require hiring on more and more technical talent, which obviously is in high demand. And also, people who are hiring business talent want people with a particular set of skills, which are also limited because really, our industry is ten, fifteen years old, depending on what you're working on, sometimes even younger, so the younger the sector, the harder it is to find this relevant, applicable talent that jumps into the company and is ready to go day one.
In terms of philosophy around hiring for startups, what I took from Google is really the cornerstone in terms of thinking about how you hire. And I think the challenge for startups is not, how do you put it, rushing into anything. I think when we work in startups, everything is urgent, and everything we need to get done tomorrow, and so you have the tendency to take that look at hiring and it's very, very dangerous, because if you hire someone urgently because you have a need to get something done, you risk hiring the wrong person. And that's the worst thing that can happen to you. So I stress patience. Patience to find the right person, because at the end of the day it will be extremely valuable to you to have that person versus bringing in a person who's not the best to save the day very, very rarely works. So hold out for the best is definitely one of the things we advise so that you can continue to build a great team because it's that core team in the early days that's really make or break for the company.
MN: Perfect. And no doubt, folks should be relying on even folks like yourself who know a lot of the top geeks in the region and can do a little of that matchmaking, no doubt.
DB:Yeah, I mean, it comes from a wide variety of sources, right? Everyone's got to get involved to make it happen.
MN: Actually, that's a great way to follow up on that one, you know, when you look at talent, where does talent come from, in terms of, where should they be looking for folks? And from you knowledge, where are the talent[ed people] going to? What type of companies? What is attracting them?
DB: So in terms of where they're coming from, it really could be coming from anywhere. And that's part of what makes it difficult. I think a lot of the best talent is hidden talent. A lot of the best talent are people that are in jobs that they're either very happy with or okay with. And those people aren't on anyone's radar. So it's really a matter of sourcing and digging and when you talk about startups and giving advice about where to look, I think early stage startups can find these people on their own. I think they can find them on their own better than I can or better than someone in a recruitment agency can. And the reason I say that is because if the startup is serious about growth and serious about hiring, they should be getting out. And what I mean by getting out is attending events or industry conferences or pitching their startup, whatever it is, always with one eye and ear focused on the talent category so that you're always talking to people about your company and always expressing the potential opportunities there are. Because what's going to happen is you're going to build a relationship that hopefully lasts over time to when the opportunity arises.
DB: So one, you start building this network yourself as the startup, and two, you start building the relationship, which is really key because, as I mentioned earlier about hiring fast, one of the pitfalls is that you don't spend enough time with the candidate. And again, this early stage hiring, it's like dating or marriage, in the sense that you really want to know this is the right person for you and that simply takes time, and so that's an effort that the startup team has to put into it.
DB: And where do we [HackFwd] go? We do the same thing, right? We do the same thing that I'm advising. I'm building up the community myself, but when I propose people to companies, then the company has to really put in the effort on their side to validate the candidate, basically, by spending time with them. To give you an example of a company that's doing things well in that area, in Europe in particular, is Prezi, the presentation company. They have all of their R&D in Hungary and if you want to work for Prezi you have to spend a week working with them as part of the interview process. Of course, you know, if our little talk is going to an American audience, it doesn't really work, because, you know, people with two or three weeks' vacation probably aren't going to take that to go try out another company, but over here the situation's a little bit different and people can see the value of that. And it's valuable to the company but it's valuable to the candidate as well in terms of them saying, "This is a great place and I really want to work here." So any chance to get involved and of course you have to do this dealing with whatever culture you're in, whether it's working together for two hours on a small project or working for a week or working over time, that's a great way to validate talent.
MN: Well, and certainly a great way to see where do people get passion? Where is that fit? We all, you know, for a small company, it's only the handful of guys who face numerous ups and very numerous downs, and having that right team really helps you get through and continue to push. But, you know, where do you see the talent going? What are the hot sectors that you see they're flowing to?
DB: Let me talk from a European perspective. Because I think it's different. We still have lots of cultural barriers when it comes to startups and much of the talent in general, whether it be business or technical, are leaving the elite universities and going to work for large companies. This is just standard. If you finish one of these top engineering schools in Europe and tell your parents you're going to go do a startup they're going to think you're crazy. So this is a barrier that has to be overcome. So most people follow this very traditional, stable route. Then, at another level, people are attracted to the big names, so we've said that I spent time at Google and Google is great for recruiting in the sense that you can talk to anyone, anyone will talk to you if you say you're from Google, so that's a great door opener. Now Google's a big company, so it's definitely considered a stable opportunity. But in terms of where people are going, I think they're looking for reputation, because that is such a key denominator in Europe in general, if you can stereotype the entire region. They're looking for some sort of stability.
DB:The younger generation in particular, so Gen Y if you will, is really looking for a place where they can make an impact, where they can have some autonomy, where they can have flexibility, where they can make decisions, so this is new and this is why you do find some people gravitating more toward startups simply because they believe that culture exists more prevalently in a startup company. So, they're heading to places like that, but early stage startups are really tricky because they don't have the stability to offer and they also don't have the funding, so salaries are a real problem. The funding levels here are significantly lower than in the U.S., so you have to find somebody who just loves what you're doing and that goes back to this whole attraction of talent piece where, you mentioned the importance of the passion. It's not only finding the companies that are passionate but it's finding the individuals that are passionate about your company, because that's pretty much the bottom line in convincing them that they want to work with you is because they're just as passionate about what you're doing as you are.
MN:It's interesting you say that because it does actually warrant a quick reminder to those coming out of the elite universities. A great professor of mine-and I resonate with your geek comments, I got out of MIT myself-a great professor basically said, "Hey, look, you know, you guys are coming out of these elite universities, that is almost your insurance policy. Go out and experiment. Go find something you get passionate about, because you can always go find a job." And I think that's just a reminder to those out there who have the ability to do that to go and take some risk and find something that they can get passionate about.
DB: Yeah. And I wish that message would be more pronounced in our part of the world. Because it's rare. It really is.
MN: Going forward, what values do you, as an accelerator, encourage in software startups?
DB: Yes, so this is an interesting question and I've actually-I did a talk in Bucharest at How to Web about culture and I also talked to our own startups about building a culture. I don't think that we as a startup program can impress upon our startups particular values. I don't think we can say, "Here are the 5 values that you really should consider." I think what we need to do is expose them to how you think about values and get them into conversations with their own founding teams about "how do we define the values? What values do we want to uphold?" And I think it's really important to do that as a team. I can give example after example, but the question is, does that fit? Do you fall in love with that? Is that something you want to basically brand your company around? And some of the interesting examples that exist in high-profile companies, take Google for example. No one can really name the values at Google except for one, which is "Don't be evil," because it's so widely publicized. I would guess most people at Google can't name other stated corporate values. And I think there are ten of them. But it's not those written values that are baked into the company. It's more so what do people think of as values of the company?
DB: So in the Google case, and this is something I in terms of my background press upon startups, is what is your hiring philosophy? Every company says they're going to hire the best possible people. But do you really do that? And do you make the commitment to doing that? And Google decided that, from very, very early amongst the founders, and said we're going to hire the best people and this is what the best people mean to us and we won't deviate. And it was very, very clear what that meant.
DB: And I think that defining the value, making it very clear, and then baking it in to the employees' mindset, is really what's critical. But I can't tell you [what those values are]. I could rattle off plenty of things, right? Like, be really transparent. Give amazing customer experience. You gotta come up with that stuff on your own. It's worth looking at things-like Netflix is well known for having an amazing set of corporate values and has a good public presentation on it. So it's worth doing the research, the investigation, but I think it's very personal and really up to the founders to take that on as an objective.
MN: Interesting. It's great, and actually just building off that, when it comes to the values that drive the ability to innovate and launch, what similarities do you see with the larger companies to startups, especially since you've worked, obviously, at the Netscapes and the Googles of the world?
DB: So I guess I see less similarities because, at least in well-defined values, because I don't think or I haven't seen many startups and the startups we deal with are super early stage, right? They're, they've got prototypes, they're two people, three people. I don't think they sit around and have these discussions. I think sometimes it evolves over time, some things you can see in the teams that will come out as some type of value, whereas companies, corporates, are more forced to have these discussions, maybe because they hire HR people and the HR people say, let's have a values meeting. Is that the right way to do it? I think Google was exceptional in that sense that it really came so early. Google is a super performance-based company and that came from Kleiner Perkins, the investor, or the VC. And Kleiner Perkins put in the same performance system into Google as they had put into Netscape, similar, at least, based on what they call OKR structure, or objectives and key results. But there's this whole process around it that builds the company into this performance-based machine and where so much relies on individual and team performance. And that's something to really think about as you build your company, as you build your startup, because how do you get people on your team to perform day in and day out? How do you get them to perform above expectations or push themselves past their own limits? And that's something that you can build in, but I don't think so many people think about that from day one. I don't think a lot of startups think about, "How do we structure our meetings and how do we review each other?" very early on. So I think there are less similarities and there's probably a lot of room for improvement in that area.
MN: Great advice. Actually, looking at sort of a finishing question here, as everyone is making plans for 2013, what would be your one piece of advice when it comes to teams and values? And is this different from what you said at the beginning of 2012?
DB: I'm pretty consistent about this. I think the key, and it doesn't really change, is about building the best teams that you possibly can, and not making any compromises. And it's very, very hard to do, because there's pressure from so many areas to ramp, to grow fast, and if you say well, I haven't found the right person to do marketing, or sales, or the CFO, or whatever, that you're going to have pressure from your investors saying what's your problem, you need to hire, you need to move faster. But being able to push back and say, it's gonna hurt us more if we just take someone who's okay, is really critical. So I'm always pushing people about taking great care in who they bring on to their teams. I think that's really, really important. And now having done some of these talks around culture and values, how do you look at that from a startup perspective? And how can you make some time in what are obviously very busy days and nights to think about how this is going to evolve, because whether or not you're doing it intentionally, your corporate culture or your startup culture and the values within are going to evolve. So why not take control of them and see how you can make that a meaningful experience so that you have some control over the evolution of that within your company.
MN: Certainly great advice for not only startups but also larger companies or larger startups as many of us like to call ourselves. David, thank you so much for your time and insight. For those interested in hearing more from leaders in the business of software, I'd invite you to visit us at our website at Avangate.com for more interviews, videos, and resources. Help us celebrate your global software and cloud service sales. Till next time, happy selling.
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