Hire Athletes, Travelers & Women: Insights from Zendesk's Startup Story


My decision to read Startupland has already paid off. I am on a software startup team myself (Relode), so the read was helpful on many levels, not least of which is how to hire well in a startup. We are in the hiring space as a modern way to find and organize job candidates.

Startupland is the story of Zendesk, written by Mikkel Svane (the CEO and co-founder) and Carlye Adler.

Zendesk has done alright, you could say, going from zero to $1 billion in its first seven years, from an apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark to an office on Market Place, Silicon Valley. They mademore than a few hires by the time they signed on their 50,000th user.

Here are the lessons about hiring I gleaned from Svane’s Startupland, a book on How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea into a Global Business.

1. Hire Athletes

This means finding multitalented “athletes” who offer more than one skill set. This way, because a startup is crazy, the new hire can adapt, do multiple things, and get the job done.

As an athlete myself (and a jack of all trades, master of none), this resonates with me. I played football, hockey, soccer, ran track, and got into ultimate frisbee in my day. Athletics translates into versatility in the workplace. I appreciate great hires like Relode's new Director of Marketing, Hunter Mize. He gets it done, whatever "it" is with regard to marketing; and he's an athlete. 

2. Hire Travelers

Zendesk asked candidates where they had traveled to see how curious and open-minded they were.

I like this as an interview question, because I went overseas for the first time and stayed there for nine months. Now, having spent a year in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, I know what insights one gains from traveling. The cultural perspectives that come from traveling adds immensely to understanding "the other," even if the other is simply the person next to you.

3. Hire Women

Svane says he might get in trouble for this, but “women are better workers,” he says, especially mothers because they are used to multitasking. (But with four kids, Svane says he’s good at multitasking, too.)

In our office, I'm glad we have at least one female, Jen Warneld, Director of Quality and Training.

4. Hire For Authenticity

If someone’s not honest about small things in the interview process, they may not be honest in general!

In my experience, trust is the bottom line for all relationships; without trust, you might as well pack your bags and go home. This is vital for business relationships; Patrick Lencioni agrees in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (great read by the way). He says, "Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible."

5. Hire For Differences, Not Similarities

Having a group of culturally distinct individuals will be great in the long run says Svane and Adler in Startupland: “It’s much better to be like the United Nations, made of different cultures and background,” because “a diverse workforce enables the company to make sure no predominant group sets the tone. Instead, the company finds its own common tone.”

Those are five hiring lessons that come directly from Startupland with my summary for each. Here are three other lessons I learned on more of an implicit level, just from reading the story.

6. Hire Top Talent, But Don’t Do Anyone Dirty

In 2011, Zendesk needed a new CFO to prepare for their IPO. Rick, their CFO at the time, was doing great, but they needed someone who could take the company public. Svane had to let Rick go, and ended up hurting him.

Part of the problem was that Rick was still in Boston, where Zendesk had originally landed when they moved from Denmark, but they had been in Silicon Valley for a while. By the time Svane was ready to let Rick go, they had already hired his replacement.

And that’s the way he told Rick: “We’ve hired someone to be our new CFO.”

Rick was devastated by the news.

Svane is humble enough in Startupland to publicly apologize for this. He unnecessarily damaged his relationship with Rick, even if it was the right move for Zendesk in the end. Lesson learned: hire top talent and communicate in the right time; don’t do anyone dirty.

7. Hire People Smarter Than You

Svane says, “Hiring people who are way smarter than you and who have a lot more experience is actually really hard. And it’s something you have to learn. You don’t really have a frame of reference for evaluating them, and you have to perform intense back channeling to truly understand how they operate and what kind of people they really are.”

One example of this was hiring Adrian McDermott, their new VP of engineering, who had more experience and was smarter than Svane.

Svane realized that people like McDermott are not the kind of people you manage—you have them join your team and form the destiny of your company. His advice to those wanting to hire smarter-than-you people is that you have to spend time with them and get to know them in situations where they’re not necessarily comfortable.

8. Pick Well Your First Employees

Zendesk made excellent hires early on, and those hires paid off in the long run.

For example, they hired Matthew Latkiewicz for customer support. Latkiewicz was a great hire, but he wasn’t necessarily who they “should” have hired based on typical qualifications: 

"Though he never would have fit the kind of ‘check the box’ list we probably should have had, he was exactly what we needed. He was a hard worker and a creative thinker, and he reflected our voice and brand. We have found that the first few hires are the most important ones you will ever make."

Those are eight lessons I gleaned from a software startup in Silicon Valley.

Which one stands out to you? Leave your comments below and continue the conversation.

Chad Harrington writes for Relode, a software startup that offers a modern way to find and organize job candidates. Hiring starts here.