T-shaped people

This post was initially published in Viktor Kyosev’s (COO of Greenhouse) weekly newsletter, where he shares his views on the topic of startups, growth and fast-growth markets: viktor.substack.com

This week, I would like to address another topic and talk about the importance of a culture fit in a startup. To make the article more digestible and bring context, I will use the example of Greenhouse and myself throughout the article.

Hiring well is among the most important priorities of Greenhouse. Missing out on hiring is likely the most costly mistake we can make. Usually, it’s immediately obvious whether or not we have done a great job hiring someone but there are cases when it takes a longer time and a poor hiring decision can cause lots of damage. Ultimately, people who cause damage always get weeded out, but the harm they do can still be significant.

The main challenge comes from mismanaged expectations on both sides.

Nowadays, there is much talk about startups, yet if you haven’t been part of one, most probably you will think of startups as a new, young company. Which is true, to an extent.

Yes, a startup is more often than not a new organization, yet, some organizations are referred to as “startups” even after several years of operations. For example, Twitter, Facebook, WeWork, Slack were considering as startups even after they exceeded $1B in valuation.

Therefore, the age of the company is not the best differentiating criteria.

Several posts ago, I referred to Paul Graham and mentioned how startups are essentially organizations designed to grow. Once again that seems a bit vague so I want to bring a second definition by Steve Blanc who is considered as one of the fathers of modern entrepreneurship, a serial entrepreneur turned best selling author and educator at Stanford University:

“ a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”

A small business isn’t in search of a business model. They are starting with a business model that has proven to work, think of most restaurants, hotels, legal firms, gas stations, shops, car wash, etc. Small businesses generate revenue early on and do not require significant investments.

Startups, in turn, can take years to find out a repeatable and scalable business model, yet maintain consistent growth with regards to revenues, employees, and markets where they operate.

The distinction is important because it nurtures a flexible mindset. It shows people how the current offering as a business may change depending on the feedback received from customers and the market itself. It shapes a mindset of growth and change.

Rather than expecting to polish existing products and services, employees understand how the company must be receptive to the market needs and should not hesitate to adapt.

That’s especially difficult for people coming from big companies. There is a considerable mismatch between the expectations of people with significant company background and the day-to-day ops at a startup.

Here you go a few examples of misalignments between new hires with traditional background and the way we do things at Greenhouse:

  • Rhythm mismatch — in big companies, people are conditioned to wait for the emails to come in, wait for the phone to ring, wait for the meetings to get scheduled. When you are working at a startup, nothing gets done unless YOU get it done.
  • Speed of execution — building on the previous point, we view the speed of execution differently than many companies. Most employees at Greenhouse with traditional backgrounds tell me how our pace takes some time getting used to. You need to love the challenge. Moving fast helps us to stay competitive and react to the market.
  • Reputation — as a relatively young startup, our brand does not open doors the same way large companies do. You will need to work harder for the same results.
  • Constrained resources — our resources cannot compare to those of big companies. Yet, show us that something is working and you will get resources. We have them, but each investment needs to be based on analytical thinking, data, sound logic, and discipline. Without that, we won’t support you.
  • Skillset mismatch — working for a large organization requires different skills than working for a startup. In large companies, you become good at complex decision-making, prioritization, influencing others, process improvement, and organizational communication. While when working at startups you will need to be good at recruitment (almost all positions are involved to some extent in hiring), you will need to understand how to create processes from the bottom up and be creative about solving problems with constrained resources.

Hence why we value “T-shaped” people.

Meaning, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things – the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline – the vertical leg of the T). We have made exceptions in the past and sometimes it works, but in most cases, T-shaped people are an ideal fit.

To demonstrate how a T-shaped background translates to real-life, I adapted a framework designed by Brian Balfour in order to prepare the following model where I broke down my expertise into three tiers:

1. Base Layer

These are non-sales and marketing specific subjects that provide a base to build from. Subjects in the base layer are used throughout the subjects in the next two layers.

2. Sales Marketing Foundation

These are sales & marketing subjects you should know that are used across almost any channel you use.

3. Channel Expertise

The third layer represents all channels I can use on my own, without the help of anyone, if that’s necessary. While I do not consider myself an expert in all those channels, I do my best to stay up to date on the latest changes and have executed many campaigns involving one or several of those channels at the time.

Shaping yourself like a “T” would guarantee you a great culture fit in most startups. Being just a generalist is useless in most work environments. But having expertise in certain areas you will be able to build a brand around yourself and stand out from the crowd.