Staffing Your Online Publishing Company

For the first two years of ClickZ’s history, there was just me and Ann, along with two or three others who managed to do it all: get the articles, get the advertisers, put up the site every night, do the mailings, pay the bills, send the bills, and all the other fun stuff that goes with being a microscopic start-up. We did it all out of home offices, physically saw each other once or twice a week at best, and used ICQ and email to stay in touch.

We liked being small. It was quite manageable, and we could be the control freaks we are.

But then the market itself forced us to begin to grow. We couldn’t keep using stringers for programming. We couldn’t keep cobbling together the home and archive pages in FrontPage every night. We had to expand the online marketing topics we covered lest we become irrelevant overnight.

So we moved into a teensy weensy office on Main Street in Andover. Three rooms. 600 square feet. Room for about six or seven of us. We outgrew that office in about four months.

In the year since then, ClickZ has grown to two offices one in North Andover, one in L.A. comprising about 25 people.

Neither Ann nor myself had any experience in hiring, firing, or managing people prior to launching ClickZ, so we’ve had on-the-job training with employees and ex-employees who were only too willing to teach us.

If it’s at all useful, I’ll pass along some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way…

  1. If you can outsource your human resources and payroll, do it. We use HR Logic to handle our payroll and benefits, and to help out with all the various things that a human resources department would do for you if you were in a larger company. The folks at HR Logic have been gems to work with when we’ve run across some sticky issues and, for the most part, have kept us out of hot water. There are other companies that provide the same services, but I’m not familiar with all the players out there. And for small companies like us, they’re great.

  2. Don’t get swept up in the emotions of a GREAT first interview. We’ve done it, and we’ve regretted it. We were so sold on certain individuals that we (gulp!) didn’t even check their references. Had we done so, we would have seen track records that led quite clearly up to the problems we experienced from these individuals. History often repeats itself, especially when it comes to jobs.
  3. Just because they don’t have online experience doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work for an online company. I would say that MOST of our employees, including my partner, Ann Handley, came to ClickZ with ZERO online experience. One of our editors was a Ph.D. candidate. Another wrote for a local newspaper. Our Forum manager had an administrative and accounting background. Our network manager was an administrative assistant and office manager. Our site manager was an administrative assistant who taught herself HTML in her spare time, helping out on some community web sites. We look for generic skill sets and a particular personality type. We can always teach them what they need to know about email and the web, but the skills we need, we don’t have time to teach.
  4. Having online experience sometimes makes them less teachable, less open to new information. When we were searching for an online sales rep, we went through one interview after another talking to candidates with lots of online experience who felt they knew it all, who barely took the time to learn anything about our site, and who made ridiculous salary, commission, and equity demands. Then we met Jim Kelly, a guy who came from selling ad space in Genre magazine, who was hungry for a new opportunity, and who took the time to get to know all he could about us, our site, our audience, and our advertisers before the first interview. We hired him at a reasonable commission rate. He went on to quintuple sales in four months and is now making a ridiculous amount of money. And we’re happy for him!
  5. Even if you have no doubts, check and double-check the references anyway. And, as far as that goes, while they are there at your offices, have a few other team members interview the candidate. After all, you have to spend most of your waking hours with this person. If they don’t work out, it’s torture getting rid of them, so be extra careful to make sure the chemistry is right and the references check out. Listen to that little voice in the back of your head. If it’s warning you “Danger, Will Robinson, DANGER!” you should probably listen. Every time I’ve ignored it, I’ve regretted it.
  6. If they bitch about their boss, it’s only a matter of time till YOU are the one they are bitching about. Oh, there will be a honeymoon period to be sure, but it’s only a matter of time till they learn that you, too, are human, that your company is composed of humans, and that you will disappoint them severely. The cycle will begin again. So listen closely to what they complain about in their current jobs. The same will be said about you soon enough.
  7. You might be surprised where you can find some great job candidates. I have this theory about people who manage the major fast food restaurants. They’re under constant pressure, have to manage minimum-wage workers who don’t really give a damn, have to maintain high standards anyway, have to multitask like crazy, and have to keep a fickle public happy all while making less than $30K per year. Can you imagine how that kind of skill set might be put to work in YOUR office? Maybe your office needs a new “McManager” to keep things rolling right, huh?

I’ve probably overlooked a few items, but those are some of the lessons we’ve learned. Ann and I are real proud of the incredible team we have been fortunate enough to build. The one lesson that WE had to learn in order to get the most out of them was this:

Hire the best people you can for what they do, let them know what you expect, then get the hell out of their way!

It’s easier said than done…

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