The Right Staff

Not long ago, Greg stood with a coworker on an office balcony of a dot-com, overlooking a shiny new Porsche Boxter. The car was brought in as an employee bounty for hiring referrals. His coworker summarized that moment best by saying, “We really must take a picture of this to capture the pinnacle of dot-com excess for future posterity.”

Today, many would argue that the Internet’s Porsche Boxter days are over. Since the April Nasdaq slide, numerous dot-coms have reported high-profile layoffs and door closures. Job seekers and venture capitalists alike have suddenly become a lot more discriminating when it comes to hitching up with the next dot-com with a “revolutionary” idea to ride into town.

Yet, despite these highly publicized cases, the untimely death of the explosive dot-com job market has been greatly exaggerated. Quality employees are as important as ever to the success of growing e-businesses.

Unlike their brick-and-mortar brethren, e-businesses are valued almost exclusively by their intellectual or human capital. Lacking physical assets, dot-coms declaring bankruptcy must frequently file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 instead of the protections under Chapter 11.

It is also for this reason that the success or failure of a dot-com merger or acquisition is determined by how well it preserves its combined brain trust following the transaction. This is a far cry from old economy businesses where takeovers often focus on production systems or property employees and management be damned.

But are skilled dot-com employees still in demand? The best litmus tests to gauge demand are the lengths that their recruiters will go to for their next commission.

During the Nasdaq heyday, one of Silicon Valley’s dirty little recruiting secrets involved incognito rendezvous at dark bars and cafes reminiscent of Cold War espionage. However, instead of microfilm containing nuclear secrets, money would be exchanged for purloined employee phone lists. Third parties would also handle the exchange to avoid any trace of the recruiting company to the turncoat insider with the goods.

Since April, Greg has heard of fewer cases like this. However, he has noticed recruiters stepping up their Trojan Horse attacks on the company employee directory:

  • In late May, several people representing conferences called random phone numbers with the company prefix, wanting to speak with “developers” (and only developers) who might be interested in presenting. After a few questions, the called party would soon figure out that the caller did not represent a conference and that they were after specific names and phone numbers. Once unmasked, the caller promptly hung up.

  • In June, a “contractor” called the San Francisco office claiming to work with an employee at a remote company office in Cambridge, Mass. She requested employee information off the company intranet, claiming that access from the remote office was down.

    When questioned, she became indignant and gave a Boston-area phone number “in the Cambridge office” where she could be reached. What she provided was not a working number. The called party then “star 69ed” her (it’s not nearly as kinky as it sounds) to call her back, and she instead reached a gentleman in New Jersey who claimed to know nothing of the sort.

  • In late July, someone named “Charlie Wilson” called claiming to be from a certain package delivery service. He said he had several packages from a certain high-tech company to be delivered to the CIO and his directors. However, because of the insurance carried on each package, he needed the individual names of each director in order to deliver them.

    Naturally, the delivery service claimed to know of no one by the name “Charlie Wilson” who worked at their company.

Sure, there are plenty of layoffs out there, but there are a lot of bad and badly managed e-businesses out there, too. For a few of them, these layoff announcements hark back to the early 1990s where unprofitable companies that couldn’t compete on earnings instead tried to use layoff counts as a success metric or mark of progress.

Help Wanted: Dead or Alive

Given that every e-business has a critical need to recruit and retain talent in order to survive, what qualities should they look for in a candidate? From the hundreds of candidates Greg has interviewed in more than four years in the “industry,” there are a few characteristics that stand out:

A refusal to release a mediocre product
Each e-business needs a team or a few key leaders that simply refuse to let something half-hearted out the door. When faced with a “we can’t really do that, so this is good enough” situation, they take it as a personal challenge to think out of the box and relentlessly find a way to make it work until they are satisfied with the results. Their spirit and high standards rub off on everyone around them.

Quick decision making (and flexibility)
Indecision will cost you dearly in momentum and opportunity. Some experts have rightfully pointed out that, when on Internet time, a delayed decision is the same as a “no” decision as any opportunity will likely have passed you by and been picked up by your competitors.

However, quick decision making would be a recipe for disaster if not for a willingness to admit mistakes and change course. There is no place for “religious” thinking. Marrying yourself to ideas or ways of doing business is like anchoring yourself with a short chain to the sea bottom and not knowing when, nor how high, high tide comes in.

A willingness to experiment and fail
This characteristic is the corollary to the last. With a technical and business climate that’s continually evolving, e-businesses need employees who seek change and overcome inertia.

But change also represents a risk of failure. Employees and company culture must tolerate justifiable risk and the chance of failure. Without that, no one stands to learn from mistakes, and no one stands to achieve truly great successes by taking the right chances. Nobody ever gets rich off of their FDIC-insured checking account.

More so than any given Internet skill du jour, a company’s only real competitive advantage is the ability to adapt to change and renew itself. Being best of breed at push or wireless technology is meaningless when the industry has lost interest and moved on to the next battleground. Therefore, e-businesses must value employees not so much for what they know, but for how quickly they can learn and apply new things.

Unfortunately, nearly all educational systems and certification programs offer nothing for employers to gauge a candidate’s fitness in this area. The best measure may be a test during the in-person interview to see how quickly the candidate can absorb new information and think on his or her feet.

It Takes All Kinds

Our last point is that e-business often requires a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, and levels of ability.

Some advocate that you should single out only the best and brightest. In many cases, despite the expense, that’s a great strategy particularly when the company is small and individuals have a greater impact on its overall success.

However, there’s often a lot of unglamorous gruntwork that needs to get done for example, cobrands and other “marketing” projects that add little product or user value but are critical to distribution and revenue. A dozen prima-donna programmers and MBAs from MIT won’t have the patience to do it, and they’ll be the costliest labor force you can assign to handle it.

No matter what you do to staff your growing e-business, you’ll need a little luck, a little creativity, and a lot of money or equity.

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