I saw something remarkable from a startup I’ve had the privilege of working with recently. The founders are in the midst of assembling their core team and they’ve been doing an awe-inspiring job at it. Steve Martocci and I have been working with them for a several months, and one of the first things we stressed most while they thought about hiring their first employees was to utilize a trial period. The trial period is something we inadvertently stumbled into when we made our first hires. What began as a series of consulting gigs transformed into a hiring practice that has worked very well for GroupMe. It has also worked well for several startups that I’ve seen adopt the practice. Putting together the right core team at a startup is one of if not the most difficult and important things in the early lifecycle, and the trial period can help you find the right people to help build your company.
At GroupMe we never had an employee #1. Instead we assembled a core team with Pat Nakajima, Cameron Hunt, and Brandon Keene. Both Pat and Cameron began as consultants in July 2010. Cameron was introduced to me through Marco Arment, who I used to work with at Tumblr. We needed a front-end developer with an eye for good design, and someone who could build for iOS. Marco, with great conviction, said that Cam was the guy. He was right. Pat was introduced to Steve through his old boss and longtime friend and supporter of GroupMe, Josh Knowles. He was in between jobs and agreed to help us get groop.ly off the ground doing some consulting work.
The time we all spent together during those first couple weeks was pure fun. Everything clicked: personalities, working styles, karaoke duets, and even taste in office music (which admittedly sometimes consisted of various Disney soundtracks at the time). What started off as Steve and I working with consultants in the office (aka Steve’s studio apartment) quickly turned into a cohesive team in a matter of days. The process of converting from consulting work to full-time work was completely organic. It was the next logical step in our relationships, and building out the core team.
The anecdote is important because it set a precedent for GroupMe in how we like to recruit and work with prospective team members. In retrospect, those early days of consulting were really a trial period to see if we were all a good fit together. The trial period is something that has worked extraordinarily well for us, and I think it’s something that’s also worked well for those that we’ve recruited. There are so many things that determine if someone is a good fit (personality, culture, skill-level, etc.), but I think the most important criteria is that you (and the person joining your company) both have a positive gut feeling about working together. It takes time and some getting to know each other before one can develop that feeling - generally speaking, I think it usually takes around 2-3 weeks.
If someone is currently a consultant, or in between jobs, we like to bring them in as a paid consultant for a 2 week period and see how things unfold over the course of that time. This way, we don’t make any rash decisions, we can see how they mesh with the team, and they have an equal opportunity to determine if our company and culture is the right fit for them. More often than not, the trial period leads to a full-time position. There have definitely been instances when someone was not the right fit, but we would have never been able to figure that out on both sides had we not engaged for those 2-3 weeks.
There are some situations when it’s difficult to do a trial-period; for instance, when a potential hire already has a full-time job. When this happens we like to bring them in after work or over multiple weekends to work on projects with the team. We’ll order lunch, and hang out and work for the afternoon and try to complete a specific project end to end. This gives both parties an opportunity to test things out in an abbreviated time span.
The trial period doesn’t just extend to engineering, but all departments: support, marketing, sales, business development, etc. Steve Cheney, our first BD hire, worked at GroupMe for 4 weeks before we brought him on full time. We were setting up for our first major brand partnerships and I was overworked and dropping the ball. Steve came walked in the front door and got up to speed in two weeks, and we went on pitches together for the rest of the month, ultimately leading to one of our most successful launches to date. Kevin Crowe and Tanuj Parikh both had full-time jobs, so we’d all meet on the weekends and run through projects and whiteboarding sessions together.
When a startup is small and growing, every employee plays a pivotal role - and it’s not just their respective job - it’s contributing towards building the culture you want to be around forever. One bad apple will bring the team down, and one exceptional person will elevate your and everyone else’s game by 10x. That’s why it’s so critical to hold to your highest and most important standards, and the trial period helps you do exactly that
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- jenbokoff said: very smart business practice, jared. i wish it went beyond the startup world (it totally could!)
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- gbattle said: +1. People should always date before they get married. Funny/sad how many businesses rely on “arranged marriages” when hiring.
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