It’s now over two weeks into StartupYard’s 2015 cohort, and by now our startups have broached topics with our mentors ranging from their go-to-market strategies and branding, to their pricing models and customer acquisition costs, to the exact wordings of their positioning statements.
The real challenge, in fact, is that these conversations have to happen over and over again, in widening and tightening spirals of detail, until the startups can conduct pro/con arguments about every aspect of their short and medium term strategies in their sleep.
Hiring Ain’t Easy
One thing that I think doesn’t come up quite often enough at StartupYard, and probably at most accelerators, is hiring. We know from our own survey of startups at December’s LeWeb conference in Paris, that hiring ends up being the bane of most startups’ existence within the first two years, and certainly after a largish funding round is closed.
Most of our teams are composed of friends- people who worked or studied together, and see their relationships as organic and natural. They sometimes naively believe (or simply refuse to doubt) that this same cozy, non-confrontational arrangement will slowly snake its way out into their ever expanding network of collaborators, and that they’ll never really face tough hiring decisions.
The Happiest Team is Not Always the Best Team
But there are multiple points of failure in this approach, and we’ve seen them happen with our startups as well. While a team of friends is essential to starting your business, that doesn’t mean that this will translate into the perfect team to grow that same business.
Companies that get some funding, and already have a team of friends in place, are in danger of falling into the same patterns they developed as a scrappy startup. It worked before, so why not now? Well, in scrappy startups, everybody does everything, and productivity is assumed to measured by the creative output of the group.
That’s the “move fast and break things,” part of a startup’s life cycle. But once a capital injection has been received, there are going to be other metrics for success- and these new metrics are going to be measured in very different ways. In the same way that the old wisdom goes: “you have to move out to move up,” so it can be with hiring: you have to look outward to grow.
Challenge Your Assumptions
So why should hiring a woman be among your first priorities? Now, let’s all slow down for just a second, and I’ll explain what I mean by this. “Hiring a woman,” and hiring a woman, are two separate things. And while I don’t personally look as askance upon “hiring a woman,” as some very persuasive people do, hiring a woman just to have hired a woman shouldn’t be your goal in this endeavor.
We can get far ahead of ourselves, and decry the idea of hiring women in non-technical roles simply because we feel that they transform our work environments into more pleasant places to be. I don’t see why that’s a bad motivation to hire a woman, but it certainly shouldn’t be the sole, or even the primary motivation either.
Hire a Woman. Don’t “Hire a Woman.”
For every study showing that simply having a mix of men and women on your team and in your work environment makes you more productive, more friendly, more honest, and happier, there is a legion of female engineers who find those things incidental to the fact that talented people, including women, deserve to be hired on their merits alone.
And those who point out that focusing on the productivity benefits of hiring women tends to depersonalize and dehumanize the actual women who are hired because they fit that bill, are right to do so. That isn’t my personal experience, but my personal experience is limited, by necessity, to being a man who has had some very skilled and seemingly well adjusted and happy female co-workers in technical and non-technical roles.
I’m sure that if you asked them, they might very well feel differently than I imagine. I’m not a mind reader, after all. It’s all enough to inspire quite a bit of handwringing from first-time male founders who genuinely want to do the right thing, but are seemingly boxed in by devils on either shoulder.
Don’t Have an Existential Crisis Over It
Either you risk not being progressive by not being proactive, or you risk being condescending without even realizing it. Some may remember American Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his “binders full of women” gaff. He was (rightly) lampooned for objectifying women, but he was also trying to do the right thing- in an admittedly half-assed way.
It’s quite possible that as a male founder, you will simply be unable to avoid mistakes in this area. Being the boss isn’t easy. You could just keep your head down and hope for the best, or you can stick your neck out. I feel obligated to push for the latter move: hire a qualified woman to whatever role you first need to fill.
And by a qualified woman, I mean exactly that. Search for and find a woman who is qualified to fill the role you need filled- whatever it is. Don’t take the first woman who comes along, and make her your office manager, just to check the box. Although you may eventually hire a female office manager, that isn’t the point of the exercise.
At the same time, don’t hire a woman who isn’t qualified to fill the role you want to fill- and don’t then pay that woman less than you’d pay the person you wanted to hire. That’s just douchey. Pay this woman the amount you set aside for a qualified, valued candidate. Because that’s the only type of woman you’re going to hire.
Men who are hiring often feel that they understand other men more easily. I think few would argue that it’s easier for men to evaluate the skills and talents of other men, because men tend to think and act in ways that other men can easily recognize.
Plus, if you’re a newly-minted male founder who has never managed a team before, managing a bunch of guys might seem easier. It’s more like schoolyard football, and many of us men aren’t that far removed from a schoolyard mentality.
In our schoolyard mentality, we want girls around for us to show off to. We want lunchladies and moms. That’s not sexist, as much as it is infantile. But startups are not typically judged on the basis of their emotional maturity.
What we don’t understand is frightening to us. If you’re hiring a woman, seeing her for her true talent and value might be difficult for you. Embrace this difficulty, and try to do it anyway. You could make better decisions than you would by following your gut.
What This Accomplishes
First off, it’s no secret that women are chronically undervalued in the tech industry. Surveys collected by Quartz show that women make up only around 12% of the engineering workforce of large tech companies. They fare better in non-technical roles, and at smaller startups.
In part, this reflects the rate at which women graduate from engineering programs in the west. However, it may be the opposite of the trend one might expect: that in the meritocratic, and egalitarian environments of big tech, the best performing women might find more jobs than in bro-dominated Startupland.
So, we can surmise, there should be *more* qualified women looking for jobs in startups, in proportion to men, because women are less likely to occupy technical roles at large companies, where the security of a steady paycheck draws many a coder. There are probably even more qualified women looking for work in non-technical roles.
And here’s a bonus: women are generally paid less than they deserve in these non-technical roles, so you have the opportunity to recruit women from jobs that they would otherwise be content to stay in, by offering a competitive salary. By holding out for the well qualified female candidate, you’re likely to find someone more talented than if you simply latched onto the first guy who came along.