Startup founders — have you checked Dave’s references?

So here you go, you finally got Dave to join your startup. Dave is a full stack developer and knows his stuff. After graduating with a top computer science degree, Dave joined Twitter’s graduate program where he got to work with the latest technologies and super smart guys. 9 months after, he then got an offer from Pinterest he couldn’t refuse to work on their in-app messaging system. 6 months in the job, Dave did a fantastic job leading a small team to a Beta version.

You’ve met Dave at Demo day and got fascinated by his career so far and track record. You had numerous questions on his technological prowess. Dave responded diligently even showing interest in your startup and product. This is when you dare to ask the question: “Dave, we happen to be looking for a top full stack to help us build Twitter meets Pinterest meet Education”. To your surprise, Dave is keen. You immediately arrange an interview with your co-founder. You and your co-founder both have extensive experience in Education and have a vision to revolutionise how information is shared within and between universities. Interview goes superbly well and you make an offer to Dave slightly higher than what he gets at Pinterest to justify the move. With this new hire, you have about 5 months of running rate before you spend all the co-founders personal money.

You live the dream for the first few weeks. Dave seems busy. He definitely puts the all nighters considering how tired he looks when you meet for follow-up meetings. Four weeks later, you ask Dave to show his progress and he walks you through some incredibly complex lines of code. He seems confident you will have a MVP in three months. Two months later, the co-founders invite Dave excited to see a demo of their Beta. Dave asks for three more weeks as he has encountered some unexpected technical challenges. The co-founders get increasingly worried so they call in a friend who happens to be head of engineering in another tech startup. They show the app progress on Github. This is when the friend breaks the news: “This has been made by a dog. This is nowhere near a MVP. You can throw it all”. Five months have passed and they are back to square one. The co-founders have spent all their money and have nothing to show for it.

“This has been made by a dog. This is nowhere near a MVP. You can throw it all”.

If the co-founders had checked Dave’s references, they would have known he is not the world class full stack developer he’s pretending to be. The reality is that Dave cheated his way through Twitter graduate program. He got sacked but was clever enough to land a job quickly at Pinterest who at the time didn’t have stringent tests and reference checks. When the co-founders spoke to Dave, he had already been sacked by Pinterest for always showing up late and most of the time drunk.

The reality is that Dave cheated his way through Twitter graduate program.

Checking references is a tedious job. I believe we don’t do it as we are unconsciously scared to see what’s under the bonnet. It takes so much time and effort to attract someone who ticks the boxes. We usually end up with only one contender. We want to believe she is just the right one! But here is the reality, checking references is probably the most important thing you will do when you hire.

Checking references is probably the most important thing you will do when you hire.

Checking references means calling up people the applicant has worked with. Ideally three people the applicant has given the contact details of and two people in your network who might know her. It’s got to be a conversation (not an email with the usual questions). Ask things like “Why did she leave the company? What didn’t you like working with her? Would you hire her if you started a startup? How did her performance compare with other team members?”.

“Why did she leave the company? What didn’t you like working with her?”

If you ask the right questions and look for clues, it would give you a great insight about the applicant. It will even help you work with her as you know her strengths and weaknesses and personality traits.

Names, companies, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously

Joss Leufrancois is the founder & CEO of crowdsourced recruiting platform for startups, Visage. He has worked for 10 years recruiting in Europe, the US, South America, Asia and the Middle-East.

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