Hiring great people

Or you could watch Office Space and do the opposite

You could read this post, or just watch Office Space and do the opposite.

Something I say a lot is that in the long run, the best team always wins.  Hiring and retaining a team of all-stars (and only all-stars), and giving them the right roles and environment will lead to success.  Even if you screw everything else up, great people, doing what they’re great at in an environment that allows them to thrive and collaborate will figure the rest out.  As one of my favorite books Good to Great says, the leaders of the most successful companies of our age focused on getting:

“…the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

Even before figuring out exactly where the bus was going.

But “great people” is a subjective term.  How do you know if someone is “great”?  There are a wide array of opinions, from psychometric testing to gut feel.  So how as a manager or entrepreneur do you go about ensuring that you are building a team of the “right people”?

The clearest, simplest and most honest approach to this I’ve ever read was written back in 2007 in a post by Marc Andreessen entitled “how to hire the best people you’ve ever worked with“.  In summary, he says to look for 3 criteria:

  1. Drive – It doesn’t matter what drives them.  Whether it’s money, insecurity, family, fear, love, etc…  The drive and ambition to push stubbornly forward and achieve is something people either have or they don’t.  If they have it, they’ll always have it, and if they don’t, they’ll never have it.  It doesn’t matter why they have it, just that they have it.
  2. Curiosity – Great people are naturally curious.  They spend their free time researching, practicing, tinkering and improving at what they are naturally curious about.  But being curious about anything is not enough.  If you’re hiring an engineer and she’s naturally curious about bird-watching (but not engineering), she will never be a “great” engineer.  Great engineers are curious about engineering.  It’s not enough to get the right people, but you also must get them in the right seats.
  3. Ethics – At the end of the day, you’re trying to build a great team.  To do so you and all the team members must have a shared set of values.  This is hard to test for, but this is why you really need to write down what you’re trying to understand about a candidate in an interview and ask questions that give you a good idea of that person’s ethics.  In Marc’s own words, one way to test for honesty for example, is to “Pick a topic you know intimately and ask the candidate increasingly esoteric questions until they don’t know the answer.  They’ll either say they don’t know, or they’ll try to bullshit you.  Guess what. If they bullshit you during the hiring process, they’ll bullshit you once they’re onboard.”

I would expand on the Ethics topic to say that, as a team, you should identify a few ethics that are important to you and specifically test/probe for them during the interview process.  Ultimately, it is these ethics (assuming you base hiring, promotion and firing decisions on them) that will form the basis for your culture and your brand.  You spend a good chunk of your life at work, so you should make sure that it’s with people you like.

Marc goes on to talk about process.  They’re common sense tips that people often forget or skip.  They’re a good refresher:

  1. have a written hiring process. (i.e. have a consistent process that you follow)

  2. basic skills tests. (nothing crazy, just make sure they have the basic skills they claim to have on their resume)

  3. plan out and write down interview questions ahead of time

  4. pay attention to the little things during the interview process. (i.e. be aware of warning signs – never laughs, interrupts, etc…)

  5. pay attention to the little things during the reference calls. (i.e. referrers will only hint at major issues.  A downplayed hint is probably a major issue)

  6. fix your mistakes fast… but not too fast.

Now go read the full post.

Culture and the Valley’s “most important document…ever”

netflix culture deck

At least according to Sheryl Sandberg.  She was quoted as saying this about the Netflix culture deck from CEO Reed Hastings.  While I haven’t seen as many “Valley documents” as she has, this is the most important one that I’m aware of.

Life has very few “aha” moments, if any.  But reading this document was one of those moments for me as well as many of the other dubizzle managers.  In an instant it took all of the disparate lessons and philosophies on leadership and culture we had learned over the years, filled in the missing pieces, and connected the dots.

Anyone building a company can’t read this soon enough or refer back to it too often.

Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility

The 5 most important lessons I learned as an entrepreneur

Upon leaving the Middle East, I wrote this article to share the most important lessons I learned as an entrepreneur to with other budding entrepreneurs in the region.  It was first published here.  The full version is below.

Parting advice for regional entrepreneurs:

As Sim and I wrap up our eight and a half year journey of running dubizzle’s operations; from sleeping in bunk-beds and working out of our living room, to leading a team of nearly 200 brilliant people across the region, I wanted to leave some parting words for entrepreneurs just starting their journey.  Some of you reading these words are in the same position as we were so many years ago – chasing an idea on no budget with nothing but the stubborn determination that some how you will find success.  Undoubtedly, years from now, many of you will have created massive value and your adventure will have led you to where dubizzle is today.  Hopefully, these words can lend a bit of guidance and inspiration along your path.

Over the years, dubizzle has faced a lot of challenges.  We’ve made some mistakes, and had even more wins.  Along the way, we’ve learned a few things that we didn’t know when we started.  Because of this, I’m often asked to give my advice to budding entrepreneurs in the region.  There are, of course, too many lessons to count, and the challenges one faces vary drastically at different stages of the business.  However, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that have remained constant throughout.  In my experience, when we were able to get these things right, the rest fell into place.

Always be solving a problem.

As an entrepreneur your job is to pick a problem and solve it in a better and more efficient way than before.  The bigger and more widespread the problem, and the better you are at solving it, the more success you will have.  Ideas come second.  They are the solutions you come up with to solve the problem.  If you start with an idea, and then go looking for a problem, you’re in trouble.

A lot of people assume that when we started dubizzle, we had moved here with the intention to start a “Craigslist” in the Middle East.  That would have been a bad idea, and had we done that, we probably would have failed.  Instead, we came here looking for jobs, setting up our lives, and along the way discovered how inefficient the marketplace was.  Everyone seemed to have this problem, and everyone was aware of it, we were just the first ones to decide we should solve it.

Start with the “why.”  Not the “what.”

If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action, please Google it now.  The message is simple: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  The answer to “why?” is your vision.  It’s what you as an organization stand for.  It’s the impact you intend to have on the world and your reason for existence.  Why, beyond the sales pitch, should customers connect with you emotionally and brilliant people pick up your flag and join your cause?

At dubizzle, our vision has always been about making the world fairer, disrupting exploitation, and having some fun.  When we started in the UAE (and still in many of our newer markets), exploitation of consumers was everywhere.  Trade only happened through middlemen.  Buyers were getting ripped off, people had no place to sell their things, job seekers were forced to go through recruiters, etc… The marketplace was opaque and unfair for the everyday consumer, and it made us angry.  dubizzle started, and exists today, for one reason: to disrupt consumer exploitation and have some fun doing it.

Every viable business needs revenues and profits, but those come as a byproduct to creating immense value in pursuit of your vision.  To attract great people, achieve great things, and be loved by your customers, you must have a strong and emotional understanding of the answer to the question “why?”

Define your values and live by them.

I’ll let you in on a little secret it took me a long time to figure out: your values are your culture, and your culture is your brand.  It’s really that simple.  If you were to think of a company like a person, that person’s “brand” is the set of values others perceive them to have.  Not what they say their values are, but by what they exhibit through their actions.  For a company, it’s no different.  The decisions and actions you take as a company will define the values you are perceived to have.  To have the culture and brand you want, you must define the values you believe in, and live by them.

When dubizzle first started, there were only two of us.  The company’s values were simply our values, so we didn’t feel the need to define them.  As our team grew, however, not having defined values made it hard for others to hire well and make good decisions.  Furthermore, if we didn’t know our values, we could easily contradict them without even realizing it.  This was a threat to our culture and our brand.  So as a company, we all worked together over many months, discussing, voting and debating, until we had refined a list of core values we would all be proud to live by.

This exercise may be the most important thing we ever did at dubizzle.  It allowed us to have a culture of freedom and autonomy, knowing we all shared the same values.  It enabled us to make better HR decisions.  And last but not least, it created a bond of deep respect and admiration between all of us on the team that has made the office one of my favorite places on Earth.

By simply defining your values and creating a culture that you really love, you’ll create a brand that others will love too.

Only hire great people.

In the long run, the best team always wins.  If you want to win, you simply can’t compromise on people.  Hiring great people, however, can be extremely difficult, especially when you have no money and you’re pressed for time.  But even if it costs twice as much and takes twice as long, the difference between the great person vs. the good one is immeasurable.

From day one, Sim and I have always endeavored to hire people smarter than us.  When you’re broke, you can’t pay a great person what they could get elsewhere.  You have to give them something more: a vision they can believe in, an environment in which they can learn, a role in which they can have an impact, and an opportunity for future upside.  As you grow, you can start to pay market rate.  But as it turns out, great people can get high wages anywhere, what they really want is stunning colleagues, freedom and responsibility, and to leave a legacy of positive impact on their world.

At dubizzle, we have an intense focus on creating an environment that attracts great people.  This has been the key to our success.  If you do this well and disregard everything else, you will still be successful because great people who are highly motivated will figure the rest out for you.

Don’t try.  Decide.

No one ever summited the highest peak, changed the world, or did anything truly exceptional because they tried.  They did so because they decided.  Trying allows for the possibility of failure whereas deciding does not.  Achieving your ambitious vision is next to impossible – and impossible is only achieved by deciding.

If you’re like us, then you believe your vision is of great importance to the world.  dubizzle achieving its vision doesn’t just impact economies; it impacts real lives, millions of them, by making the world a bit more transparent, efficient, and fair.  We’ve always been brutally honest with ourselves about where we’re failing and the odds against us, while still maintaining an unfettered faith that one way or another, we will achieve our vision.  Trying wouldn’t have gotten us here, and an “A” for effort would not have made up for the millions we failed to serve.

If you believe deeply in your vision, then you know failure is not an option.  Rid your heart of “I’ll try my best” until all that’s left is “I have decided.”  Your vision, and the positive impact you will eventually have on the world, deserves no less.

The past eight and a half years have been the adventure of a lifetime.  I’ve met amazing people, learned an incredible amount, and had the opportunity to work with a team that is changing trade in the region for the better.  In the next eight years, there will be many more stories like dubizzle from all over the region.  I wish all of you the best of luck in your adventures, the future of the world depends on it;)

A few pieces of advice on great leadership

This is an email I sent out to the dubizzle team after leaving operations at the end of 2013.  To my knowledge, it hasn’t been shared publicly before.  I re-read it from time to time to remember the lessons I’ve learned.  I’m putting it here because I think it’s important that it has a place to live (other than my archived sent box), and so I can share those lessons with other aspiring leaders.

Parting advice for dubizzle leaders – Dec. 9th, 2013

Hi all,

As I make my journey back home, I wanted to leave you all with some of the lessons on leadership I learned in my time at dubizzle.  Before jumping straight into it, however, I wanted to say a few words about leadership.

Some of you without the word director or manager in your title may have read the subject and wondered if this email applies to you.  It does.  Leadership is not something that is bestowed by means of a title.  It’s not something that is bestowed at all.

Leadership is simply having a vision that others buy into, and being someone who people want to work with in order to achieve that vision.  It’s a skill, and like any other skill, it must be learned.  Every one of you has the capacity to be great leaders, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here.

I refute the idea that people are either leaders or followers.  We are all both at different times and in different situation.  We lead where we have vision, and follow where there is someone else’s vision that we buy into.  Like most things, however, there are several different ways to get buy in and to have people decide to work with you.  Some of them are bad (e.g. fear), and others are good (e.g. inspiration & love).   I’ve done both good and bad.  I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve had some successes.  Along the way I’ve learned a few things about good leadership that I didn’t know when I started.  Based on those experiences, here are a few pieces of advice on dubizzle leadership that I’d like to leave you with (in no particular order):

Make yourself redundant.

As a leader you are not judged by your individual achievement, but by the achievement of your team.  Achievement not only in what that team does, but in how they do it.  Have you cultivated a culture of values?  Have individuals within your team experienced great personal growth?  Have you, as a leader, developed great leaders below you who could take your job?

If you were to disappear, would your team continue to achieve without you?  The test of a great leader is not only the success your team has achieved while you were in charge, but that team’s continued and sustained success once you have moved on.  Making oneself redundant should be the primary goal of every great leader.

Hire people that scare you.

The best hires I’ve made scared the shit out of me.  They are the ones where deep down inside you worry that this person is too good, too smart, too driven, and all around too senior to report to you.  You fear that, although they might not know it yet, they should be your boss and you’re not qualified to lead them.  If you’re lucky, you’re right.  You will learn a tremendous amount from people like this, and you will be constantly challenged to keep them challenged.  As a result, you have no other choice but to push yourself to become a drastically better leader.  Endeavor to only hire people that scare you.

Do what you are curious and passionate about.

If you’re not curious and passionate about what you do, discover what it is that you are curious and passionate about, and do that.  Life’s too short to spend the majority of it doing something you don’t feel passionate about.  To be truly great at something, you must truly love and be curious about it.

Sometimes, simply allowing your passion to drive how you work can make you exceptional and fulfilled (e.g. someone in customer service who is passionate about comedy, becomes passionate about making the users they help laugh).  Other times, the two things are simply too far apart to overlap.

Dubizzle has always endeavored to hire people who we believe are curious and passionate about their area of work.  Don’t let that passion wither.  Follow it.  Stay hungry for more.  Constantly seek and discover it.  Let it guide you in life (in and outside of work).  Others will be inspired by your passion, and they will want to be a part of your vision.

Remain humble.

If you were to chart a line graph of an individual’s growth and success over time, the moment that line peaked and started coming back down is the moment in which they lost their humility.  It’s a bit of a catch 22.  Humility allows you to observe, learn and grow at great speed, but growing at great speed makes it more difficult to remain humble.

No matter what it is, and how good you are at it, there is someone out there better than you.  The arrogant person denies that such people exist, and avoids them lest they undermine their achievements.  The humble person seeks those people out, surrounds themselves with those better, and in so doing, becomes ever more humble, while learning and growing at ever greater speed.  Facebook says “we’re only 1% of the way there.”  Humility is remembering that no matter how far you’ve come, no matter how much you learn and achieve, you still have 99% left to go.

Own your failure.  Share your success.

Easy to say, yet difficult to do.  It is in our nature to crave recognition for our achievements, and to want to deflect blame for our failures.  To be a great leader, however, you must do the opposite.

If I’m the leader and my team fails because someone on my team dropped the ball, there are two possible causes.  One, I didn’t give that person the proper context, support, structure or environment to succeed – and therefore it’s my fault.  Two, I did do all of that, but I had the wrong person in the role – also my fault.  When a team fails, no matter what the circumstance, the great leader raises their hand and takes that failure on the chin.

As a leader, your job is to get the right people in the right roles, to inspire them and include them in the vision, to set a structure of freedom and responsibility, to cultivate a culture of values, and to be constantly setting context.  Nowhere in the job description does it call for your own individual achievement.  If a leader is taking credit for their team’s achievements, they’re either not acting as a leader by focusing on achieving things themselves, or they are acting arrogantly by taking credit for the achievements of others.  Since a leader’s success is measured by the growth and achievement of their team, the clearest sign of a great leader is one who’s team is packed with rapidly growing individuals whose achievements dwarf their own.

Talk too much, and listen even more.

Communication is crucial to leadership, and communication is two ways.  If you have four people on your team, that means you should be listening four times as much as you’re talking.  (And you should be talking a lot.)

At dubizzle, you are working with some of the best people in the world.  They are all smarter than you in their area of expertise.  All they need is the context (to know what you know), and they will achieve far greater things than you can imagine right now.  Context, however, cannot be over communicated.  If they understand it the first time, they will remember it the 3rd or 4th time, and by the 10th time it will become reflex.  When giving context, talk until you’re sure you’ve talked too much, and then talk some more.

Then listen.  Ask questions.  Listen some more.  Ask more questions.  Repeat ad infinitum.  Given the proper context, it should come as no surprise that this group of people, all of whom are smarter than you, will blow your fu**ing mind.  Then you just let them do.

Be emotional.

Your team will only ever care as deeply about the vision as you do (and you show them that you do), not more.  Dig deep within yourself and find that vision to which you can emotionally connect to the point that it could bring you to tears.  Once you have found that, make it central to everything you do.  Talk about it in every discussion you have.  However uncomfortable, force yourself to speak about it to the point that your voice shakes.  Let others see the vulnerability of emotion it evokes in you.  They will feel it too.

The source of all inspiration is emotion.  Great people want to be inspired, and inspired people achieve beyond what’s possible (yourself included).  The extent of your inspiration is only limited by the extent of your emotions.  And your team’s inspiration is only limited by your own.

Have some fun.

Next time you’re on the beach, pick up a handful of sand.  Out of that handful, pick a single grain.  Then imagine all of the millions of atoms that make up that single grain, and the many more millions of electrons orbiting around those atoms.  Although you can’t see it, on one of those electrons there is a population of billions of miniscule modified apes going about their busy lives (all of which are relatively very short).  And now focus on one of those modified apes.  Like all other miniscule modified apes, this one takes its life very seriously. She views it as the epic drama that it is, and despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, she suspects that she might just be the center of the universe.  That miniscule modified ape is you.  It would be a shame if you didn’t take every opportunity to laugh about it and spend this blink of a life having fun.


Despite the fact of our absurd and insignificant existence, what you’re doing is of paramount importance.  Perhaps those miniscule modified apes’ suspicions are correct, and each one of them is the center of a vast universe.

At the core of our vision at dubizzle is simply a desire to make the world a fairer and more just place.  We do this through bringing transparency and efficiency to nearly all types of trade.  We have the ability to drastically change economies, empower the un-empowered, dissolve long standing lines between have and have-nots, and open up avenues for badasses everywhere to own their own destiny.

However, we can only do this if we win – and every win is a vast universe that we’ve just made a bit better.  So never forget why you’re here, and what you’ve decided to do.  WIN EVERYTHING!

If you can do half of these things, you’ll be twice the leader that I ever was.  But that shouldn’t be too hard, I only ever made it 1% of the way there;)

Good luck!

Start with “why?”

This TedTalk from Simon Sinek needs little introduction other than it had a major impact on how we approach things at dubizzle, and subsequently it has had a major impact on our success.  I’ll quote from an article I wrote to introduce the video:

The message is simple: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The answer to “why?” is your vision. It’s what you as an organisation stand for. It’s the impact you intend to have on the world and your reason for existence. Why, beyond the sales pitch, should customers connect with you emotionally and brilliant people pick up your flag and join your cause?

At Dubizzle, our vision has always been about making the world fairer, disrupting exploitation, and having some fun. When we started in the UAE (and still in many of our newer markets), exploitation of consumers was everywhere. Trade only happened through middlemen. Buyers were getting ripped off, people had no place to sell their things, job seekers were forced to go through recruiters, etc… The marketplace was opaque and unfair for the everyday consumer, and it made us angry. Dubizzle started, and exists today, for one reason: to disrupt consumer exploitation and have some fun doing it.

Every viable business needs revenues and profits, but those come as a byproduct to creating immense value in pursuit of your vision. To attract great people, achieve great things, and be loved by your customers, you must have a strong and emotional understanding of the answer to the question “why?”

I recommend watching this video, and watching it often.

Why does this site exist?

There are a few things that have really inspired me in life and in business.  These may be pieces of content created by others that help to shape my ever changing perspective, or they may be realizations I come to through my lessons and experiences.  When I come across these things I usually like to (a) remember them, and (b) share them with others.  The purpose of this site is to do both of those things better.