Blog Post

Passion Spotting

Hiring is one of the most difficult, and most important, things founders do. We all have our methods for finding great employeers, but passion is what counts for me when searching for talent. Passion will tell me most of what I need to know about a person’s dedication and drive. In developing a great startup team, these two elements are the most important. Talent and abilities can be developed. The former are what foil, or leverage, the latter.

To spot passion, I listen to potential candidates’ personal stories. It is all about the stories they tell. In their stories I find the best indicators of success. One of the engineers at Vidoop told me a story about how he has a deal with his wife that he will only have 5 computers in their house at any given time. I later confirmed this with her, she is very particular about her house and doesn’t want it cluttered up with, “tech stuff.” OK, he’s passionate about his work, but is willing to compromise. (Good!)

Another one of our guys told an interesting story about how he gave up playing World of Warcraft and found a girlfriend (she’s now his wife). OK, he’s passionate about technology, but can recognize when adaptation is needed. (Good quality!)

Another guy I knew in college. The first time I went to his apartment on campus, I was blown away by the amount of high-end servers he had. They were everywhere, all networked together. And he didn’t even own a TV. Easy to see that he was passionate about computers, but he was rational about provisioning too, and understood the value of purchasing good hardware. He ran a hosting business on the side and was configuring his new machines for customers. (Good!)

In my experience with recruiting I have found some people are really quiet and it takes a little bit to get them to open up. Knowing this, I usually set the stage by telling some goofy story about myself like the time when I was a kid, I attempted to build a motorcycle by combining a pedal bike and a lawn mower. I modified the frame, built the engine mount, wired up the throttle, and then learned that you can’t mount a vertical shaft engine horizontally. The fuel will pour out of the carburetor. After telling some goofy story like that, I let them react and then just listen. (There is a quote up on Found|READ today that says: “Share, it’s a good thing!” It’s true. Share something about yourself, and people will often reciprocate.)

Additionally, don’t ever judge an engineer by their looks. One of our guys
told me about a candidate he had interviewed at his previous company. (He had been looking for his own replacement.) His former bosses rejected the candidate because of the way he looked. He wears all black, all the time: Long back hair; long sleeve black shirts; black pants; and knee high black boots. We tracked him down. He’s one of the most creative thinkers we have. More important, there is not a time when I am in the office (weekends, nights, whenever!) that The Man In Black is not down the hall working his tail off. His dedication is inspiring.

In the technology business, good engineers are vital. And they are not a commodity that you buy from some recruiter. Spotting the ones that will make great team members requires a different approach. The best method is to get them off tech or their explicit work skills, and on to talking about themselves and other things that they are passionate about. Then your job is to listen closely to what they are sharing with you. If you do that, it will be easy to spot the employees who are right for you and great for your startup.

5 Responses to “Passion Spotting”

  1. byosko

    Juan – If a company looks at passion as “you will work endlessly and non-stop with no questions asked” then I would question whether you want to work there or not.

    In my hiring for my startup Standout Jobs ( and for previous companies I actually liked people who focused on a work-life balance. I have a young son (and another child on the way) so having people in a similar situation jelled well culturally…}

  2. billh

    Juan, I think you are possibly selling yourself short. If you are truly passionate about your job, a second passion isn’t going to be a put-off at a start-up with a good culture. We all have other commitments (like, sleeping) so passion shouldn’t be defined by the hours worked but by the dedication to do what needs to be done. That’s most easily measured by time spent but needs to translate into results to truly be meaningful.

    Luke, this was a great post & very true. For those interested in this topic, I did a complementary post ( a couple of weeks ago on my company’s blog about the need to find people who leverage one’s own skillset (which can be defined many ways).}

  3. jsoberan

    I’m an engineer and I’m passionate about two things: my family and my job. Unfortunately, I think the first passion, family, puts startups off because they prefer to find folks who can work like the man in black. Most likely, that’s the right choice to make in order to maximize return. Does this jibe from an insider’s perspective?}

  4. This is true for any industry. I manage automation for a steel plant. It is becoming very hard to find people with passion. I look for engineers/technicians etc with dedication and passion. Experience in a particular field is only secondary. I believe Everything else can be taught.}