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Meebo's Jen: How to Find Hard-to-Find Talent

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At GigaOM’s recent Structure 08 event, Meebo co-founder and engineering chief, Sandy Jen, joined a panel to talk about scaling your computing infrastructure for explosive growth. Jen also spoke with Found|READ, this time to offer founders tips on how to overcome what she calls the internal scaling challenge: hiring.

Meebo launched in September 2005, when it unveiled the first Ajax application that allowed users to access several instant messaging clients (AIM, Jabber, Google Talk, etc.) from its home page. Back then, Jen and co-founders Seth Sternberg and Elaine Wherry were bootstrapping, even using personal credit cards to lease the three servers they needed in order to launch. With no money left over for marketing, they went guerrilla.

“Digg had started about six months earlier, so we said, ‘Let’s just Digg ourselves,'” Jen recalled. “We wrote a quick description of Meebo — ‘Web IM: AIM! Yahoo!; No downloads; draggable windows! It’s free!’— and went to bed. The next morning we had 600 Diggs, and our servers were overloaded.”

Three years later, Meebo has raised $37.5 million in venture capital, has all sorts of new products (and servers), gets 30 million unique visitors a month, and faces its toughest scaling challenge yet: “The No. 1 thing we worry about is hiring,” said Jen. To keep up with user demand, Meebo must grown to 50 employees from its current 30 by 2009 — a 67 percent increase.

In a fast-growing startup, maintaining your core values is crucial. “But how do you hire and keep your small team culture? It’s really hard,” Jen told us. “In the beginning it’s easy to ask your friends and people you trust for names. But eventually you’ll tap out your networks. Then where do you look for talent?”

In order to uncover new recruits — and not just the very talented people, but the right people — for her company, Jen has developed a few tricks:

1. Go to industry events. You want to hire people who are interested in the same things that you’re interested in. That means reaching out to people who attend the same events that you do. Once you’ve seen the same person at four of five events, make your move.

2. Keep track of smart comments in blogs and forums.
Pay attention to the people who are commenting smartly on the stories you’re reading — especially if they’re doing so frequently. This is an indicator of their engagement and passion.

3. Look for people through your extra-curricular activities. You want people interested in your technology, but the right cultural fit means finding people who share your other values, too. A good indicator of shared values is a shared extra-curricular activity. Do you rock climb? Play ultimate Frisbee? (Jen does.) Common fun offers opportunities for bonding, which can be a great way to find new staff.

4. Go outside your geographic circle. There’s a lot of talent in the world. One of the first things Meebo did was commission its graphic design from a guy in Italy, whose work they found on an art web site. They hired him on a trial basis; today he’s Meebo’s Agent Icon.

5. Leverage contract arrangements. As Jen acknowledged, getting H-1B visas is a long process and a pain in the butt. But they’re worth it. If you find someone you want on your team, get them in the door, excited about your company and under contract as soon as possible. Meebo usually has six or seven people working under contract at any time.

6. Commit and be generous. Really talented people rarely advertise themselves, at least not as much as we’d like them to. You must court them. There is a lot of competition, so this could mean being flexible with hours or remote work options. And once you decide to hire someone, you have to welcome them with open arms.

7. Fire fast. When someone isn’t working out, have them leave quickly. In three years, two people have left Meebo — one left in three weeks, the other, in a few months. But a bad fit will contaminate your culture. You can’t afford that.

(Photo credit: Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle.)

For more on how Jen manages Meebo’s infrastructure, check out her interview with Om, below.

16 Responses to “Meebo's Jen: How to Find Hard-to-Find Talent”

  1. Here’s another one: Don’t REQUIRE a college degree. There are a lot of very talented people out there who didn’t go to college, or who left college before finishing, and who are top-notch talents.

  2. Great write up and advice. I tend to agree with Jen and truly believe that having a cultural fit is key to a synergistic work place. I have found that, while finding good talent is difficult it is not impossible. If you put yourself out there at the events and ‘community’ functions, in addition to having your current team vouch and spread the work you will attract the right people.
    I do find it hard to work with some recruiters as they dont always understand or care about the FIT.
    I am also inclined to agree with Felipe – a little bit. As long as that person believes they will learn something from you that will help them get to their dream, things will work out. Fingers crossed.


  3. Prof8

    If you’re serious about recruiting, simply put your e-mail address, telephone number and physical address in your job ads, and don’t limit yourself to one city. Advertise those jobs in Sopchoppy and Middletown, Pequea and Chillicothe and Olathe and Arden Hills and Longwood and Missoula. To keep your “small team culture” organize your people into small teams. When the total gets close to 150, split them into at least 2 more clearly separate groups, preferably at 2 locations. And don’t ever forget that part of what drives the initial small team is what is needed to drive the nth small team — the opportunity to hit it big themselves, i.e. to win the fame or fortune or to have created something new and great, or whatever rewards motivates each person.

  4. IMHO web 2.0 start-ups focus and obsess over user analytics and traffic analysis, but don’t apply the same rigour to building teams.

    In hiring too much is left to gut feel, forming opinions based on surface traits. Start by objectively measuring the culture style of the founders and fit new hires to their reporting manager’s personality and ability.

  5. Interesting! I would love to talk with someone from Meebo, Riviera Partners or anyone from an exciting company in the Bay Area. I’m in San Mateo and looking for something Consumer Internet or High-tech related.

    Quick background: MS in Comp. Science Carnegie Mellon, MBA Michigan , recent Web 2.0 seed-level work, I-banking and VC experience. Contact me at:


  6. Very nice post. Thanks for brining this to light.

    Jen, your theorem of HIRING people is one of the success of meebo, i should say.

    I will be looking forward for your next startup. Hopefully by then i am out of my H1B and get my geencard. Or atleast i can do contracting with the next startup..

    Cheers, Nag

  7. Yes I am a very senior recruiter in SF (since 86) and I am aggregating information on the New Web companies in the form of a Guide. I have never seen a time of this many companies emerging looking for very similar people its a huge challenge to say the least. Let me know if you want to talk with me – and Im on twitter @judehere

  8. Good tips, but I think you forgot a major one:

    8. Don’t hire someone who has a dream of their own.

    If you find somebody who is really passioned about a personal project and can get things done, don’t necessarily think they will do the same for your company. They want to work on their dream, not somebody else’s.