Three Things Not to Skimp on When Hiring for Your Startup

May 05, 2017

Monica is an ed-tech entrepreneur. She manages business operations for the e-commerce division at Chegg, helping make education more affordable for millions of students. Prior to that, she founded and sold a company that built both Bikule, gamified textbooks for schools in China, and Grammarcrush, an app that went viral amongst English teachers in the U.S. She has also worked as a management consultant, helping global companies localize and grow in China. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I was reflecting on my old life as cofounder and business lead at TopMind, and remembering the many awful decisions and a few pretty good decisions I had made.

Here’s a list of top lessons I learned around HR.

1. Don’t skimp on background checks

In the earliest days of hiring salespeople at TopMind, I happened upon Rick. Rick was the national sales director of our only direct competitor, managing dozens of sales managers. TopMind had hundreds of sales reps. He knew all the right people and told war stories of building the sales force from the ground up.

I thought I was the luckiest entrepreneur alive when he agreed to join TopMind as our first salesperson. I had giddy dreams of working together to build an army of the best sales force the Chinese tech scene had ever seen.

It started innocently enough – he forgot his iPad, and I gave him a loaner, and then he forgot it again, and I gave him a third. He logged visits in the CRM, and when a client called the office demanding to know why he had kept them waiting the day before, he scrunched his round honest face and admitted he might have accidentally logged an extra visit.


Three months in, I (a sales newbie) had made five sales in cash, and Rick had only made one with a client who would only pay after a year of the free trial.

My suspicions finally got the better of me, and I gave the HR department of our competitor company a call, prepared to apologize for poaching their top sales guy. As soon as she heard Rick’s name, she let out a barking laugh: “Him! He stole our computers! He stole our iPads!

He hardly made any sales – when he did he’d pocket the money! And then he took a loan from us and disappeared - good riddance!” I was thunderstruck. To add insult to injury, I found out that the one sale he had made at TopMind was faked. And to rub salt on it all, it turned out he was never the national sales director, just a foot soldier in the lowliest rank of sales reps.

Long story short, getting rid of Rick took threatening to call the police.

It ended with his mother pulling him in by the ear and making him apologize and promise to pay us back - because he had already sold the iPads. As I am typing this now I cannot believe it happened. Don’t skimp on background checks.

2. Wait for A-players

Mike. Mike was less horrible than Rick, but not by a whole lot. After firing Rick, I interviewed awful candidate after awful candidate. I had no high expectations of liking Mike at all. He reeked of being the type to weasel his way out of doing work as much as possible.

But he was an old sales rep, he knew the game, and I convinced myself that I needed someone NOW. I was mostly paying him on commission anyway so my biggest loss would just be his small base salary.

I was so wrong.

Mike started leeching energy off the team on day one.

I started hearing mutters immediately about why he was being paid to be useless. Mike made big promises, failed to deliver, nodded enthusiastically to improvement plans, and continued to fail to change. Watching this day by day, I finally had to grit my teeth and fire Mike too. I looked like a fool. I’ll never make the same mistake again – I’ll wait for the A-players.

3. Invest in growth

Jack was a young engineering graduate – bright, hardworking, and eager to learn. He powered through the sales training, and off we went to hit the road and cold meet some prospects. When he came out of his first cold meeting, he was nearly in tears.

He didn’t know the answers to rude curveballs that were thrown his way by the front desk, or how to react to people subsequently either ignoring him or yelling at him. All the poor earnest guy wanted to do was explain the product like we had practiced. And then the door got slammed in his face.

So there Jack was, face scrunched up in a big frown, and then he said “I think I have to quit. I am an engineer. I think in logic. I don’t know how to deal with people.”

For a moment I thought to myself: “That’s not a hustler’s mindset. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s not cut out for this.”

Then I made one of the best decisions of my career.

I refused to talk about Jack’s resignation. Instead, I sat him down and we worked on drawing out a logic map of all the possible scenarios that could come up in his sales visits. We made a detailed flow chart that showed him the logic of exactly how to react to each scenario.

Jack took that home and memorized it. Whenever he got kicked out of another meeting going forward, he’d do a post mortem and add the scenario and alternative reaction to the flow chart. Gradually he grew less stiff, more confident, and more charismatic.

If I had given up on Jack when he gave up on himself, TopMind would have lost out on its best salesperson.

The best decision I made was to invest in the growth of my employees.

Three lessons worth learning when it comes to hiring and investing in talent for your company.

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