What Are The Characteristics Of The Ideal Startup Employee?

One QuestionOften, a question doesn’t have an easy answer in the digital advertising business. This is a column devoted to an answer to a single question or topic – and providing a bit of space for it.

Today’s participant is George John is CEO of Rocket Fuel, Inc., an online advertising network. He recently answered the following the question in a conversation with AdExchanger.com…

AdExchanger.com: What are the characteristics of the ideal startup employee?

GJ: First, let me start with this vibe that exists in Silicon Valley…. and some guys that talk about The Lean Startup. Eric Ries came up with it.

I think The Lean Startup misses what I think is the right approach, which is that it’s more The Scientific Startup – or a series of experiments and you’d have to have some idea of decision analysis around those. Like which experiments do you want to do versus which bets are you comfortable making? There’s really no way to test it besides building it, and that’s not a lean operation.

So in terms of the ideal employee in that framework, in my experience, there are different classes of roles within the startup that require either energy or expertise in different mixtures.

For example, really smart people can be told how display advertising works and they’ll be very creative at architecting solutions for some of our customers.

But, there are other roles where you need expertise. You’re not going to take a really smart person and have him or her build a Hadoop data grid just by reading a book – so hiring lean doesn’t necessarily work.

The most important characteristics to me are actually intellectual honesty and courage – meaning, in a startup there are things that are going to work well and things that aren’t. That’s where the experiments come in.

Startup employees need to be honest with themselves: “We tried this new thing and it could’ve been so much better, but we didn’t notice X,” – whatever X was.  Just being able to raise your hand and say, “OK, we should learn from this.” That’s key.

Also, it takes some courage to be able to tell somebody, “What you just did there, that didn’t work.”

My feeling is that when companies have difficulty executing, it’s less about being able to execute in a direction, and more about, how can you speed up this loop? This is Eric Ries’ point about Lean Startup. How can you speed up the loop where you notice things and then address them?

I’d say the key part is “noticing.” Startups talk about drinking their own Kool‑Aid. Ironically, the most important thing is to not do that.  That’s the only way you can improve.

So, smart, honest, courageous – these are characteristics I’d look for.

But, there’s another flavor of the ideal employee – someone who is very intellectually curious. In fact, they may even aspire to join another private company or start their own company someday. The ones that really want to learn a lot are excellent, because you can nourish them really well in a private company environment.

Follow Rocket Fuel (@rocketfuelinc) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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