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Entrepreneurial, Company Culture

Lessons I’ve learned about scaling a startup at a rapid rate: Best practices in hiring

by Pete Schlaefer on Oct 22, 2015

AppLovin is about three years old, and in that time we’ve grown at an incredible rate, from a few people tossing ideas around to see what sticks to a mobile marketing platform with more than $200 million a year in revenues and thousands of partners on the publisher and advertiser sides from every corner of the globe. I found myself thinking the other day about how we managed to do that, specifically what were the practices, in terms of scaling up, that made that dizzying growth possible for my team (partnerships and operations). While a lot of it was attributable to work that never stopped, and just plain luck, there are a few things that I think my team did right that are worth sharing with any organization facing rapid growth.

In this post, I’ll share with you what I think are some of the most important things to keep in mind in terms of hiring.

Hire competitive people who love learning.

Of course it’s important to hire smart, accomplished people. But it’s also important to hire people who demonstrate, in any number of ways, that they are competitive and that they love learning. We looked for people who had mastered something that wasn’t work-related. One of my favorite interview question is, “What are you better at than 99 percent of people?” One of our early hires was previously a professional poker player, another was a competitive salsa dancer known for her New York style, and our earliest sales guy is nearly a world champ in Street Fighter (yes — the video game is played that competitively). We also have a few college athletes — one hire was the captain of the ultimate frisbee team at UCLA. People who are competitive can scale vertically because they love getting good at something, and because they love to win.

Just as important as hiring people who are competitive is hiring those with demonstrated curiosity, like one guy on our operations team who bakes great bread because he likes the science of it. Another person on the publisher operations team with little coding experience learned how to write scripts on our DB to automate analysis/reporting. People who love learning aren’t afraid to scale horizontally to new roles and tasks.

Don’t get hung up on “standard” qualifications.

Also, we haven’t shied away from hiring people with not-standard-for-Bay-Area backgrounds. We have our fair share of employees with advanced degrees, including those from prestigious institutions, but we’ve also made some key hires from off-the-beaten track. We’ve hired people from other industries too; in our experience, prospective employees who want to switch fields, from one that they’ve already been successful in to something new, is a terrific indicator of ambition, as was the case with two of our more senior team members who previously worked in private wealth management. If someone has had a winding path in their career and shown success along the way, they could be a star performer.

Generally speaking, we don’t hire based on a group of attributes or a specific job function. Instead, we look for people who are incredibly analytical, and who give us a gut feeling of terrific potential — again, they’re curious and competitive.

Hire people who are comfortable challenging — and changing — the status quo.

Because you’re at a startup, not an established company, your job is to constantly innovate and make things better. So you need people who continually question and push the product and process beyond what’s “comfortable” and into something  better. It’s not enough to just have your innovators be at the highest levels of your startup — you need to encourage everyone, at every level, to force positive change continually.

As you scale, almost nothing is in its final form, so everything can be improved. Therefore, you want people who not only see that something needs to change, but who are willing to do the extra work to propose or devise a solution, validate that the solution is viable, and sell that solution internally. For example, when early on our contract signature process was cumbersome because it relied on passing around Word documents, one staff member took it upon himself to not only set up a digital signature solution but made an instructional video so everyone could learn it quickly.

I’ve found that this kind of person is very comfortable with being wrong often in order to sometimes be very right. They also tend to be comfortable when their solution is no longer good enough and someone else finds a way to improve it. In a startup facing rapid growth, everyone needs to be very positive about constant change and innovation.

With any company, some of the most important business decisions you make are hiring decisions, but with a startup, you need to find people who aren’t just smart and hardworking, but also have fundamental ambition. And, because working in a startup environment means being in a constant state of intellectual challenge, you need to find people who are always eager to learn. Don’t get hung up on where people went to school and what degree they have — in reality, those things just aren’t terribly relevant when it comes to getting work done and growing your company. Finally, be sure to hire people who are at ease with constant change — so much so that they even initiate it themselves, and often. By making sure that you have a solid team in place to handle rapid growth, you’ll have a much higher chance of success.

Pete Schlaefer is AppLovin’s Vice President of Growth Partnerships.

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