Y Combinator president Sam Altman has had a front-row seat to the successes and challenges of some of the fastest growing companies of the past decade. Stripe, Dropbox, Airbnb, just to name a few. We asked Sam what advice he had for founders and employees at high-growth startups, and what they should keep in mind when it’s time to hire and scale up the team. Below is Sam’s response, including a list of 20 YC startups that are entering hypergrowth and hiring aggressively.
There are a lot of advantages to joining a company that’s growing quickly, but one of the biggest ones is that they offer more opportunities faster to employees. Joining a hypergrowth company is the best hack to get a lot of promotions fast.
Your job will evolve as quickly as the company scales. That means you’ll constantly be learning new things and figuring out where you find the most satisfaction. It’s shocking how much can change at a startup in one year.
Spending a few years somewhere that’s scaling fast will give you more varied experiences than many people get in a decade at a large company. You’ll become more confident in new environments and have better pattern recognition for good opportunities.
Meeting impressive people is another very good reason to join a company that’s scaling. The best companies tend to attract really smart people who will eventually go off and do great things. The canonical example of this is the PayPal Mafia, though it happens to some degree at most hypergrowth companies.
The networks people build early in their careers at hypergrowth companies are often their most important professional networks ever.
As an employee you have an advantage founders don’t — you can wait to see if a company is really working before committing to it.
How to choose?
You can trust your judgment here — if you know people love the product, if you know great people work there, and if you can tell it seems to be growing fast among important users, if you can identify some sort of compounding advantage over time, and if you believe the market will one day be huge, don’t overthink it.
One thing to watch out for is joining the hot startup of the month without doing your own research. Press attention and success are often not correlated.
“The networks people build early in their careers at hypergrowth companies are often their most important professional networks ever.”
On the other hand, if you’re a founder of one these companies and have to hire a lot of people fast, here’s some advice.
Spend More Time On It
After you figure out your vision and get product-market fit, you should probably be spending between a third and a half of your time hiring. It sounds like way too much, and there will always be a ton of other work, but it’s the highest-leverage thing you can do, and great companies always, always have great people.
In The Beginning, Get Your Hands Dirty
You should spend the time to learn a role before you hire for it. If you don’t understand it, it’s very hard to get the right person.
Look For Smart, Effective People
Smart and effective have got to be table stakes. Talk to the candidates about what they’ve done. Specifically, ask them about how they spend their time during an average day, and what they got done in the last month. Go deep in a specific area and ask about what they actually did — it’s easy to take credit for a successful project. Ask them how they would solve a problem you are having related to the role they are interviewing for.
That, combined with the right questions when you check references, will usually give you a good feel about effectiveness. And usually you can gauge intelligence by the end of an hour-long conversation.
Have People Audition for Roles Instead of Interviewing for Them
This is the most important tactical piece of advice I have. It is difficult to know what it’s like working with someone after a few interviews; it is quite easy to know what it’s like after working with them.
Whenever possible (and it’s almost always possible), have someone do a day or two of work with you before you hire them; you can do this at night or on the weekends.
“Whenever possible (and it’s almost always possible), have someone do a day or two of work with you before you hire them; you can do this at night or on the weekends.”
Have a Mission, and Don’t Be Surprised at How Much Selling You’ll Have to Do
Having a mission that gets people excited is probably the best thing you can do to get a great team on board before you have runaway traction. As a founder, you’ll assume that everyone will be as excited about your company as you are. In reality, no one will. You need to spend a lot of time getting candidates excited about your mission.
Hire People You Like
At Stripe, I believe they call this the Sunday test — would you be likely to come into the office on a Sunday because you want to hang out with this person? Liking the people you work with is pretty important to the right kind of company culture. Only a few times have I ever seen a scenario where I didn’t like an otherwise very good candidate. I only made the hire once, and it was a mistake.
That being said, remember you want diversity of thought. There are some attributes where you want uniformity — integrity, intelligence, etc. — and there are some where you want coverage of the entire range.
Have a Set of Cultural Values You Hire For
Spend a lot of time figuring out what you want your cultural values to be (there are some good examples on the Internet). Make sure the whole company knows what they are and buys into them. Anyone you hire should be a cultural fit.
Great people attract other great people; as soon as you get a mediocre person in the building, this entire phenomenon can unwind.
Be Generous with Compensation Packages, But Mostly with Equity
You should be very frugal with nearly everything in a startup. Compensation for great people is an exception.
Where you want to be generous, though, is with equity. Ideally, you end up paying people slightly below to roughly market salaries but with a very generous equity package.
You will likely have to negotiate a little bit. Learn how to do this. In general, materially breaking your compensation structure to get someone is a bad idea — word gets out and everyone will be upset.
“You should be very frugal with nearly everything in a startup. Compensation for great people is an exception.
Watch Out for Red Flags and Trust Your Gut
There are a few things in the interviewing/negotiating process that you should watch out for because they usually mean that person will not be successful in a startup. A focus on title is an example; a focus on things like “how many reports will be in my organization” is an even worse example. You’ll develop a feel for these sorts of issues very quickly; don’t brush them off.
Always Be Recruiting
Unfortunately, recruiting usually doesn’t work as a transactional activity. You have to view it as something you always do, not something you start when you need to fill a role immediately. There’s a fair amount of unpredictability in the process; if you find someone great for a role you won’t need for two months, you should still hire them now.
You will not get 100% of your hires right. When it’s obviously not working, it’s unlikely to start working. It’s better for everyone involved to part ways quickly, instead of hanging on to unrealistic dreams that it’s going to get better.
Put a Little Bit of Rigor Around the Hiring Process
Be organized — one person should coordinate the entire interview process, make sure every topic you want to cover gets covered, convene people for the discussion after all interviews are done, etc. Also, have a consistent framework for how you decide whether or not to hire — do you need unanimous consent?
Remember that despite being great at what they do your team may not be great interviewers. It’s important to teach people how to interview.
Companies generally work better when they are smaller. It’s always worth spending time to think about the least amount of projects/work you can feasibly do, and then having as small a team as possible to do it.
Don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Hire because there is no other way to do what you want to do.
Good luck. Choosing where to work and choosing who to hire are both challenging but important tasks.
If you’re currently looking for an opportunity, here are some YC companies that are aggressively hiring.
Check Out YC Startups Aggressively Hiring