From Apple to Zappos: Could Big Companies' Hiring Tactics Work for You?

Just because large companies make job candidates jump through hoops during the hiring process doesn't mean you should follow suit.
June 24, 2014

Tony Hsieh, the offbeat and highly respected CEO of Zappos, recently sent the recruiting world into a frenzy when he announced that Zappos was eliminating all job postings. At the end of May, the company launched an alternative career site: Zappos Insider. On this new site, people interested in working at the online shoe retailer can sign up and start ongoing conversations with existing Zappos employees to learn more about the company and its iconic culture.

Stacy Zapar, social recruiting and employer branding strategist at Zappos, wrote on the company’s blog that the program represents a return to good, old-fashioned, relationship-focused recruiting and a giant step away from the “post and pray” mentality that online job boards engender. This shift from a major employer has sparked a broader conversation on recruiting and hiring and, we’re guessing, planted more than a few seeds in the minds of entrepreneurs, many of whom claim that their number-one challenge is hiring the right people.

Finding the Right Employees

When looking to fill empty positions, entrepreneurs have often been tempted to take a page from the recruiting strategies of big, high-profile companies. Should you ask candidates to solve case-oriented problems like McKinsey, pose brainteaser questions like Microsoft, check your candidate’s GPA as Google does, or follow Apple’s playbook and ask prospective employees to solve a thorny technical problem? Or should you rethink your reliance on job postings, as Zappos did? Maybe. Or maybe not.

“One of the problems with sharing best practices is that leaders look at what other companies are doing and say, 'This is cool,’ as opposed to seeing what aligns with their company culture,” says Susan LaMotte, founder of exaqueo, a workforce consulting firm. For instance, LaMotte says, many small companies may not have the resources or the legal know-how to manage the kind of talent community that Zappos started. 

 Susan LaMotte, the founder of exaqueo, 

The truth is, there’s no one formula for hiring success—the only “right” way to hire and recruit is the way that works best for your company and the one that gives you productive employees and great retention. Very often, that means doing some serious soul searching before you even hire employee number one.

Defining Your Culture

According to Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of The Muse, a job search platform, “Companies are asking more questions to determine how candidates will fit into the culture long term.” At The Muse, Minshew says, “Everyone takes out the trash, and in an interview, we want to get the sense that ‘No job is beneath me.’” But even if the nature of a company’s culture seems self-evident at many small companies, it pays to articulate the elements of that culture early on.

The Muse founders- Kathryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos 

“The first thing you really need to do is define your foundation and make it clear how you get work done,” says workforce consultant Susan LaMotte. Then you can devise questions or techniques to tease out the particular qualities you think candidates should possess to fit into your company.

When Matthew Mueller and John Ballay started their online custom men’s clothing company, Knot Standard, back in 2011, the partners put some serious thought into defining just what type of culture they wanted for their new business. “We hired a branding firm to structure our thinking, and we locked ourselves in our office for two weekends and came up with the culture,” Mueller says. “What we [decided] is that the company is based on one concept and that’s creating pride, internally with employees and externally with customers.”

The partners also agreed that integrity, achievement and freedom would be core company values. Knot Standard now has 45 employees in seven locations and, Mueller says, the four top interview questions for job candidates reflect the company’s culture:

  • What have you done that you’re extremely proud of?
  • Describe a time that you behaved with integrity.
  • What have you done in the past year that shows you know how to color outside the lines?
  • Tell me about something you started and finished that didn’t turn out how you expected, but in a good way.

Candidates are also asked to take personality and IQ tests, but the most unusual question they’re asked during an interview with Knot Standard involves their LinkedIn profiles. “We look at the top five skills their peers have recommended them for, and we measure them against those recommendations,” Mueller says. “It’s crowdsourced information on the candidate.”

When candidates seem mismatched with their top five LinkedIn skills, Mueller notes, “That’s a red flag for us.” 

But the recommendations can also serve to verify candidate information. For instance, Mueller’s creative director came from a hedge fund background but claimed to be interested in fashion. His LinkedIn skills recommendations contained analytics and finance, but fashion design, apparel and marketing were also prominent. Mueller says that was independent verification that the candidate was genuinely interested in fashion and not just trying to get any old job. 

“He’s 24, and he now runs all our production,” Mueller says. “He’s the perfect fit.” The hiring system they've created seems to be working well: According to Mueller, only two employees have left the company since it was founded.

Try Before You Buy

Increasingly, small companies are seeking to mitigate the risk of new hires by offering a trial run before committing to a full-time position. At their New York City-based startup, RentHop, Lee Lin and co-founder Li Zhou have partnered with Startup Institute to find employees who are keen to work at startup tech companies.

“We had the chance to set up a task for a group of seven [to do] and to work with the students during an eight-week session,” says Lin, whose company lists apartments for rent in eight cities. “We decided to treat it a bit like The Apprentice.”

At his Manhattan-based startup, RentHop, Lee Lin has partnered with Startup Institute to find employees who are keen to work at young tech companies.

The students were asked, for instance, to set up focus groups with landlords or to get feedback on the company’s mobile app. “One of the biggest differences in working at a startup versus a big company is that you get large open-ended projects and you have to take initiative to get from A to B,” Lin says. “I saw about half the group get frustrated and stuck.” 

That’s not the kind of behavior that’s easy to predict through an interview. The eight-week project enabled Lin and Zhou to evaluate not only candidates' skills but also their behavior and temperament. They ended up hiring a director of business development and an operations manager from the group.

Giving prospective employees the chance to really experience what it’s like to work at your company is particularly important when your workplace is a bit nontraditional. At Menlo Innovations, a software design firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, all 50 employees, including CEO Rich Sheridan, work in an open environment and in teams that are switched up every five days. Each team has one table and one computer—a practice that Sheridan says fosters teamwork, cooperation, communication and respect.

But it’s not an environment that works well for everyone, so Sheridan tries hard to replicate the work environment during the interview process so candidates know exactly what to expect. 

At Menlo Innovations, a software design firm in Ann Arbor, MI, all fifty employees, including CEO Rich Sheridan, work in an open environment and in teams that are switched up every five days. Each team has one table and one computer – a practice that Sheridan says fosters teamwork, cooperation, communication, and respect. It’s not an environment for everyone, so Sheridan works hard to replicate the work environment during the interview process so that candidates know exactly what to expect.

During the hiring process, the company invites 30 to 50 candidates to come in on the same day, divides them into pairs and gives them job-appropriate tasks. “It’s a practical challenge that’s enough to have them get lost in the work but not confounded by it,” Sheridan says. “We tell them it’s their job to make their partner look good.”

As the teams work on the tasks, one Menlo Innovations employee (Sheridan calls them “Menlonians”) is assigned to observe each pair and take notes. Candidates get a new partner and a different observer every 20 minutes. At the end of the day, the observers get together to discuss the candidates and decide who will be asked back for a second interview. Approximately 50 percent make the cut; those people are asked to come work at the company for a day.

“We pay you, and you work with two different Menlonians on the same task in the morning and afternoon,” Sheridan says. If all goes well, the third step is a three-week contract, during which the prospective employee is paired with three different Menlo employees for 40 hours each. Candidates are given feedback along the way, and 50 to 75 percent of those people are given firm offers at the end of their three-week trial.

Sheridan says Menlo's process, called “extreme interviewing,” has helped create a workplace that's “joyful,” as he puts it in his recently published book, Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love. And, Sheridan says, “I have virtually no say in who joins the team—the team builds the team.”

Consensus Hiring

While few workplaces are authentically democratic, it makes good sense for leaders of growing companies to allow veteran team members to weigh in on job candidates. At Victory Marketing Agency, an experiential marketing and promotional staffing company in Fort Myers, Florida, CEO Vinny Antonio says that every single person at his 18-employee company helps interview job candidates. 

The first step is a 30-minute interview with Antonio, followed by conversations with the company’s executives and then with peers with whom the candidate would work. “I ask the peer groups to come up with fun questions, like, ‘If you were going to die in a week, what’s the one thing you’d want to do?’” Antonio says. “We want to see if they have big personalities.”

For a single position, five to seven candidates might visit the company over the course of two to three days, and after the visits, the Victory Marketing staff marks their choices on a white board. “Every employee gets three hash marks, and they can put them after any name they choose,” Antonio says. “It’s like a draft room for football.”

Candidates who get no hash marks are eliminated in the first round. The process is repeated two more times, and a primary candidate is then selected. “Hiring is 100 percent a team decision,” Antonio says. He’s hired six people using this draft method and says that all those employees are still with the company.

Leonora Valvo, former CEO of event management software firm etouches, had to get creative when faced with the challenge of doubling etouches' staff. “In 2012, we went from 32 to 76 employees, and finding talent at that rate in Connecticut was very difficult,” says Valvo, whose company was based in South Norwalk. “Everybody talked about how they couldn’t find good people, but they also [talked] about college grads who couldn’t find jobs.”

So Valvo, now the founder of analytics solutions provider insightXM, created eCruit, an online recruiting platform that she promoted among local colleges and universities and in local press. This sophisticated recruiting tool helped top managers at etouches find and hire candidates who were the best fit for the company's particular environment.

Leonora Valvo founder of insightXM and the former CEO of event management software firm etouches

Each of the company’s senior executives in sales, marketing, development and finance devised questions that candidates answered online. Based on those responses, 12 candidates were chosen to come to etouches for a one-week “emersion bootcamp,” where, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, each senior team member would run a program that Valvo says was “half didactic and half interactive” for the recent grads.

“We were looking for problem-solving ability, ambition, creativity and cultural fit,” Valvo says. “We paid them $40 a day, and for us, it was a week-long interview. At the end of the week, we knew which [candidates] we wanted to hire.” She says the company ran the program for a year and hired approximately a third of the young candidates who went through the program.

So, sure, borrow from the playbooks of bigger companies if you’re certain that makes sense for you. But do you really need to watch a job candidate struggling to figure out how much plywood is used every year by U.S. homeowners who were building decks (an actual interview question asked by a major consulting firm)?

Maybe, like Kate Minshew of The Muse, you’d be better off asking about the most embarrassing song on your candidate’s iTunes account. “One candidate told us he had the entire soundtrack to Frozen, because his kids were really into it,” Minshew says. “And another said they really liked Susan Boyle. I thought that was brave.” 

No matter what type of questions you ask, just make sure they're designed to reveal whether the candidates you're considering would truly be a good match for your business. After you've gone through the hurdles of the hiring process, you don't want to have to run that race again any time soon.

Read more articles on hiring & firing.

Photos: Getty Images, Exaqueo, RentHop, Erica Gannett Photography, Menlo Innovations, Courtesy Leonora Valvo