Ecommerce Expertise / How To Sell Online

Want To Hire Superstars? Here Are 7 Questions To Ask During Interviews…

/ 5 min read

Introduction

Whether you’re a two person startup still operating in your garage, or a 250 person startup (like us), one thing needs to remain consistent – your focus on hiring superstars.

When Eddie and I started our e-commerce software company (Bigcommerce), we made a pact to personally interview the first 100 people we hired. It was hard, but we stuck to that pact. It took us about 2 years. We did not have fancy recruiting software back then.

By doing that, we created a foundation of amazing talent and set the bar high for new employees and hiring managers who still adhere to our most important rule about recruitment:

Waiting to hire the right person for a role is painful, but will save you time, money and your sanity in the long run. Never hire someone who is “good enough”. Always wait for the best. They are out there and you will find them.

More than anything else, hiring the right people can determine the destiny of your business. Hire the right people and they’ll get behind your vision and make it a reality. Hire the wrong people and you’ll find that as your business grows, you’ll have a culture of average performers who watch the clock and aren’t motivated nearly as much as you are.

What is a superstar?

Hiring the right people starts well before the interview, but I’ll save that for another article. Today I’m going to share with you seven questions I ask when hiring people. And just to make it clear – I aim to only hire superstars. My hit rate is probably north of 85%, so it’s not perfect, but I’d argue it’s better than most.

A superstar, by my definition, is someone who will generate 5x the important performance indicator of a normal person. For example, a superstar engineer will crank out 5x as much quality code as a normal engineer. A superstar sales person will bring in 5x the qualified revenue of a normal sales rep, etc.

The more superstars you hire, the more you get done as a business.

You’ll have fewer headaches as a founder because your team will be stocked full of people who are driven, ambitious and most importantly, behind your vision. You’ll fire fewer (if any) people and you’ll find any non-superstars that make it through the door (for whatever reason) will self-select themselves out because they come to know they can’t meet the standard you’ve set through previous hires.

The 7 questions

On that note, here are 7 questions I ask during interviews. Over the years I’ve interviewed close to 1,000 people so I’ve tweaked, tested and improved these questions quite a few times. Feel free to use all or some during your next interview.

1. What do you like about our product/business and what don’t you like? How would you change what you don’t like?

This question does two things. First, it gives you insight into how a candidate will verbalize something they don’t like. Will they talk about the problem and then immediately suggest a solution, or will they tell you that your business is perfect when in reality, it probably isn’t? Look for people who talk 5% about the problem and 95% about the solution.

By asking how they’d change what they don’t like, you get a chance to hear how they’d go about solving problems. For example, if they say your customer service stinks but can’t suggest even a basic idea to fix it, what chance do they have of fixing problems when they’re working for you? Will they just give up and move on to something else? Probably.

The best employees solve problems fast and on their own.

2. Which book are you currently reading?

Passionate people tend to read books or listen to audio books to improve their skills. Whether the books are specific to a skill such as sales and marketing or they’re reading a book focused on self-development doesn’t matter. All good signs.

If they’re reading a fiction book and haven’t read an educational book for a while, that’s a red flag to me. Superstars are always looking to better themselves and the smartest people I know are always learning and absorbing new information.

3. Tell me about a problem you were tasked with solving in your current job. How did you fix it?

Again, this surfaces their problem solving and creative thinking skills (or lack thereof). Did they have a thoughtful approach to solving the problem or did they pass it on to someone else?

4. What’s the one thing you’ve accomplished in your career that you’re most proud of?

This gives you insight into what makes them tick and also lets you assess how they define success. If, for example, they worked at their previous company for 12 years and their biggest accomplishment was beating their sales target in a single quarter, they may not be a superstar.

On the other hand, if they were promoted 5 times in their previous role during a 2 year period, then you may have a superstar on your hands. Easy.

5. Have you played any team sports before?

People who play team sports such as basketball, soccer and rowing are driven, focused on achieving goals and physically fit, which helps keep their mind in peak condition. Generally they will also be great communicators, cope well under pressure and perform well during team events.

6. What do you do for fun?

Balance is an important part of success and I’ve found that superstars strive do well in most (if not all) areas of their life, including physical fitness, relationships, contribution and learning.

As an example, if someone hits the gym 3 days a week, volunteers on Saturdays and is learning how to play the piano “just for fun”, then it’s fair to say they value achievement, goal setting and are continually looking to improve themselves. This will translate into their job.

7. “I’m not sure you’re a fit for the role…”

This one works best when you’re hiring people with strong personalities that need to push through constantly hearing “no”, such as for sales reps or sales leaders and it’s more of a comment than a question. By simply making this statement, they can do one of three things.

They can ignore you and skip over the comment. They can agree and try to move on. Or, they can try to sell you on the benefits of bringing them into your business, specifically bringing up the main reasons why you can’t afford not to hire them.

That’s the kind of person you want in your business right?!

Conclusion

These questions aren’t a silver bullet for hiring superstars, but I’ve found that over the years they’ve allowed me to better decide between people who will and won’t be a fit in the business and achieve success in the particular role I’m hiring for.

You can write the best possible job description and go over the details of a candidate’s resume format, but it can only take you so far. Outside of asking questions, never overlook your gut feel during an interview. If something doesn’t feel right or you’re not absolutely certain about hiring someone then say no. Every time.

It will take longer to hire the right person, but you want to build a company full of people that are right for their roles instead of people that came along at the right time. There’s a big difference between the two. Create a company full of superstars and your job becomes much easier.

Before we go, let me repeat my golden rule for hiring just one more time:

Waiting to hire the right person for a role is painful, but will save you time, money and your sanity in the long run. Never hire someone who is “good enough.” Always wait for the best. They are out there and you will find them.

Every time I’ve broken this rule (probably 3 times in 10 years), it’s been a mistake and the person has always ended up not working out, so do your best to stick to it!

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  • louise

    How do u hote freelance ? Is it like a consultant ? If do is it not very costly?
    Sorry hire …

  • danlmarmot

    That’s great–but businesses need all types to succeed, and not just superstars, and these questions are highly suspect.

    Where’s room for the build engineer who loves making the release and CI process work–but who hasn’t read an interesting book since The Hobbit in 1992? Where’s room for the program manager who knows how to define customer profiles like a madwoman, but also has three kids as a single mom and “for fun” she shuttles them between soccer and piano lessons… and for team sports she played softball in high school. What about the merchandiser who really knows how to run a campaign, but “for fun” likes to go out on big-game trophy hunting? Are these people you want to hire? Are these answers you’re comfortable with, or what’s your real subjective bias in saying no to these people?

    These questions verge on the illegal as well, as several of these are not related to actual job duties. I suggest more professional questions that are related to actual job performance–and seeking legal advice.

  • Beth Cohen

    While you bring up many valid points here, I think you will not end up hiring any women, minorities or people with families. I was totally turned off by this set of question — the team sports one in particular. If I was interviewing with this company I would come away saying to myself I do not want to work for a company that only wants 30 something clones of the founders. Remember hiring is a two way street and the rock stars are going to have the pick of the companies that they can work for and IMHO opinion yours would not be on the list.

  • OneManITDept

    While the above may be a nice recipe for hiring superstars, there are enough of us out there that most places can hire one as effortlessly as accidentally. The problem is not hiring us but keeping us.

    The problem is not in getting us but in letting us flourish. All too often, upon hiring, you find out that management lied, there is no room for advancement, there is no room for improvement. The very last thing a manager wants to find out is not only can you do the manager’s job better than the manager, not only can you do the job better than everyone else there, not only can you muster people up to following effortlessly and get people to work with you where the manager cannot, but when everybody else realizes these things, you are out of a job.

    Here are several questions to ask yourselves as managers as to why you cannot either get superstars or keep superstars:

    1 – Do you hire the correct people who can do the tasks or are you hiring to fill a gap defined by HR? If you know nothing about the job and HR knows nothing about the job…7 Magic questions will not land you anything but another gap filler that you will have to replace.

    2 – Do you have a rewards program? Many companies have a percentage based program that pays the Intrepenuer (Look it up, it is spelled correctly) a percentage of money saved or made from fixing a money pit. I worked for a group where it took 3 weeks to do a process, I streamlined that process down to a macro and could do it myself in 1 hour. They had two people who performed this task. They savings was figured out to be 10% of the money saved paid up front as in an instant bonus and the two people were moved to another task that needed helping with. To be clear that was 10% of the two people’s pay paid to me up front. You want your superstar to do good things? You have to pay your superstar if that is what you are hiring for. Don’t tell me that you don’t do that type of thing and then tell me it is so important that the company save as much as it can. I understand business and how it works…do you?

    3 – Do you promote those superstars or do you continuously promote people who suck up? Companies without superstars are companies who do not promote superstars. The question here is one of Integrity, I cannot tell you how many companies I have worked for who have idiots in charge of everything and who scream and run around because not only do they not know what is going on in their own company and why there is a problem, but they do not even care as long as the person above them stops screaming at them. This is a prime example of not hiring / promoting the correct people.

    4 – Do you think that you don’t need to know anything about what you are managing to be able to effectively manage it? If you do; you will never get much less retain, a superstar. Why? Because you need to know what is going on with your company and how your department fits in at an intimate level. For example: Your significant other has been in a horrendous traffic accident. A team of doctors is being assembled that is the best in their field to try and saved your loved one. The Doctor In Charge (The Chief Surgeon) will be a guy who works at 7-11 as an asst. manager. You are okay that he doesn’t know anything about surgery right? He is a good manager and that is all that matters correct?

    5 – Do you actually identify problems or do you sweep them away because of whatever excuse you have? Many places want a superstar to make them shine because they are not shining on their own or not shining as brightly as they could. Which means, something is not going right or something could be going better. The first thing you have to do to fix something is find out what went wrong or what is going wrong. If you are unwilling to do that…hire a stopgap employee who won’t care as long as they are getting paycheck.

    6 – Do you lie to your employees? You may fool some of us but the moment we hit the floor, we will know the truth and the decision to stay or go will be made right there. Management sets the tone for everything in a company, a company that lies, does dirty underhandedness, is deceptive and duplicitous will hire those same types of people or the good people will become bad as they become lazy and uncaring.

    7 – Are you willing to put up with a High Maintenance employee? We superstars are typically high maintenance. Of course we are, why would you think otherwise? You want that Ferrari, Lamborghini or Rolls Royce sitting in your driveway because of the glamour, performance and the awesome looks your neighbors will give you; you will need to put up with the maintenance costs. In superstars this typically comes down to Pay, Bonuses, Freedom Of Innovation etc. If that is too much then perhaps a Chevy Cavalier is more your style. You never treat your star player like he/she is third string.

    So hopefully the above information will help you all out…I never met anyone that could not use a bit of brushing up, myself included. Many people pull back in shock How Could I Be So Arrogant!?!?!?! Who Do I think I am? The funniest part of those people is they are usually the ones lording it over everyone they have a degree! or they have this or that…same token, You will never hire anyone with as many degrees in IT, as much experience or as many certifications as I have. I am the best.

    Those of you out there who are looking for a job or whatever, always look at the interview as your interview of the company; not as their interview of you. Most managers are not smart enough to conduct an interview on their own so they will bring a long a person to sit with them etc. This is a company that employees managers who do not know what their people do. We have no time for a big list of what to watch for but keep in mind it is YOUR interview.

  • the_new_mr

    Good article. But I don’t agree with the team sports question. I’ve never really liked team sports but I work well in a team, am driven and have all the other qualities you’re looking for in that team sports question.

  • Great article Mitch!

    As a small business owner, finding a quality candidate is a very difficult task. Thanks for pointing the top questions that your company uses to highlight the superstars!

  • Great article Mitch! I completely agree with your last point. Every time we’ve gotten “hire happy” and pulled the trigger too soon, it didn’t work out.

    An additional trick: Make it a company policy to only freelance-to-hire. It works wonders for smaller businesses that are growing a little slower and can take additional time with the hiring process.

    Sometimes you won’t know exactly what you need in a hire, or how soon you’ll need it 40 hours a week. By building a pipeline of freelancers, you remain flexible. Turn them on or off as needed, spend more money on your marketing freelancer one month, and your programmer the next month. Plus, there’s no better way to tell if someone’s a rockstar than to actually work with them on a few projects. This has saved our ass, literally, as we’ve started to really grow and are still bootstrapped.

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