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The joys, challenges, and pitfalls of hiring for a clean energy startup

Posted by at 3:00 PM, 10/07/2009

Cleantech Open volunteer Tony Loeb recently attended the talent/recruitment workshop set up by the Cleantech Open. It was geared toward contestants, semifinalists, alumni and mentors, and was held at the offices of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto. Thanks, Tony, for attending the event and reporting about the event!

It’s an excellent time to be hiring, and Matt Oberhardt, a CTO volunteer and partner at Korn/Ferry International, assembled an excellent panel to discuss building a world-class team:

Bob Walsh, CEO, Aurora Biofuels

Zach Gentry, chief strategy officer and co-founder, Adura Technologies

David Dreesen, partner, Battery Ventures

Jeff Hocking, clean technology practice leader and managing director, Korn/Ferry, Northern California


Together, they explored hiring just the “right” individual in the Brave New World of clean energy startup companies. They tackled considerations of what it is like to face all of the staffing challenges any company experiences, and considered several new and exotic requirements that are unique to this area.


—Typical questions startups face when hiring—

How do you find the right individual with the requisite experience at another company, when no other country in history has ever done what your company does?

How do you find an individual who is willing to work in an environment filled with unpredictability, and with a job description in flux?

Should you seek a specialist with narrow focus, or a jack-of-all-trades?

How do you deal with the triple threat of a rapidly changing R&D to production landscape, impatient investors, and an unclear long-term funding picture?

How do you prospect for talent? Do you use social networking programs such as LinkedIn?

In the current job market, often with scores, even hundreds, of job applicants, how do you manage a comparative assessment to arrive at the single best candidate?

How do you train individuals once they are on board?

How and when do you make an evaluation of how a new member of your team is functioning? When do you take what actions to ameliorate a less-than-acceptable job performance situation? Can you afford to be patient?


—Finding people—


Be persistent, have a clear story, and show a sense of scarcity of opportunities like yours.


—Matching employee selection to your hiring strategy—


Have a truly unique story to tell. 

Be aware that clean technologies come out of an area once considered a niche market. Looking for mainstream talent will likely not result in a good fit.

Look to industry experience as close-fitting as possible, and then go after the “champions.”

Get optimistic entrepreneurs on both fronts!

Do not hurry and make a decision before “putting a check mark in the last box.” (Don’t omit anything! — a typical mistake.)

Be aware of the inflection point between R&D and production phases. Look for the realist, rather than the pure optimist, in hiring someone to manage that vital transition, someone who will not cave in to the pressures of impatient investors, who want to accelerate the process.


—Where do you look for talent?— 


You can’t go to competitors—likely there aren’t any! Look for competence in the general area, even if the candidate’s previous role is not the same as what you need to fill. Get creative and take some chances with those that haven’t done exactly the same thing before but have great skills. Be prepared for investors to be uncomfortable, regardless of your choices.



Use social networking, but not through web-based services. Draw from your colleagues’ contacts.



Recruiting cannot be outsourced to a recruiter. In a startup especially, employees wear many hats. Only you as the hiring entity really know what the employee is likely to be doing.



Hire a CEO who has a wide range of appropriate contacts to draw from.



—With all the demands of a start-up environment, how do you allocate time for recruiting?—

Zach: Recruiting is selling. Think of it that way, with the same level of importance.


—Can you use social networking à la LinkedIn, etc?—

Zach: Works in some areas—generalists—yes; specialists—no.

Jeff: Gets you to a short list, but it’s up to you after that to narrow it down to the 2 or 3 likely candidates.

Bob: It’s a two-edged sword for the above reasons.


—How successful are virtual moves?—

Consensus was that this mode of operation has to be restricted to rare, special cases. Given the fast pace of change in a startup, it is vitally important for a significant figure in an operation to be physically present on a regular, if not daily, basis. One exception: when actual job sites are in extremely “out of the way” places, then virtual moves are necessary and can be helpful if used judiciously. Also, advisors can often be used on a remote basis.


—Generally, what is the best path to mitigation of the problems of recruiting?—

As in most areas of operation, have a sound operating plan, and have it early in the process! Companies generally wait too long. Use a rational, numerical rating scheme to be able to make a rapid determination of your lead candidate. Delay too long through a disorganized interviewing schedule, and your candidate may be gone before you are ready to make an offer.


—How do you achieve rapid assimilation of new talent?—

No other way around it—give them the manual, present them with the ‘fire hose’ to drink from. Be transparent, so that all of your staff knows what’s going on at all times. Reward good results, and after a probationary period, make rapid decisions about non-starters.


—Employee Development—

Dave: Companies need to get the present jobs done immediately, mindful that good employees need a path to higher planes. Sometimes it makes sense to change the role of a new hire—e.g. from development into a sales or marketing role—if they can do it.


Employee development is a desired, but you have to get the present job done! Do not sacrifice the tactical for the long-term strategic.


—Audience questions—


How to hire a CEO ‘pre-money?’ Probably the obvious—offer equity and make the prospect sound extremely exciting.

How to prioritize fund-raising and hiring? These have to be done in parallel. One pitfall—investors may have their own candidates, regardless of your preferences. Make sure their candidates fit your plans! 

The perennial question: Do you bet on a horse, or on a jockey? No one answer for all occasions.

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