Sunday, October 13, 2013

Corner Office: Jeff Fluhr of Spreecast, on Finding Employees Who Fit

Q. Did you have the entrepreneurial itch when you were a kid?

A. The first thing I did as an entrepreneur was during middle school. I started selling candy to other students, which was not O.K. from the principal’s perspective. I would go to this wholesale candy distributor, buy a bunch of candy in large boxes, and then sell it at marked-up prices.

Q. Are there entrepreneurs in your family?

A. My grandfather started a women’s clothing store in Manhattan that is still around today, and now my mother runs that store. I always looked up to my grandfather, and how he was controlling his own destiny. My father took an early retirement package from his job as an engineering executive at AT&T, and he’s since started a couple of companies as well.

Q. What was your first job after college?

A. I worked at the Blackstone Group in New York. I was 22, and working on these deals where we were buying big manufacturing companies. I spent a few years doing that, and I learned a lot. I had a dual degree from Penn in engineering and finance, and I focused more on the finance side when I went to Blackstone. But I wanted to work with higher-growth technology companies.

Q. That’s quite a first job out of college. What else did you learn from that time?

A. I learned a lot that’s valuable in the start-up world. One is understanding the inner workings of financial modeling. With the companies I’m involved with, I’m generally the only finance person for a while until the company starts to scale. But it also taught me how to look at businesses, and see how certain shifts in industries create opportunities.

I also learned about the discipline of hard work. It was an intense first job, with 80-hour weeks, and being at the office until midnight and sometimes working on weekends. I just saw the value of hard work and the importance of putting in the time.

Q. So your first company was StubHub.

A. I went to Stanford Business School because I wanted to either join a start-up or start my own company. It’s a great institution, but I dropped out because I started StubHub in the middle of my first year. We incorporated the company in March 2000, and then the Internet bubble burst in April 2000. That was an interesting dynamic in terms of raising our first round of capital.

Q. You ran StubHub for seven years before selling it to eBay. What were some lessons you took away from that experience?

A. It was the first time I had an operating role. It was definitely a jump-in-the-deep-end experience. In retrospect, the way we recruited the first handful of people had a lot of positives, but there are probably multiple schools of thought on this. I basically brought in a number of friends — people I knew from college or high school, and others with one degree of separation from those people.

Q. And your thinking was...?

A. One, I have access to them and I know who they are. Two, I respect them and trust them and think they’re smart. And they were interested and available. I’m sure there are people who say you shouldn’t hire your friends. Having said that, one of the huge advantages of doing that is there was instant trust. And hiring people is tough, and there’s a high failure rate in hiring at early-stage companies. With people I already knew, there’s obviously a failure rate there, too. But some of the potential issues were nonissues, like trust and really knowing the person.

Q. Tell me about your approach to hiring at your current company.

A. I’ve found that the softer characteristics of a person — the cultural fit, the chemistry fit, their personality traits, their level of optimism — are far more important than somebody’s experience. What I was often doing at StubHub as the company grew was to say, “O.K., we need a V.P. of marketing and we want somebody who’s been a V.P. marketing at another consumer Internet company, and hopefully, they’ve done these certain things because that’s what we need.” But the reality is that if you get somebody who’s smart, hungry and has a can-do attitude, they can figure out how to do A, B and C, because there’s really no trick to most of these things.

Q. So how do you interview now?

A. I always ask people why they’re thinking about leaving their current job, and why it isn’t fulfilling what they’re looking for. Part of that conversation is about what they’re looking for, and their goals for the next step of their career. Understanding that helps create a picture of whether they’re going to be a good fit.

Q. What else about the culture at your current company?

A. We’ve always done “hack days,” where the engineers basically can build whatever they want for a full day, and then present what they’ve done to the company. But recently we’ve started doing “hack weeks.” So we basically let the engineers build whatever they want for a week, and then present their ideas to the whole company. And all of the nonengineers are also asked to come up with ideas for what features they want to see on Spreecast, or it could even be on some parallel initiative. It allows us to innovate completely out of the box.

Motivating engineers and keeping them excited and engaged is something we’re obviously very interested in. We’re trying to create a sense of empowerment and autonomy where they can kind of do what they want, and they don’t just always have to do the next batch of work that’s on the priority list.

Q. What career advice would you give to a graduating class of college seniors?

A. One of the things I tell people is that experience is overrated. I still sometimes find myself falling into the trap of thinking, when I’m trying to fill a role, “Has the person done the work that the role requires?” That’s the wrong question. It should be, “Let’s find a person who has the right chemistry, the right intellect, the right curiosity, the right creativity.” If we plug that person into any role, they’re going to be successful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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