PODCAST
Startup Recruitment Failures
JULY 6, 2022

Episode 2: The Gut vs Procedures When Hiring People

Surfshark recently merged with NordVPN and became a unicorn. Founder & CEO Vytautas Kaziukonis talks about relying more on procedures rather than the gut when hiring people and shares an amusing story about a Head of Sales who could not sell because of a basic skill missing that nobody checked for.
Vytautas Kaziukonis, Founder & CEO @Surfshark

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Transcript

INDRE
Hello! Welcome to the second podcast of Startup Recruitment Failures. I am Indre, founder and CEO of jobRely. We're building outbound recruitment SaaS, and today my special guest is Vytautas Kaziukonis, founder and CEO of Surfshark. Surfshark has recently merged with NordVPN and became a unicorn. Hi Vytautas.
VYTAUTAS
Hi Indre, nice to talk to you.
INDRE
Thank you for your time and my first question would be, so how does it feel when you're made it and are not a struggling start-up anymore?
VYTAUTAS
It's a weird feeling - on one hand we're grateful that actually we managed to achieve that, on the other hand part of me is still kind of, like, denying this and trying to find all the possible bad cases of how's gonna change from now on, because it brings more responsibilities, new challenges we have never faced. So it's a double edged sword celebrations but at the same time cautious awareness of what's ahead of us. Celebrations but at the same time Cautious awareness of.
INDRE
What challenges do you have in mind? What's going to change?
VYTAUTAS
Well, first of all, obviously there are investors who joined us, so how that dynamic will play out how we will manage to all work together and meet everyone's expectations. There's more pressure onto us to deliver and continue doing what we've been doing so far. Also, moving past that also on the mindset and actually growing even further when we are already quite a decent company, and new approaches need to be found, which is... the old formulas which we applied don't necessarily work at that scale anymore. So there's a lot of unknowns ahead.
INDRE
I see. I totally understand that when you gain more responsibility, it's not always a joy. You have to work sometimes even more, but I'm very glad to hear about this success. Because I remember I was the first employee you hired when you started building this team and we managed, you know, to start a really great story of Surfsharks. So talking about recruitment, could you share with us your recruitment failures?
VYTAUTAS
Well, the first failure I think that the biggest one, and the only one I regret to this day is actually letting you go, Indre. I think that's was, the biggest one because, and to the listeners Indre has been amazing at the start, and actually put the foundation for the team who actually managed to get to this phase, so all the management of Surfshark was basically brought in by Indre, one way or the other and super thankful for  your efforts then and  life has, of course moved on and our ways have separated somewhat professionally, but I will be always thankful for your period then when you work so hard then. So that's my biggest recruitment failure..
INDRE
Thank you so much. Thank you. For me, it was the same. I learned so much and now building my own start-up, it's amazing experience we had. What other failures? Were there any?
VYTAUTAS
One thing we learned later down the line, not in the early days, that I was always–and I'm still am–a very like gut-feeling person, if you know what I mean, as in I hire people and then I try to use my, like, sixth sense, or whatever, like – is this person actually the right person to be with us? And initially I thought it's some kind of, like I have this, I don't know, a gift or whatever, that I can read people well and see whether they are actually who they are. But when we had so many people getting hired what I found out later on is actually it's the processes and good structural hiring methods, which I'm sure you know very well – how to ask the right questions, how to how to identify particular traits of people and so they fit together is actually more important than your gut feeling. Gut feelings is like horoscopes. Okay, there is a place for that, but definitely need more additional data, which we haven't used in the early days. Now we are much more structural, procedural, so even though gut feeling is one of the inputs into the decision whether a person should be hired or not, but - but there's more now inputs on, so he's a particular personality type. His track record is XYZ. There's multiple data points you can gather to make a decision. So those initial hires were–while majority were turned out to be amazing people, I think we could have had even a better success rate if we maybe implemented some of those processes earlier than we did.
INDRE
Okay, but when it comes to selecting the most suitable candidate, it's still then it's a gut feeling, right? You're choosing. So all of the candidates on paper look similar, right? Seeing your experience then you cannot find many differences. So then it's the feeling, who you could really work with, who is the most matching your company's culture and values, and et cetera. But have you ever had the situation that everything looks great on paper, you used all the processes as they supposed to be, but your gut feeling said that, 'no,' maybe that person is not likeminded like our team, so there could be a some mismatch.
VYTAUTAS
Yeah, absolutely. As I said in the beginning, I still use that gut feeling a lot, although I try to supplement it with additional data nowadays. But I was directly involved with at least a hundred people who were hired, so you can multiply it by, I don't know, 10, so it will be about a thousand candidates.
I remember quite a few, actually one, and the person would, as you said, have all the right ticks. And it's especially difficult with a marketing type of people, I think. 'cause when the person goes to an interview, right, It's ah basically–it's sales. It's how the person presents themselves, how they write their CV, how they tell the story. And some are better than others, but doesn't necessarily correlate with a reality.
I remember one which had all the right ingredients for that position. And on paper he looked so good that we actually hired him without even doing the proper procedures, like  testing for particular skills, because we felt that we would, kind of like, even offend the person, in that we would doubt his ability to do those basic tasks, or language skills, or whatever. What happened was six months later, when the results were not there, and we were questioning everything, like there must be, a product market fit problem, there might be a particular approach problem, or something else. It turned out to be a very simple language barrier problem that the person, which looked on paper super senior with international experience, with big track record of getting big clients et cetera, had struggles with basic English skills, and in those sales calls, he would be unabe to communicate, and the clients would simply would not understand his language. So this was a big recruitment failure that we decided that, 'Okay, let's just skip this process because this person is too senior,' which was a mistake on our end.
INDRE
Yeah, this is always what really, interests me, because from your case, you didn't want to offend the person by checking the references. There are some other cases that you don't want to spread the news that that person is open, and maybe the other company, like previous employer, would go after that candidate too and you will lose a chance to hire, and so very many other reasons, and yeah. We really sometimes make a mistake by not checking the references and not sometimes knowing in advance the very obvious thing as a English language skills, for example.
VYTAUTAS
Yeah, just because he says on his CV that his English language skills are excellent, doesn't necessarily mean that. And again it's not an offense just to ask and just to talk five to ten minutes in english and
INDRE
Exactly.
VYTAUTAS
yeah, but it was a costly mistake for us, because it took us so long, and only after six or maybe eight months when we actually finally decided to record some of those conversations, we realize what was happening, so... Other than that, the person is amazing person in that regard. He just maybe oversold himself a little bit, which tends to be with marketing type personalities. Yeah, and we paid quite a big price there.
INDRE
But this is so interesting. So, he had to talk in English with potential clients and he didn't know the language, and he managed to hide this for half a year?
VYTAUTAS
Yeah, so that's another thing–when you hire a very senior person, and that was at the time when I was trying to recognize my traits that, okay, I need to trust people more, I need to... for them to be more sustainable on their own. So and it was a very busy period at that stage and I was not actually managing him directly. And I was assuming, because he's such a senior person, that usually... it was quite a complicated product, so it was natural that, okay, at least three to four months is basically preparation and getting things rolling, etc. And all the other parts of the process were working well. Everything about the how the documentation was being prepared etc., the presentations – everything was okay. So the only part which was failing was actual conversions, like, basically, the actual calls with the clients, which only he would attend. So we were looking in all kinds of, like, ways. Okay, maybe the presentation is bad. Maybe there's something wrong with a product market fit. Maybe the client base–we are targeting the wrong people. After, as I said, after six months I said, 'Okay maybe let's try to record some of those conversations,' it was by the way–I think Covid times. So we were not sitting next to each other. So finally, yeah, so I was finally, I said, 'Okay me maybe let's try recording those calls and let's see what's happening.'
INDRE
Oh so he was working remotely, right.
VYTAUTAS
So that was when we realized, 'This is the elephant in the room,' we missed it totally, which would have been saved by a simple check at the recruitment process.
INDRE
But looking from his perspective. So, what was he expecting if he cannot talk to clients and he's still trying to do that? So what kind of the results he was expecting to achieve by this?
VYTAUTAS
Well I think it's a matter of perspective of what acceptable language skills are, and I think in his mind he had a reasonable understanding of language and this is where–this we disagreed when we listened to the conversations. But I don't think he on his own thought that there's a problem.
INDRE
But finally did he admit?
VYTAUTAS
Yes, after we had conversations that, 'Okay, do you think that this could be a problem?' etc., he agreed to that and we are friends to this day. It's no hard feelings. I think it's very important to be open and about when things don't work out and yeah, it's–other than that he's a super great person, I have nothing but good things to tell about him. It's just in this case I honestly think that he do not believe it to be a problem and on our part we failed to do a basic check.
INDRE
Yeah, exactly and this basic check would also help, could have helped not only for you, but for that person himself, because sometimes you cannot evaluate yourself, because you're very subjective, right? You're not objective about yourself. And when there's someone else, like a recruiter or interviewer, advising you on something maybe not to choose a position where you have to use a like perfect fluent English language. So maybe this would–maybe this is helping him now, this experience to understand better.
VYTAUTAS
Yeah, I agree.
INDRE
Great. So what would be your key takeaways? What would you advise other start-up founders, from having this many thousand interviews?
VYTAUTAS
I think, yes, two things, and it's a different sides of the same coin, but, trust your gut feeling. Yes, you will need it. You will need to learn to listen to your inner voice when you are feeling that something is not right. But at the same time, the other side of the coin is try to add additional inputs into the recruitment process which would help to justify your decisions, because without those it is a big struggle. Like, it tortures you inside that, okay, no, maybe this guy or this guy. But sometimes you have no gut feeling for three candidates, right? And they all seem to be great, one way or the other, and then you have maybe some kind of like a test or task, or feedback from another company, or... there's quite a few things you can think of. And then it makes makes the the choice easier. Another thing is, which I used, and Indre you can remember as well, if you take your sights onto a particular candidate, you think is worthy of joining you, never, never, ever give up. This is very, very often a mistake of people who started hiring. They say, 'Oh, the person said no, so, you know, we moved on.' No, it's–when the person said 'no' this is only now their recruitment started.
INDRE
Okay.
VYTAUTAS
So, you know? I had some of the people I managed to recruit to Surfshark, it took me, you know, 10 meetings, maybe 12 meetings. I would talk to them for hours, I would take three, fours No's and I still try to find what is the reason, what' is their concern, etc. So never, ever give up, because the person who is actually on the other side, they will appreciate this. If they see and if they feel that you're actually serious about it, you're really chasing them etc., they will feel important, and they will more likely accept joining you.
INDRE
Yeah, I remember. I remember that the product owner said 'no' 5 times, if I recall correctly, and CMO 7 times. So yeah, 'no' is not an answer for Surfshark.
Great. Thank you, Vytautas, so much for your time, and for sharing your story. And thank you to all the listeners. For more podcast please visit http://jobrely.com.

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