delete-buttonWe’re in the middle of another hiring phase at Ometria, doubling from a core team of 8 to 16 within just a few months, and that means I’m placing a lot of ads and looking at a lot of inbound applications. Every time I do this, I’m struck by quite how bad most people are at applying for a job, and quite how easy it is to avoid this.

One recent, important, role within our business is a paid internship for someone who will be assisting with research related to the product, data crunching related to our digital marketing, and customer interaction to handle any incoming requests. The role is junior, but it is broad, interesting and provides both a lot of valuable experience and the opportunity to work directly with almost every member of the team.

We’ve had a great response to the job ad on Enternships, with hundreds of people applying, from people who are only graduating next year, to people who have already been in work for a decade. The ad specifies a few things very clearly. First, an explanation that we require people who are ready to start immediately, and people who have ecommerce experience, with a request to provide a response related to these points in the application. Second, a simple question, which we ask all applicants, and which underlies our entire hiring culture. The question is “What makes you exceptional?”

Nine out of ten applicants copy and paste something generic into the answer to this last question. “I am well traveled.” ” I am proficient with tools such as Excel.” A 962 word answer where the word OMETRIA is spelled in capitals, like that, and very clearly ‘find and replaced’, and the word exceptional doesn’t appear at all. All of these are genuine answers that have been submitted for this question by various people – people who got the ‘delete’ button.

So 100 or so rejections later, we have a shortlist of people who have at least been willing to read the job advert, and respond to the things that matter. A favourite answer was from a girl who talked about resilience making her different, her exceptional time management skills, and specific relevant experience in ecommerce making her perfect for the role. An answer that it was a pleasure to read, and so clearly distinct from the others that there was no doubt about clicking ‘shortlist’.

Next comes the Cover Letter. Assuming the answer to the filter question is vaguely interesting, it is clear that I will go on to open both the CV and the Cover Letter. At this stage, it all starts going wrong again, since most cover letters will generically copy and paste the company name in, and will have no mention of the relevant skills or aspects of the job. A smart cover letter will be based on a generic one, but will weave in why the candidate is good for the role, and what exactly about it they are excited about it. “I have the right qualifications for this role… and have extensive experience in this field”, with no further relevant details, is just not going to cut it.

If the answer to the filter question is good, and the cover letter is relevant, then the CV gets some thorough analysis. They’ve taken the time to specifically focus on this application and it’s only fair to take time to specifically analyse it. People make one major mistake with the CV. They don’t put a photo. This is such an obvious opportunity to create an emotional connection with whoever is reading the CV, and most people miss it out. The right photo, demonstrating professionalism, will really ingrain you in the mind of the decision maker, and most people just don’t do this. Apart from that, CVs are what they are – if you’ve had some great previous roles, then they will be impressive. If not, then the other aspects of the application are going to need to be really strong, and they are more important in any case.

Our hiring process is long, even for an internship position. We’re a family that’s very hard to get into – no one gets to skip it. So the first stage is an interview. I personally write to the candidate to thank them for the application, tell them that they’ve stood out, and invite them to a first interview. I also lay out the next steps to ensure they are aware. Even at this very simple step, people get it wrong. One person, who was absolutely perfect in the application, responded with a single sentence “I am available for the interview on Wednesday, but am not available on Thursday for the next step you describe.” No followup. No question regarding whether it would be possible to reschedule. This one really stumped me. Clear effort put into making the application, and no effort put into trying to persuade us to move the interview times around. Is this someone who has issues with communicating, or someone who just doesn’t care about joining our company? Either way, such a shame..

Then comes the interview. One obvious point always jumps out at me – the good candidates will always have lots of questions. They have options, and that means they are the ones making a tough decision. They want to know absolutely everything about the role, absolutely everything about future opportunities. And on the other hand, so many people just have a generic question, because they know they need to ask one. A great candidate will carefully ask questions throughout the process, taking care not to take over the interview, but demonstrating that they really do care about taking the right role.

We had one candidate do something exceptional after the interview. He sent a hand-written thank you note. Absolutely perfect – no one else did it, and it really stood out. It took him a minute of time to do it, but the effect was significant. It set him apart, and he was immediately invited back for a test day.

At the test day, the second stage of our interview process, we screen for two things. The first is overall output, productivity, and attitude based on the APM Principle. The point of this principle isn’t how much you can do – most people totally misunderstand that blog post. The point of it is to reframe what you believe you can do, and realise that the bar should be set an order of magnitude higher. The second is cultural fit. The Sunday test. Is this someone that we would want to spend a Sunday in the office with. Do they understand the reality of being in a startup, and is that something they relish.

It’s amazing how many candidates come in for this day, and over eight hours produce a document that’s one and a half pages long. Our first hire was through the same channel, for a similar research intern position. His bar is set at what is literally a dissertation – a fifteen page document with data, charts, and a detailed analysis – all within one day. He now pretty much runs the company.. So people who spend time on getting past all of the earlier stages end up crashing out. It becomes clear that the effort didn’t come from something intrinsic. They aren’t genuine overachievers – they just put extra effort into the earlier steps because they were short and it was simple to do so. They wouldn’t hack three years’ worth of 14 hour days doing maths at Cambridge, and they definitely wouldn’t hack ten years’ worth of 16 hour days building a SaaS company.

All those people ended up not being exceptional. So that’s how not to do it. And so we are left with one candidate. She answered the question well. She added a relevant paragraph to the Cover Letter. She had a photo. She produced four times more than the other candidates during the test day, and it was well planned and well executed. Only one stage remains. The Gauntlet. Six individual interviews with the core founding team, one after another, no breaks, and anyone can veto. There’s no tricks for getting through that one. Either she’s an Ometrian, or we’ve got to start again.

Read my full story on the About Ivan Mazour page.

If you've enjoyed reading then comment, tweet, like or follow me:

No hustlers and no connectors – the psychology of tech email intros

April 5, 2014

A few days ago, I found myself with a familiar sense of annoyance that normally leads to the word “muppets”, followed by me writing posts like this one. This time the topic was the response to an email introduction. Until about three years ago, I had no idea what an “email intro” was. My businesses […]

Read the full article →

The ultimate really simple guide to absolutely everything you need to know about Bitcoin

March 2, 2014

In just this past week, about ten people have asked me to explain to them things related to Bitcoin. As an entrepreneur, I couldn’t help seeing this as some market demand, and responding with a blog post. The reason they’ve been asking me is that I’ve been a rather vocal early adopter of Bitcoin for […]

Read the full article →

Alarms are for wimps

February 22, 2014

As with most things, it seems I have accidentally overanalysed another topic, and developed a very strong opinion about it. This time it is about alarms. As a child I was most certainly not an early riser. I remember, at boarding school, staying up till 4am playing XCOM, which must be one of the most […]

Read the full article →

The Tournament – how to hire an awesome sales team

January 25, 2014

For the past two weeks, I’ve been running an even more intense selection and hiring process than our usual one, with it all culminating last Saturday with the final stage – “The Tournament”. It went so well, that I wanted to share the details and learnings in a blog post. The role I was hiring […]

Read the full article →

Still sharpening those instincts – Key Decision Analysis Part 2

January 1, 2014

Christmas is my favourite time of the year, but for slightly unusual reasons. I love the fact that I get to spend time with family, but even more than that I love the absolute sense of calm that settles on London during this period. The streets are empty, few people are at work, no one […]

Read the full article →

How to build a B2B Unicorn

November 16, 2013

Now that probably sounds like a ridiculous title, but bear with me. What I want to talk about is how to build that most elusive of companies – a $1bn B2B technology business. This is go big or go home, part 2. The way I’ve always seen it, enterprise software companies are much more execution-focused […]

Read the full article →

Why using a PA to manage your calendar may make you look like a muppet

October 27, 2013

I want to share something that I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about – my thoughts on the intersection of two topics: PAs and calendar management. People who know me well know that I have one major pet hate currently. And that pet hate is getting passed over to a PA when […]

Read the full article →

How to give a great talk – and why that matters for everyday life

October 12, 2013

In the past few months, the number of speaking engagements I’ve been doing has increased rather sharply, and I’ve found myself spending a lot of time preparing talks. I’ve trained for, and enjoyed, public speaking ever since I was a kid, completing all of the grades in Speech and Drama when I was about ten […]

Read the full article →

The 10 most instrumental lessons in shaping my life and success

September 21, 2013

I’m not usually into listicles. If done in the wrong way, you end up with a generic list of a few points which not only doesn’t provide any value to the reader, but even pushes them away. However – I have a number of lists that I always keep updated, and one of them is […]

Read the full article →