Hire For Potential, Not Credentials

Depending on the role, having a distinct story, showing deep knowledge of the organization, and displaying passion and potential can be more important in the long run than traditional credentials. Here’s how to spot them in your next hire.

 min read
April 8, 2022
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

This article is the first in our annual series Year in Preview.  In the 4 years since we launched the On Deck Founders program, we’ve seen +1000 companies get started and raise over $2B in funding.

As a hiring manager, resumes may come across your desk from applicants that do not have the exact qualifications for a job you posted. Gone are the days when years of experience, a prestigious alma mater, or high-profile former employers were the only markers of success. The modern talent pool is much more varied, which makes for a more interesting, diverse group of applicants who may have spent years traveling, foregone undergraduate education, or gotten their work experience in non-traditional industries. To take advantage of this talent, hiring managers need to adapt, and get good at finding the gems right under their noses. 

Depending on the role, having a distinct story, showing deep knowledge of the organization, and displaying passion and potential can be more important in the long run than traditional credentials. 

Read on for more information about how to identify the above characteristics and how On Deck fellowships can help you fill in professional blindspots. 

Look for Unique Stories

Stories are important. They tell us someone’s motivations and desires, their strengths and weaknesses. 

Ask your candidates to tell you their story. The best candidates will be able to do so in a concise and efficient manner. Their ability to describe where they are coming from and where they want to go next in relation to your company will tell you a lot and help you assess whether or not they are a cultural fit, and whether or not they’ll be intrinsically motivated by the work at hand.  

The ability to describe your own experience can also be a skill in and of itself. Connecting what may be disparate work experiences into an exciting, cohesive narrative, and being able to deliver that narrative effectively, shows critical thinking, communication skills, and a great deal of introspection.  

On Deck fellow Cheryl Francis has quite the story. Instead of attending a traditional university, she educated herself by reading various business journals while she worked as a flight attendant. From there, she was able to pivot into being one of the first hires at a Y-Combinator-backed venture in Malaysia before moving on to a Japanese venture capital firm. Through this job she had a lot of exposure to founders working in the climate tech sector, and she realized that’s where she wanted to go next. 

She was able to land a job at Jaza, a charging station network that aims to power homes and communities in Africa, partially through her ability to streamline these various experiences into a story that highlighted her professional goals and potential. 

The impact of Jaza’s Hub product

Cheryl’s story set her apart from other applicants to Jaza founder and On Deck fellow Jeff Schnurr. Specifically, she was able to position her wide range of experiences as a benefit to Jeff and Jaza, because it showed that she could be adaptive and learn fast on the job. 

Cyan Banister is another prime example of someone who had a wide range of experiences and a story to tell. She experienced homelessness at an early age, taught herself how to program, and worked her way up from a systems administrator at NBCUniversal to an executive position at a security startup before embarking on a career in angel investing and venture capital where she was an early investor in companies like Uber, Opendoor, Postmates, and more. 

Although the relationship between managing musicians on tour and investing in startups does not seem obvious at first glance, be aware of skills that are relevant in every field and carry over from industry to industry. For example, to manage musicians a person may have to be a strong communicator and negotiator and great at both time and stakeholder management, all of which lend themselves to traditional business success. 

By resisting the urge to narrow your candidate funnel strictly by previous experience, you allow room for applicants who surprise you with their stories, and who can even excite you about the possibilities of what their role can become. 

What Does My Company Do? 

It may seem like an obvious question, but a candidate’s ability to accurately explain what your company does is highly indicative of their curiosity, preparedness, and potential. Their answer can tell you not just if they’ve done their research, but how well they understand the different parts of your organization today, and the ways it can grow in the future. 

Take On Deck First 50 and On Deck Catalyst fellow Sam Wong as an example. He had a successful background in the food innovation space, but wanted to transition to something different. 

Through On Deck, he was able to meet, network, and eventually interview with employers in the wellness tech, passion economy, social impact, D2C, and venture capital spaces before ending up in edtech. 

Even though his previous experience didn’t map one-to-one with the roles he was applying to, he was able to make a great impression by doing targeted research on each company. 

Sam Wong calls this process a “permissionless apprenticeship.” Simply, he encourages applicants to get to know the company well and do their job before they actually get their job. 

For example, during his interview process with Kunduz, a global edtech company that aims to make educational resources more accessible, he took the initiative to create and present a custom pitch deck about how he would approach a U.S. expansion. 

Kunduz’ reach

Going above-and-beyond in this way highlights an applicant’s ability to add value to your organization, and their drive to do so, regardless of formal qualifications. A web design applicant could mock up a page of your website to show how well they understand your branding; a marketing applicant could detail an ad campaign they’d like to run at your company to prove that they recognize your ideal customer profile. 

Jeff Schnurr also exhorts managers to pay attention to the types of questions an applicant asks during an interview. Good questions indicate a sophisticated knowledge of your product, strategy, and space, as well as a candidate’s interest. 

“In my experience, the questions people ask are more important than what they state.” 

Even if they don’t have as much relevant prior experience as you’d like, applicants who have done deep and concerted research into your company and your industry will likely be able to contribute more to your growth trajectory than a majority of your more traditionally qualified applicant pool. 

How Passionate Are They?

Gordon Ching joined On Deck Design to help him nail the transition from marketing to design. He managed the switch by emphasizing his passion and highlighting the overlaps between his previous job experience and where he hoped to transition.

“It occurred to me that both marketing and design are about brand identity and expression — except that as a designer, I have the power to directly bring the ideas I envision to life.” 

If you are faced with a candidate with ten years of experience but no passion for the field, and a candidate with zero years of experience but an extreme drive to learn and grow with you, you may want to opt for the latter. 

Gordon was able to lay out his passion and desire to be a creator, and Cheryl was willing to get on a plane and fly to Lagos, Nigeria at the drop of a hat to start her work at Jaza. 

Passion is also what drove Arlan Hamilton to pivot from a nearly fifteen-year career in music and production in order to start her own venture capital firm, Backstage Capital. If not for her previous experiences, she would not have gone on to found Backstage Capital in order to invest in underrepresented founders. Since its inception, Backstage Capital has invested in over 170 companies, and Arlan has been named to Fortune’s 40 under 40 and Fast Company’s Queer 50. It wasn’t her years of venture capital experience that propelled her to success, it was her passion. 

Arlan Hamilton for the Founded Series

What Are Their Blindspots?

Even the most qualified candidates have blindspots — those who are hired through the power of their stories, industry research, and passion may need an additional hand up in certain areas. 

Membership in a professional network like On Deck is a strong way to grow someone you want to invest in. 

For example, after less than a year in a design capacity at his new company, Gordon found himself promoted to design lead. He was new to both leadership and management. To truly thrive in his role, he felt that he needed a network of people he could get feedback and advice from. He wanted to know how other design leads did their jobs, what their best practices were, and what kind of roadblocks they faced. 

That’s where On Deck came in. By networking with key others, Gordon was able to refine his management style while on the job, and feel empowered to innovate and communicate better with his team. 

Professional development and continuing education programs like On Deck can be an effective way to further level up people that may not have the exact skillset you want on day one, but are a fit in every other way. 

On Deck also helps its members connect with top founders and investors in their industry. Aside from being able to glean insights from these top performers, employees can help bring those connections back to your company to help it grow. 

Tapping into the On Deck community is an effective way to not only invest in your employees and access industry professionals who can help your organization grow, but source passionate, knowledgeable applicants with a story to tell. 

Find your next opportunity, or your next hire, with On Deck.

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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