The Problem w/ “Fire Fast”

It’s universally accepted in startup-land that “hire slow, fire fast” is a mantra to live by. The benefits are clear – by adding only the best to your team, and constantly pruning for non-cultural or skill fits, you can build the best possible team. And, of course, the best teams always win.

This universal advice, though, might be in direct conflict with another golden rule of startups – that building a great culture is the best way to win. Certainly a great culture is hard to construct if you’re interviewing a lot of people, being rigorous in selection, hiring only the best and then firing a good chunk of those quickly. Netflix is infamous for this performance-obsessed culture (they highlight it a bit in this slide deck, though obviously in a fairly positive way) and there have been reasonable arguments that it started well but has since needed tuning.

I suspect the real challenge has to do with a problem Sarah brought up at our eTeam lunch today. She noted that we’ve gotten better over the past few years about hiring good people, but perhaps too good about firing fast. Specifically, she noted:

When you fire fast, you never know if you’ve made a mistake.

It’s true. There’s no way to know if, given another chance, more time, some empathetic training and TLC, that employee might have turned around and performed brilliantly. I know that we’ve had more than a few cases where we worried whether someone was a long-term fit at one point or another, and they’ve gone on to prove themselves to be exceptional performers in every way.

Given our values of TAGFEE, which include (G)enerosity and (E)mpathy, the only thing we can do is hire slow and fire fast, but not-too-fast. This might cost us some pain in the short run, but doesn’t run counter to our culture. I suspect it might also yield the retention of some star performers we’d have otherwise lost.