3 hiring lessons from VC unicorns

By now you’ve probably come across the term ‘unicorn’ when reading about startup success stories like Airbnb, Uber, Dropbox and more.

In case you haven’t, a ‘unicorn’ is defined by Investopedia as a privately held company valued over $1 billion. At the time that Aileen Lee (founder of Cowboy VC) coined the term, it was used to describe the rare and unique level of valuation that these companies had received.

Over time, being a unicorn has become an object of fantasy for many people working in startups and VC, which can be seen in the explosive $822bn that has flowed into American startups alone since 2020. With almost 450-odd unicorns today and the impact of Covid 19 setting in, the cracks in this mindset are starting to show.

At wearebridge.io we like to focus on bridging knowledge across industries to turbocharging your hiring processes, and unicorns are a fascinating case study for how to hire at scale.

A key to the logic behind heavy VC funding is to rapidly and aggressively scale up market share, in large part by ramping up your hiring as a company. In this post we’ll look at 3 key lessons from these well-known unicorn players.

Let’s go! 🦄


#1 Hire A Players

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Head of Product at Uber Jeff Holden explained quite candidly “there’s literally nothing more important than getting the right people on your rocket ship.”

In other words, companies need to be ruthless about the standards they set for new talent. Especially for smaller companies it can be tempting to accept anyone that comes their way. This approach would end up lowering the bar generally and diverting the team’s attention from what they’re best at doing.

To avoid this dilution into mediocrity, Napoleon Hill’s ‘mastermind’ concept comes to mind where it’s important to surround yourself with individuals you can exchange knowledge with and be challenged.

Involve these ‘A game’ people directly in your interview process, give them veto power on hiring decisions and use them as cultural leaders. They are your best evangelists for employer brand externally and company culture internally.

Be rigorous. There should be no middle ground!

#2 Look For Patriots

As a hiring manager there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a new hire really click with the company culture. Not only does it validate your theory they will do well in the company, but it bodes well for the quality of their work.

As Jeff goes on to say “wars are won by patriots”.

When it comes to hiring, a lot of people can say the right thing at the right time. This is a core strategy of influence. But not everyone can deliver or remain loyal to the company’s mission when push comes to shove.

Run culture fit experiments to see if actions are backed by words. Check in regularly to see if the person’s needs are met at the company and if they feel fulfilled. Even if someone is a mercenary initially, they can become a priority over time. Get them to love what they do and evangelism will follow.

“Wars are won by patriots”

#3 Gauge Passion

Lastly but not least, passion is one of the most important commodities you can look for in your potential hire. Not only does it tie directly into the previous two points, but it will push you to hire better yourself.

Like Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about understanding ‘why’ you are building a company, the same logic can be applied to a potential hire: “Why do you want to work for this company”?

Unicorns like Uber and Revolut use this question as a barometer for those who have a surface level understanding of the company vision, compared to those who align with the ‘why’. You’ll be surprised how few candidates can answer this question convincingly and it can be a great way to filter out those who will be able to cope with a mission-driven, fast moving startup environment.