Monday, July 19, 2010
The importance of commitment in a start-up
Earlier this summer, we hired a second intern. Timmy (not his real name), interviewed really well and demonstrated the kind of passion and heart that I look for in new candidates. Typically when I hire an intern, I look for people who might be good full-time employees someday down the road. After all, that's how I got my career started. During the interview, Timmy made it clear that he wanted experience for his resume. He impressed me by saying that he would do whatever it takes to be a great intern, and passionately asked for the opportunity. At the end of the meeting I turned to our Marketing Manager and said "If you agree, I'm convinced. I think we should give Timmy a chance."
A few days later, I sent Timmy an offer letter detailing the internship. I made it clear that although he wouldn't make a lot of money, there would be room for advancement if he proved himself to be invaluable. I also told him that I believed he would get unique experience that he couldn't easily get in a different environment. He responded to my offer with a series of questions about the compensation, and I sent him this response:
Thanks for your note. I'll answer in bullet form for brevity....
- We have a lot of other candidates interested, so my answers are colored by that fact.
- We want someone here during our main working hours 4 days a week. You can choose which 4 days (and even change them week by week if that helps)
- We want someone here during the main workday -- from 9am - 4pm. If you're not here during those hours, you won't be part of the team and you'll miss out on a lot of interesting stuff that goes on.
- This is an independent contract, not an hourly part-time job. We're paying you a stipend to cover your commuting expenses etc.
- There may be other opportunities to earn some additional money. It all depends on how useful and effective you become. If I find you invaluable, there will be lots of opportunities for you to make money this summer and even beyond.
- You said you wanted to learn and get some real experience. I'm giving you that opportunity. I'd like to hear back from you by the end of today.
A few hours later, Timmy accepted the offer. He started the next week.
Timmy proved himself to be a great intern. He was a quick study, he worked quickly, and fit well into the team. I liked his attitude and his passion. Although he had only been at the company for a few weeks, I spoke to him and made a note on my calendar to meet with him on his one month anniversary. I had a big raise in mind for Timmy.
Only two days before his one month anniversary, Timmy sent me an email asking for a meeting. I immediately made time for him on my schedule. He sat down in my office and said "I'm really torn up about this, but I just accepted a new job to work at an insurance company everyday. They offered me great money, and I couldn't pass it up."
I couldn't believe it. Timmy had been working for only 15 days, and here he was telling me that he wasn't going to keep his commitment. Less than one month earlier, he had begged me for the opportunity, and now he had decided to blow off his commitment. The way he went about it was all wrong -- anyone who works with me knows that I try to foster an environment of communication and honesty. Timmy could have come and spoken to me about his desire to make more money or change his hours to accomodate another job and I would have been receptive. But instead he chose to break his commitment without an open discussion.
From all appearances, Timmy expected me to accept his new schedule and maintain his internship. He had the bravado to suggest that he was invaluable to the company, and that we needed to keep him around. I quickly corrected him -- no one is invaluable after only 15 days, and especially not an part-time intern.
So I gave Timmy a choice: he could either immediately correct himself and re-affirm his commitment to the company or I would show him the door. He felt that I was being unfair, and wanted to know what kind of raise was in store for him if he stuck around. "That's not how it works Timmy," I said. "We're not going to be held hostage. You made a commitment, now I want to know if you intend to keep it." Fifteen minutes later I showed Timmy the door.
I know that someday Timmy will look back on this experience and wish he had handled it differently. Hopefully this experience taught him a lesson about commitment. In the business world, it's important to have people around who take their commitments seriously. It's a start-up, it's critical.