Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Paul English @ MIT

Our speaker at Founder's journey this week is Paul English, one of the co-founders of Kayak. He started out with a brief biographical sketch.

Kayak is the 4th company founded by Paul. He was introduced to his co-founder Steve Hafner of Orbitz by Joel Cutler at General Catalyst. Steve pitched Paul over a couple of beers. Steve knew the travel business and Paul knew technology, and neither were experts in the other's domain. Paul used this to make the point that when you meet someone, if you have instincts that this would be a fun person to work with or has the skills you don't, learn to listen to that instinct and act on it!

Paul then touched upon the topic of hiring people. He mentioned that his strategy is to *always* be recruiting. He is always tuned to "who has that thing I am looking for?", and keeps an eye open always. This sounded like excellent advice to me. Self-awareness is a must, especially for entrepreneurs who need to hire to complement their strengths, and I have long since learned never to underestimate the role of serendipity in entrepreneurship. So this piece of advice really spoke to me.

When Paul hires people, he looks for 4 things:

1. Bandwidth - people who get things the first time, can handle curve balls and are intellectually intense.

2. Attitude - people who are focussed on winning, with the focus tempered by humility, a hunger for excellence and genuine curiosity.

3. Experience - people with expertise he doesn't have. They don't necessarily need to have experience with the task they are being hired for, but as long as they have the bandwidth, attitude and a complementary skill set, they will be considered.

4. LODB - Lack of Dysfunctional Behavior. When employees start at Kayak, they need to promise Paul 2 things (a) be the best in the role they sign-up for, and (b) be an energy amplifier. I loved this, and this is the second time in my life I've heard this advice.

The other person who gave me this advice 9 years ago is someone I revere as a technology guru who personifies both virtues. These people bring out the very best in the people they're around, and inspire others to try and mirror their excellence and energy amplification. Brady Keays, thank you for your excellent advice to a young engineer nearly a decade ago. It has served me very well. Thank you Paul, for reinforcing the message!

When an employee promises Paul these 2 things, Paul in return promises:
(a) he will make the person more productive than they have ever been before and (b), When they look back in 20 years, Kayak will be the best job they've ever had in terms of fun, work environment and job satisfaction.

Paul succinctly summarized the importance of LODB (Lack of Dysfunctional Behavior) when hiring: Better to make a mistake and lose a good person than make a mistake and hire a dysfunctional person. The dysfunctional person will pull down the team.

On the topic of integrating a new employee into the company, Paul shared his philosophy: "If you have a really strong group of employees, a new hire maybe shy. So for the first 30 days, our team focuses on what they can learn from the new hire first before the new employee becomes used to the group's ways".

He then talked about the red phone in Kayak's office. Per Paul's description, this is a big ugly red phone with a loud and annoying ringtone. When a customer calls kayak, one of the engineers has to answer it and is forced to directly connect with the customer. If there's a bug, it's a great incentive to fix the bug before one more customer calls with a complaint! There's nothing like connecting an engineer with his customer to produce a quality product.

Paul's final piece of advice was this: founders can fall in love with their ideas and ears can become deaf to criticism. Therefore, it's good to put out an early prototype and have it trashed, rather than trying to build a perfect product and getting it out to customers. Mark it clearly as beta, and your reputation will be intact. Do not sell a final product you are not proud to stand behind.

That capped an evening filled with multiple nuggets of wisdom.

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