Now Hiring: Animals

When posting the Bonanzle co-founder job opening on Jobster this evening, I found myself remembering one of the very first and very best articles I read on entrepreneurship, authored by Paul Graham, back in the Spek days. This article makes more brain-sticky points on entrepreneurship than any other I’ve read. It’s good stuff, but lengthwise, the article might as well be an article of the Constitution. For today’s discussion, I’ll discuss Graham’s suggestion for how to approach the most important (and challenging) element of making any startup work: selecting the right people to work with.

The short answer: “hire animals.” Specifically, Graham says,

One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.

“What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won’t take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.”

As I’ve considered this since first reading it, I’ve found that this characterization rings true with many of the top performers I’ve known, regardless of their discipline. Of course, if someone asked me what a “programming animal” was, I’d probably stammer and be slow to find the words to explain it. But when you work with them, and you see them cut through logic problems like a hot knife through butter (borrowing the analogy I used to describe Jordan Phillips when I first met him), you know you’ve found yourself a programming animal.

A very common question I’ve received from fellow entrepreneurs when I talk about Bonanzle is “Where did you find these bad-ass programmers that are working with you to create Bonanzle?” The answer is that I am fascinated by people who are excellent at what they do. In a nutshell: fascination leads to inquiry, inquiry leads to friendship, and friendship leads to working together. Of course, I’m also fascinated by and try to learn from people who I will probably never work with. But when there’s something to be done, you best bet the first people I’ll be talking to about it are those people I respect most, who also happen to be best at what they do, who also happen to be friends.

My long-term dream? I’m hoping that I can meet more people who are great at what they do every year. As I meet more and more such people, I want them to join me and each other at my weekly summer barbecues. It’ll be like Hollywood for nerds, where the common thread amongst attendees will be the respect we have for one another and the shared intent to make good happen to each other and the world around us. Then we will drink too many margaritas, Jordan will lob his three-egg hamburger into the pool, and we’ll double-dog dare whoever’s drunkest to jump into the pool immediately and save the hamburger before the 10 second rule applies.


When’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job”? Even better, when’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job, and here are some ideas as to how you can do an even better one”? Hopefully in the last few weeks, but working at the average company with average boss, chances are that it’s probably measured more in months or years. As an individual in search of constant improvement, I am severely bugged when I see this happen. When one acts as their own sounding board, the veracity of the evaluation they give to themselves will be inherently more random. And with randomly correct data about what was and wasn’t good, the precision with which you can determine how to improve your actions is low. After working even one year without meaningful feedback, you end up with a lot of data points representing tasks that you completed, but no bin to sort them into. They are points in space, and the value of that experience is largely diminished because of it.

So, not getting feedback=bad. But is getting feedback=good? Sometimes. A concurrent epidemic that seems to have infected many of the noble feedback givers is that of not assigning degree and example to feedback. Did you ever have a class that was graded on a curve in college, and sit in class on a day where the professor jubilantly declared that “everybody did so well on this test, I am so proud of you all!” Seldom was there a compliment that I less wanted to hear. In reality as we know it, there are few, if any, absolutes. So feedback such as “you did well last week,” ranks only slightly higher in data conveyed than no feedback at all. A disclaimer is in order here that this is coming from a computer programmer who works in a world of logic and quantifiable principles, but in my eyes, a compliment that does not come attached to a comparison and an example will still be only marginally informative. Strictly speaking, whether you are “smart” or “good at what you do” does not exist in an absolute world. It only exists relative to other people (or your past self) who do those same things worse.

“Harsh,” you might be thinking, because it is. Society likes to sugarcoat the reality of comparison by labeling those that see the world as a place of relative degrees as “competitive.” Competitiveness of this type is often discouraged in casual affairs, or even in some business settings where it is important to preserve feelings. But whether you’re winning or not, the relative nature of success is here to stay. Deal with it and grow richer in your understanding of yourself and the world. Deny it and protect your self esteem while you remain ignorant to how you could do better.

It’s “Realitivity.”