Meebo’s Jen: How to Find Hard-to-Find Talent

At GigaOM’s recent Structure 08 event, Meebo co-founder and engineering chief, Sandy Jen, joined a panel to talk about scaling your computing infrastructure for explosive growth. Jen also spoke with Found|READ, this time to offer founders tips on how to overcome what she calls the internal scaling challenge: hiring.

Meebo launched in September 2005, when it unveiled the first Ajax application that allowed users to access several instant messaging clients (AIM, Jabber, Google Talk, etc.) from its home page. Back then, Jen and co-founders Seth Sternberg and Elaine Wherry were bootstrapping, even using personal credit cards to lease the three servers they needed in order to launch. With no money left over for marketing, they went guerrilla.

“Digg had started about six months earlier, so we said, ‘Let’s just Digg ourselves,'” Jen recalled. “We wrote a quick description of Meebo — ‘Web IM: AIM! Yahoo!; No downloads; draggable windows! It’s free!’— and went to bed. The next morning we had 600 Diggs, and our servers were overloaded.”

Three years later, Meebo has raised $37.5 million in venture capital, has all sorts of new products (and servers), gets 30 million unique visitors a month, and faces its toughest scaling challenge yet: “The No. 1 thing we worry about is hiring,” said Jen. To keep up with user demand, Meebo must grown to 50 employees from its current 30 by 2009 — a 67 percent increase.

In a fast-growing startup, maintaining your core values is crucial. “But how do you hire and keep your small team culture? It’s really hard,” Jen told us. “In the beginning it’s easy to ask your friends and people you trust for names. But eventually you’ll tap out your networks. Then where do you look for talent?”

In order to uncover new recruits — and not just the very talented people, but the right people — for her company, Jen has developed a few tricks:

1. Go to industry events. You want to hire people who are interested in the same things that you’re interested in. That means reaching out to people who attend the same events that you do. Once you’ve seen the same person at four of five events, make your move.

2. Keep track of smart comments in blogs and forums.
Pay attention to the people who are commenting smartly on the stories you’re reading — especially if they’re doing so frequently. This is an indicator of their engagement and passion.

3. Look for people through your extra-curricular activities. You want people interested in your technology, but the right cultural fit means finding people who share your other values, too. A good indicator of shared values is a shared extra-curricular activity. Do you rock climb? Play ultimate Frisbee? (Jen does.) Common fun offers opportunities for bonding, which can be a great way to find new staff.

4. Go outside your geographic circle. There’s a lot of talent in the world. One of the first things Meebo did was commission its graphic design from a guy in Italy, whose work they found on an art web site. They hired him on a trial basis; today he’s Meebo’s Agent Icon.

5. Leverage contract arrangements. As Jen acknowledged, getting H-1B visas is a long process and a pain in the butt. But they’re worth it. If you find someone you want on your team, get them in the door, excited about your company and under contract as soon as possible. Meebo usually has six or seven people working under contract at any time.

6. Commit and be generous. Really talented people rarely advertise themselves, at least not as much as we’d like them to. You must court them. There is a lot of competition, so this could mean being flexible with hours or remote work options. And once you decide to hire someone, you have to welcome them with open arms.

7. Fire fast. When someone isn’t working out, have them leave quickly. In three years, two people have left Meebo — one left in three weeks, the other, in a few months. But a bad fit will contaminate your culture. You can’t afford that.

(Photo credit: Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle.)

For more on how Jen manages Meebo’s infrastructure, check out her interview with Om, below.