Although Aline Lerner (@alinelernerllc) graduated from MIT and worked as a software engineer for years, some of her most impactful learnings came from the time she spent working as a cook and moonlighting as a recruiter. Putting all of her experiences together, she realized that hiring in tech could be so much better, and so she started Interviewing.io, a company that has since grown to millions in revenue. In this episode we talk about finding the activation energy to get started, juggling the 50+ responsibilities of being a founder, how to build a team of people you're lucky to have, and how to win big by starting small.
What’s up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions at their companies and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their example and go on to build our own successful online businesses.
Today, I’m talking to Aline Lerner, the founder of a company called interviewing.io. Aline, this episode has been a long time in the making. Glad to finally have you on here.
Hey. Very excited to be here. Big fan.
Right at the top of your website you say that tactical interviewing and looking for a job as a software engineer are annoying, and at interviewing.io, you make both of these things less terrible. Tell us about how you do that.
I wrote that copy. I’m very pleased with it.
That was one of my questions I was going to ask, who wrote this copy? Was it you?
Yes, it was me. It was me, for better or for worse. I’ll tell you a bit about some earlier copy we had later if you’d like, one I was very proud of that we can’t use anymore. So what was the question?
What a great start to this interview.
This is amazing.
What do you do? What is interviewing.io? Who uses it? Why do they use it?
So interviewing.io is -- well, depending on who I’m pitching, I position it very differently, but given that this is mostly, I think our listeners are mostly software engineers, we’re a platform that provides people with really high-quality, free, and completely anonymous mock interviews. Then we also make it easier for you to get a job if you want. I can go into a bit more detail into what that means. Basically -- I used to be -- and I should introduce myself. What do you think?
Yeah, who are you?
Yeah, why not. And I’ll come back. I’ll tell the windy story of why I operate in this space, even though hiring is gross. I was a software engineer for a few years, about five. One of the things that was always hardest for me was hiring people. It was either -- it was at best a painful distraction and at worst it was just this kind of Kafkaesque nightmare.
One of my biggest frustrations, when I was an engineer was just that a lot of the best people I was working with didn’t look good on paper. There was guy that, one of the best engineers I ever worked with at the job where I was the longest, who I think did at a semester at some fifth-tier state school and then dropped out because he realized it was dumb and then went to work.
When he applied, we almost turned him away because of that, even though his high school friend, who was among the best engineers I ever worked with as well, really gave him a strong referral.
So that really upset me, and stuff like that happened all the time. I think we all have friends that are amazing engineers that just don’t look great on paper. So I ended up, in part because of these frustrations, and in part because I didn’t want to write code for the rest of my life, ended up transitioning to technical recruiting.
I started by just doing recruiting stuff at the software company where I was working, because all of us were constantly getting interrupted to do interviews. And then we had to go back to work, and we were doing everything from our own scheduling to just looking at resumes. It was not the best use of our time.
But then I really got into it and I just saw how broken recruiting was, so I ended up running recruiting at a couple companies. One was TrialPay and one was Udacity. You’ve probably heard of Udacity. Maybe not TrialPay as much. Then I started my own recruiting firm.
What was really annoying was, again I just kept running into this issue over and over. When I was recruiting for a bunch of startups in the Bay area, I would have candidates that I knew were amazing, because I had run them through super rigorous technical interviews myself. And then I just put the Aline Lerner stamp of approval on them, not that that necessarily meant that much, but in my world, I like to think it meant something.
And I would present them to companies, and companies -- the recruiters, these companies would just look at this candidate and be like, “We don’t want to talk to them.” And I’m like, “But they’re really good. I know they’re really good,” and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t care. We’re hiring from these five schools and they have to have worked at one of these companies as well.” That just really pissed me off. I started interviewing.io to stop that kind of thing from happening.
On our platform, if you’re a software engineer, when you sign up you can just grab a time slot, and when you show up at go time, there’s going to be a software engineer from a Google or a Facebook or a Dropbox or a Microsoft or any number of other companies that tend to have pretty difficult technical interviews.
That engineer’s going to run you through a very realistic either algorithmic or systems design interview, and they’re not going to know who you are. So you can screw up all you want, without any negative ramifications.
And if you do well, then you can unlock our jobs portal, and then with one click you can book a job interview at a number of great companies. We work with companies like Twitter and Lyft and Uber, Drobox and a number of others.
The nice thing is now, instead of having to get your friend to refer you, having to apply online which is like screaming into a black hole -- you never hear back -- or having to hope that the recruiter that contacted you six months ago when you weren’t looking isn’t still working there -- they’re probably not -- you just press one button, and then you have a guaranteed technical interview at that company, probably the next day, and it’s still anonymous. So the company doesn’t know who you are until you do well. That was a very long answer to a very short question. Did that make sense?
It made perfect sense. You said a couple of cool things in there that I want to talk about. You said that you work in hiring even though hiring is gross. You said that recruiting is broken. Let’s say you could snap your fingers and change the industry, change the entire industry of hiring software engineers, and you can do this once with each hand. So you can change two things. What two things would you change?
I feel imbued with god-like powers.
You are. Welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast, Aline.
That’s some butterfly effect stuff here. I don’t know. I’m just very, very paralyzed. Well look, the thing I find just immensely frustrating is just that good people don’t have access to opportunity.
I guess what I would so if I could snap my fingers is -- well actually, I’m going to answer this a bit facetiously first -- is I just wish everybody used interviewing.io, because I -- like the thing we’ve built there is the thing that I want to see in the world, this idea of, you’re evaluated on what you can do and not how you look on paper, and also this idea of -- just to back up a bit, the way hiring works, and this why I said it’s gross, is it’s just such an antiquated process.
I think a lot of our hiring approaches come from a time when there was a shortage of jobs and a surplus of candidates. So if you read a typical job description, they’re garbage, the worst. And if you read a typically job description, it’s just this long list of bullet points staying stuff like, “You have attention to detail,” and, “You’re not a murderer,” and just all this dumb stuff that has nothing to do with the job. I mean, I guess not being a murderer maybe you need a filter for.
It’s a low bar.
I guess it depends on the job. But generally, the way these things are written is meant to exclude, and it’s meant to be like, “Oh, we have all these people beating down our door. Make sure you fit these criteria.” That’s not how hiring works anymore, especially in software engineering.
There is a shortage of good people and a surplus of jobs, but the processes we’re running are not optimized at all to make candidates move through the process fast or to add value or do anything. It’s weird. There’s this tension between, “We need to hire all these engineers,” and then you apply to a company, and then they give you a two-week coding challenge to do that they don’t pay you for. It doesn’t make any sense.
So I just want hiring practices to line up with market dynamics. If there’s a shortage of candidates, you should roll out the red carpet for them and treat them well, and if there’s a shortage of candidates, you should be looking at talent pools that aren’t just Google and MIT alums.
That’s actually the right answer, when asked what everybody should be using, is to answer their own company name. So yeah, this is a test.
Did I pass? I hope I passed.
Yeah. You got it right.
Whew, thank God.
So you are a hiring and recruiting expert. There are a lot of people listening who are themselves software engineers or who are starting companies that hire software engineers. I want to come back to this topic and just mine you for information, but first, I want to talk about why does this process of interviewing and hiring suck so much?
It does, right?
I know a lot of people who would not be founders today if it wasn’t so scary or difficult to interview as a software engineer.
I’m so terrified of having a job. My God. Oh. Oh, there’s so much shit I will do to not have a job.
Let’s go through this list. What would you do to not have a job, Aline?
My God. I don't know.
Start a company?
Yeah. I think I would definitely do that. And starting a company is miserable. I guess it’s -- what’s that line about war, that it’s long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror?
I think that’s -- entrepreneurship is like that, too.
Nevertheless, you are a founder. So why are you a founder? What do you like about doing this?
I feel like I’m lying on psychoanalysis couch. I don't know. I think that there’s a certain personality that goes with being a founder. That’s not always true, right? Founders come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments.
But for me, I’ve just always had issues with authority, I think. I’ve had issues with having to do stuff that didn’t necessarily make sense to me, and at least when you have your own thing, you might be telling other people to do all sorts of stupid shit. My staff will attest to this, but at least it’s your stupid shit, and you have some control over your destiny, so that’s one.
Two, is -- I don't know if this has been your experience, Courtland, but there are some things I’m pretty good at. There’s a lot of stuff I’m bad at, but I don't know that there’s just one thing I want to do with my time. Here, you just -- when you’re a founder, you get to solve all sorts of weird problems all the time, and I think that’s really interesting.
Those problems are cross functional, and they really just stretch you to the limits of your ability. Some of them are really boring and you wish you didn’t have to solve them, but a lot of them are things that you've never done before. And I think that’s really cool.
That’s definitely been my experience as well. You’ve been at this with interviewing.io for four years now, right?
Mm-hm. That’s right.
You’ve got a dozen people that you’re working with fulltime on this. You've got many more contractors. So you’ve created jobs. You get to tell them what to do. No one’s telling you what to do.
Well they -- I mean, people still tell me what to do, actually. I’m grateful for it. A lot of my employees know what to do better than I do, so I try to listen.
Yeah. Great. That’s even better. Your employees are so good, they’re telling you what to do. You’ve got a cool company that’s actually helping fix an industry that you know a lot about and that you’re passionate about. You’ve grown your revenue to multiple millions of dollars per year in just the last four years. So overall, you’ve come a long way. You’ve accomplished a lot.
Having accomplished all this, would say that it’s worth it? Are you happy?
I don't know if I’m happy, but I’m certainly happier than I’ve been before I had this job. I think one of the nice things – and I think you and I talked about this in the past, this idea of when you’re a founder, even if you’re sort of tactically miserable, you don’t have time to be existentially miserable.
You’re so busy, and hopefully you’re doing something that you find meaning in, even if -- certainly nothing has meaning, right? Everything is completely chaotic and meaningless, and the universe gives zero fucks about you. But in your little corner, you’ve created the suspension of disbelief that what you’re doing matters.
And as long as you have that lodestar of, “Hey, I’m doing something that matters,” and you pretend that it does, then all of a sudden, even if your life is terrible, even if one quarter your revenue goes down or people leave your company, all sorts of things happen that are very, very stressful when you’re run a business. But you don’t lay around at night thinking, “Why am I here and what am I doing?”
This is the first job where I felt that way, where I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And I don't care how miserable I am on a day-to-day basis. I will trade that for being existentially purposeless.
Okay. Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about some of these other jobs where you didn’t feel like you were doing what you were supposed to be doing. What were some of those jobs?
I’ve generally been fortunate enough to work in companies where I’ve liked the people that I work with, and some jobs I stayed at way longer than I would have otherwise because I loved the people.
But every job I’ve had, after the first -- I don't know, sometimes the learning curve was more steep than other times, but eventually, once you figure out what you’re doing and you’re not overwhelmed, it’s like, “Why am I doing this?” It didn’t matter how great the company was. It didn’t matter how good my coworkers were ultimately, although that did keep me pretty happy day-to-day. It always felt a little bit empty.
I used to cook for a living. I guess that job, for a minute, satisfied my existential longings, because it was so difficult and I was so bad at it, at least for the first few months, that I didn’t have time to think about other things. And that job was really, really cool. And then eventually I figured out that I’m never going to be Tony Bourdain. I realized I wouldn’t be him, and at that point I quit. But for a little bit that job was almost as fulfilling as doing this, but never quite as.
I love the story of how you got there. How does someone who is now a software engineer running a tech company, how did you even become a cook in the first place?
As you know, we’re both MIT alums, and it’s a great school but it also bleeds you dry, or at least it bled me dry. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I was just so burned out on academics that when I graduated, I didn’t really have a plan. I really liked watching Food Network. If there’s a time in my life to do something absurd, it’s when I’m 21 and 22, and not when I’m 30.
I thought about going to culinary school. I think culinary school is like the coding bootcamp. If you look at coding bootcamps’ websites and you talk to the people that are trying to get you to go there, they’ll promise you the world, and they’re not cheap.
Fortunately, these days some of them are aligning their incentives better with students, and then you don’t have to pay until you actually get a job. But that’s not how it always was and there are still plenty of them where you just have to pay quite a bit of money up front.
So I thought about going to culinary school which, as it turns out, here’s something crazy. Back when I was at MIT, I think it was if you pay retail, going to college is something like $17,000.00 a semester. I think it’s a lot more now. Dates me a little bit, but back then culinary school, you’d go for three semesters. It was like an associate’s degree, and it was 50 grand.
So to go to some crap culinary school it cost the same as going to MIT. That was just not an option for me. I went and I talked to some chefs, and I realized that once you graduate from culinary school, you’re going to get the same job as people that didn’t go to school at all, except you’re not $50,000.00 in debt and you’re making $11.00 an hour.
What a deal.
It was the best, right? Well it’s a deal for the schools. They’re fucking killing it, right?
How do I get into the school business?
Yeah, right? Let’s open a culinary coding bootcamp, just like really screw everybody in every capacity. I chose not to do that, and I found a restaurant. I just looked on Craigslist and there were all these restaurants that were hiring cooks, and I didn’t know how to do anything. I had taken one class in college called kitchen chemistry. Did you ever take that one?
I didn’t even know that was a class.
See? Yeah, you get two credits, or I forget what a credit is. You get some nominal portion of whatever credit you’d normally get for a regular class, and then you make pancakes and you hang out, and it’s really great.
So I took that class, but that was about it. I didn’t know how to chop anything, so I found, finally, after applying to a hundred restaurants on Craigslist, most of whom laughed at me, I found one that was like, “Hello. You can come here and work for free.” And I was like, “Great.”
So I worked for free for three days. They taught me how to chop vegetables, and then they started paying me. From there I tried to make the next job I went to better than the previous one.
During your stint as a cook, were there any experiences you had or lessons you learned that have helped you out subsequently during your life as a founder?
I think, actually, the most lasting thing that I learned was about hiring. I’m not just making that up to bring it back. This is 100% true. I was fascinated by how restaurants hire people.
If you want to work at a restaurant, nobody gives a shit about your hopes and dreams. Nobody really looks at your resume. Your resume’s meaningless in that industry as well. You just come in and you bring your knives. In the morning they show you how to set up your station and your prepping. That means you’re making sauces. You’re chopping vegetables. In some restaurants, they also put an onion in front of you and they’re like, “Chop this onion,” and you’re like, “Okay.” Then you chop the onion.
You basically set up your station during service. So come 5:00, people start showing up for dinner. They show you how to do the dishes that your station is responsible for, and then all night you’re just putting out those dishes. They’re watching you, and they’re like, “Are you doing a good job?”
Then at the end of the night, if you do a good job then they feed you and they make you an offer. And if you don’t do a good job, they send you home. Maybe they feed you if they feel sorry for you. But it’s very, very fair, or at least much more fair than anything I’d ever seen in an office setting. I didn’t quite realize how much of an impact that had on me until years later, but I filed it away that’s the fairness I’d like to bring to our industry.
Yeah, that would be like being a developer, just going in and working a real day on the job.
Of course you wouldn’t do that, because it would take you a whole day just to get your environment set up.
Yeah, totally. I wish somebody would crack that. I think it’s harder because you don’t have a day to give, and why would you? When companies are interviewing you the standard way it’s a lot faster. So it’s a complicated thing.
But there has to be a proxy where you don’t really have to spend -- like you said, a day is unrealistic cause have to just clone your repo and mess with config files and do whatever the hell you have to do. So you don’t have to spend a few weeks working, but there has to be a better way than what we do now, but that serves the same purpose.
Fast forward a little bit. You eventually quit your job as a cook. How did you transition into tech?
I quit my job as a cook after about three years in the industry, and then I just had no idea what I wanted to do. I was going through this quarter-life crisis. I think I was 25 at the time so it was apt.
Well one, I was out of money. I was just completely out of money. I had saved a lot of money cause I started to a tutoring business when I was in college, and at the time my friend and I were raking it in. We were making $50.00 an hour. We’re like, “Holy shit. We’re rich. We’re so rich.”
And then I burned through most of my tutoring money and went into debt, and I just had nothing. So I saw this advertisement for this MIT program called MEET. They changed what it stands for, but back then it stood for I think Middle East Education Through Technology. The idea was they fly you to Jerusalem, and then you teach programming to a mix of Israeli and Palestinian high school students.
I thought that was amazing, cause the whole thesis was, hey instead of sitting around and talking about politics and the conflict, what if we just make -- and this is very hippy dippy -- what if we just make people build stuff together with code. Then they’ll find a common language and they’ll build some foundation for mutual respect.
I thought that was really cool. I wanted to be part of it. I also had no money, and there was a stipend and I had a place to live for the summer if I went to Jerusalem. So it was just a win-win on all fronts. I don't think I’ve ever admitted that to the program, so, hey guys, if you’re listening, sorry. I did it for good reasons also.
That got me back into programming, cause teaching something is the best way to understand it better yourself and then fall in love with it, I think. So after that summer, which went super, super well and where I made some very lasting friends, probably among the best friendships of my life, I came back and I was like, “You know what, I can do computers. Computers aren’t as bad as I remember. It’ll be fun.” And then I did computers for five years.
I’d worked in tech during college. I had a number of internships, so it wasn’t my first foray into writing code and production, but it was close to it. I remember preparing for job interviews back then after not having written -- after spending three years drinking and having plates thrown at me. It was interesting to get back out there and to interview.
I remember I had to reverse a Linked list, and I had forgotten what a Linked list was, so that was cool. But eventually I figured it out. Then I spent most of my time actually at one company, which I never would have thought I’d end up there, but it ended up being an amazing place to work. So many of the people that have worked there have gone on to be very, very successful. They’re still around. It’s called ClickTime. They did SaaS, time and expense tracking. I spent five years making time sheets, and it was not as horrible as you would think.
Okay. So you’ve got this amazing job making time sheets. The people around you are great. Why ever leave? Why ever go on to do your own thing?
Well I fell into recruiting there. That was the place where I said we were all jumping in and ramping up and ramping down and constantly getting interrupted. So I was like, “Hey, this is cool. I think there is a real problem here.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that technical recruiters were not technical, usually. That blew my mind. I was like, how can people that aren’t engineers be involved in filtering and vetting engineers? It’s just crazy, but that’s how it works.
And I thought, “You know what? I’m an engineer and I think that there’s an opportunity here.” And after five years of doing computers as I like to put it, I don't think I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. I like writing code to solve problems, but it doesn’t -- when I was in school, there were all these people that just lived and died for this stuff. This was all they lived and breathed, and it was just so thrilling to them to code.
I knew that I would never -- If I’m going to do something, I want to be the best at it or at least among the best, and I knew that if I didn’t have this level of passion for the craft, I would never be the best. I’m not saying that I was a great programmer despite that. I was decent. But if you’re decent and you don’t love it, your odds of excelling are very, very low.
Yeah, cause you’re competing with people who are really good and who love it.
Who want to do it. Do you like programming?
I love programming, but it’s also a means to an end for me.
See? People like you.
It’s a means to an end for me. I wouldn’t code if it couldn’t create cool things. I wouldn’t do it just to sit on my computer coding all day. So I think I’ll also probably never be the best software engineer because I’m not only doing it for its own sake.
Yeah. Like the truth in beauty and beauty in truth thing.
Okay. So at this point, you leave your job as a software engineer. You get into recruiting. You’re a person who wants to avoid existential angst. You want to keep yourself busy. You want to be the best at whatever it is that you’re doing. How do these two things inform how you approach your job as a recruiter and the next decisions that you make?
Well I didn’t quite quit my day job yet so to speak. What I tried doing was just moonlighting as a recruiter. There are so many shitty third-party recruiters out there, and we were trying to fill rolls and we were using agencies. I’m like, “My God.” And then I found out how much those people were getting paid, and I’m like, “Shit.”
Just like with the other, this is a case where my hopes and dreams and financial incentives line up really well. I’m like, “This is a problem. I hate how unfair hiring is, and my God, there’s so much money in this space.
How much were they getting paid?
Back then -- it hasn’t changed very much, so I think right now, industry standard for a contingency recruiter -- contingency means you get paid when make a hire. Industry standard is somewhere between 15 to 20% of first year’s base salary. So if a software engineer makes 150 grand a year, what’s a fifth of that? Well, 30 grand. So you get 30 grand every time you make a placement, so it’s a lot of money for not very much work.
It is more work than people think though. There are a lot of people that think recruiting is very, very easy and I was naively one of them. It’s not easy. There is all this nuance stuff that you realize once you get in there. But it’s not a backbreaking job. I’ll put it that way.
So I started moonlighting as a recruiter. I had a few friends that had startups, and I was like, “Hey, guys. Can I just try to make some hires for you, and we’ll see what happens?” And I could, and it worked well.
One of those companies was TrialPay, and they took a chance on me and gave me the title Head of Technical Recruiting even though I had never worked as a recruiter before. I’m forever grateful to them for doing that, because that’s what got me started in this space and I was very fortunate to be able to land that position.
One of the weird things about that job, too, was that I was half recruiter and half technical interviewer, because I could to technical interviews and I had been an engineer for years and years, they’re like, “Hey, what if you’re the one that just interviews our candidates and it’ll take the heat off the eng team.”
I was thrilled to do it. I was like, “I’m going to learn something no matter what. This is going to be cool.” I ended up doing something like five or six hundred technical interviews in the year that I was there.
Yeah. There were some where I was doing six a day and then I would just go home and sit in the dark and just -- it’s like, “God, what a day.” But that also helped me get here, because I started realizing there are a lot of patterns and repetition to how interviews are done, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s bad.
And that job also -- whenever I’m doing something that makes me miserable -- I don't know if you do this, but whenever I’m doing something weird or something that is arduous, I think, “I’m going to write about this one day,” and that makes it better.
In this case, I was doing these interviews, in part, because I thought maybe I could write something interesting about it. What I ended up doing, because I was the person that decided who got interviewed and then the person wasting my own time when I interviewed the wrong people that I felt, okay, casting a very wide net.
I talked to a lot of people and ended up writing a piece about what attributes of a resume might predict whether somebody gets on offer. I interviewed all these people, looked to see who was successful, and then I looked to see who was already working at TrialPay.
I looked at their resumes and tried to see, is it the number of years of experience? Is it whether they went to a top school? Is it whether they know a specific programming language or framework? Do they have their own website? Do they have a GitHub? Do they have lots of projects? Did they work at a top company? Looking at all of these traits.
This is the first thing that I ever really wrote on the internet that took off, that also shaped what I ended up doing later. But in that analysis, when I wrote about it, I found out that the thing that mattered most, much more than where people worked -- and, incidentally, where people went to school didn’t matter at all. But the thing that mattered most, by far and away, was how many typos and grammatical errors people had on their resumes.
Yeah. It was insane. I mean I stood months manually counting. You can’t have a computer count typos because all resumes are full of acronyms and all sorts of weird, proprietary technical terms.
So yeah, really. There are three things that mattered. Number one was, number of typos and grammatical error, and of course the fewer the better. I almost said the less the better, and then I corrected myself.
The second thing was how clearly they explained what they did at each position. A bad explanation would be, “I took part in the software development lifecycle,” whereas a good explanation would be, “My team was responsible for upgrading this thing, or building this feature, and this feature had this much traction and here’s why it mattered,” basically what you’d expect.
And then the third thing that mattered was whether somebody had worked at a quote/unquote top company. That mattered least. Everything else -- years of experience, advanced degree, college GPA, all these other things didn’t matter at all.
That’s interesting cause it implies the top companies aren’t doing that good of a job filtering people, because if they were then working at a top company would be a pretty good signal for whether or not somebody’s good.
Yeah. I think the idea was like at least if somebody else was willing to marry you, maybe you’re not the worst, which is not necessarily the best way to make decisions.
No, it’s not. So you’re a software engineer. At this point, you’re working as a recruiter, basically. Did you think about how you could apply your skills as a software engineer to perhaps scale this business and turn it into something bigger?
Well, I did. Part of the reason I wrote that blog post I was just talking about is, I was trying to come up with the ultimate logistic regression of truth, where you could have a -- it started as a hackathon project. I put in someone’s resume and it would just give me a score. The score was really either yes or no, cause that’s ultimately all you care about. So I started that way.
I realized very, very quickly that that was not going to work. The resume fundamentally just does not have enough signal to extract any of meaningful decision. That’s why I’m very skeptical, incidentally, of any AI hiring startups, because I don't know what they’re using to get signal. But there’s no magic. There’s just not that much info available from people’s public profiles to decide, can they code or not?
When I realized that didn’t work, I realized that there has to be some other way to get data about candidates that would be more meaningful. I got there organically. After I wrote this thing about typos and grammatical errors, I published it and people liked it.
By this time I had started my own recruiting firm, where rather than just working at TrialPay or Audacity, I was doing my own thing and hiring for about 40 or 50 companies. Because I’d started writing all this stuff on the internet about how hiring was totally broken, a lot of really good candidates started approaching me saying, “Hey, I’m nontraditional on paper. Can you help me get my foot in the door at a top company?”
And I didn’t know what to do with them, because my normal approach is useless here. I couldn’t look at their resume. It didn’t tell me very much, and their resumes in particular I didn’t know how to parse, because I’d never heard of their employers or their schools if there was even a school.
So I just started interviewing them and then I realized, you know what, if there’s a way I can make a platform where we get people’s interview performance and then, on top of that, if we can trick companies -- I told you earlier just how frustrated I was that companies wouldn’t talk to my candidates even though I said they were good. So if there’s a way to get candidates to hang out on this platform, do interviews, surface the best people and then force companies to talk to those best people despite themselves, then there’s going to be a business. And that’s how interviewing.io came about.
Was this a flash of insight, like one night in the shower just boom it hit you, or is it --
It might have been on the toilet, I think, which is where I do a lot of my best thinking. I’m not sure, but it’s very possible. It was either the shower or --
Is not the important half of the question?
I’m sorry. No, but I’ve got the answer. Courtland, listen. It was on the toilet.
Alright. A flash of insight on the toilet. Did you at some point turn this into a plan for your business or a strategy or a roadmap or something?
To this day, I’ll be honest, I have no idea what a business plan is or how to write one.
I don’t, either.
Right? And people keep talking. I’m like, “What is that?” I don't know. This seems like a waste of time. The way I tried to validate it was -- well, I tried to do something out of necessity.
I was running this recruiting firm, and then I had this idea, and then I thought, well I’m making a lot of money being a recruiter. Do I really want to just shut this down and do this random thing? I don’t even know if -- I think people want interview practice. That’s something I’d figured out from doing a ton of technical interviews back when I was at TrialPay, but I wasn’t sure.
So I put up this really, really shitty marketing site on Hacker News, and it said, “Free anonymous --” maybe it said practice. Actually it said something pretty similar to what our marketing site says now. It said, “Practice interviewing with engineers from top companies anonymously,” something like that. It was number one on Hacker News for I think two days, and something like 7,000 people signed up the first day.
So I was like, okay. Time to quit my job. Time to shut down my little recruiting firm and do this instead. My favorite piece of copy from that site, incidentally, was “Practice interviewing --” I promised you earlier I would tell you may favorite piece of copy for better or for worse. I may regret this. But it was “Practice interviewing with engineers from top companies,” blah, blah, blah and then underneath it said, “It’s like chat roulette, but without the dicks”
And we had this marketing site probably for the first year that we were in business, maybe more. It still said it. We were signing all these enterprise customers that were hiring through us. And at some point, one of our favorite customers, my main contact point from there called me up. And he’s like, “Aline, I like you. We like working with interviewing.io. We think this is funny. But not all of us think this is funny. Some people on our team think that the dicks thing is a little offensive. Can you please take that down?” And we did. We’re a bunch of sellouts.
You had a personality. You had a soul.
Yeah. No more.
That’s what happens when you start a business.
That’s – yeah. Kids, don’t start businesses. Eventually, you have to take down the dicks.
It’s true. Okay. Well this leads perfectly into my next question. As a founder, you’re the person who really wears all the hats. You’re not just sitting on the toilet coming up with ideas, but you’re also the person who’s writing the marketing copy, as you did so artfully, Aline.
You’re also building the product in most cases or hiring the people that build the product. You’re doing sales. You're doing everything, really. I think as an employee, sometimes it can be hard to make that transition, because you’re like, “Oh, my God, I have to do everything. The responsibilities of my job are usually pretty circumscribed. How am I going to wear all the hats?” How did you deal with making this transition, Aline? Cause you were a software engineer for five years. How was it for you to transition into basically being responsible for everything?
Yeah. I think one of the things that’s -- if I think about me before I started a company or I think about people I know that are not founders, one of the biggest attitude shifts that I’ve had to make and that maybe people that have a normal job don’t have is that there’s no playbook, and that there’s also no wrong answer.
I think people often get very paralyzed before they do something because they don’t know exactly the right way to do it. I think the worst thing you can do is just, especially if you’re starting a company, is to just sit there and agonize over what you should do. It doesn’t matter if you pick the wrong thing. You just have to do something, and then no matter what, just accept that everything you’re going to do is probably going to be wrong, but as long as you’re right sometimes, that’s probably good enough, and as long as you can figure out what you did wrong and iterate on it.
This is not rocket science. Every blog about being a founder will probably say the same thing, but I will cast my vote. This is absolutely true, even if you’re trying to hire for your startup. Let’s say you started a company and you need somebody to come work for you, it’s very tempting to spend hours being like, “Who do I reach out to? Are they even going to respond to me? How do I source talent for my new startup?”
And the fact is, the worst thing you can do is just sit there and not source talent. No matter what, the first few batches of emails that you send to people are going to be crap. You don't know how to talk about your business. The things that you think are interesting about your business may not be the things that other people think are interesting.
You’re probably not good at talking about what you do concisely, because in your head there are 50 moving parts, and each of them is endlessly fascinating. But the reality is, most people don’t give a shit. So how do you distill your messaging? And that just comes with failure and with repetition. I think that’s the big difference.
Or if you’re a job seeker, I’ll go with your analogy. Especially if you don’t look great on paper, the best thing you can do -- I mean, people just get in this rut where they just start robotically sending resumes to companies, and then getting annoyed when they don’t hear back. The fact is, no one’s reading those in the first place, so you shouldn’t feel bad and you shouldn’t be annoyed. But the best thing you can do is probably reach out to people that work at those companies.
And that’s really hard, because you’re making yourself vulnerable and you’re reaching out to a person that you know nothing about, and you don't know what to say. But that feeling, if you can get over and actually just write -- let’s say, somebody at a company you want to work wrote a really cool blog post and it’s about something you’re interested in. Maybe it’s a project that you’d like to work on if you worked at that company.
If you can get over that terror and write to them and say, “Hey, I saw that you did this thing, and it’s really cool, and I’ve been thinking about something along the same lines and I really wanted to know how you did this.” That’s good enough. Once you do a few of those, that breaks the seal. And if you can take that approach to every unknown that you encounter in the future, you’ll be okay.
I think just finding the activation energy, getting over that little hump and doing that, is the big difference. Some people never get over it and other people that do, I think especially if they have the temperament to be a founder, are probably going to be much happier.
I love that point. There really is no well laid-out path as a founder. There’s nobody patting you on the back saying, “Good job, Aline. You’re doing the right thing. Keep going in this direction.
Well my mom and dad, they do that sometimes.
Yeah, mom does that, too. She thinks every episode of the podcast is the best episode.
Yeah. My parents, too. Well my parents -- my mom texted me recently and she’s like, “Your podcasts are great. You sound so intelligent. But please, please, can you stop saying fuck?”
Sorry, mom. Sorry.
As an employee, you’ve got a track laid out in front of you. You’ve got a boss telling you what to do, what not to do. You’ve got promotions. It’s all very comfortable. It’s all very guided.
As a founder, you've got none of that, but you still have to make decisions and actually take action. I want to talk about the actions that you took at the beginning of interviewing.io. What was the very first thing you did after you decided that this was the problem that you wanted to solve?
I think I tried to find a cofounder, because I felt really overwhelmed, actually. I felt like I was holding an atom bomb in my hands and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I put up this crap marketing site with the deets on it or whatever it was, and people just signed up. I was like, “The universe has handed me a gift. And in the hands of a more capable person, this gift would be taken to fruition and realized. And instead, this gift has been handed to me.”
That’s a lot of pressure.
Yeah, what do I do with this? I don't think I have the wherewithal to do this alone. I think I need help and I certainly don’t want to build -- this is going to be a complicated product.
Our product hasn’t really changed from inception ‘til today. We’ve made some changes. Certainly, the UI has gotten better. We’ve built more features for employers, but at the heart of it, we had to build something where people could talk to each other anonymously and write code and submit feedback, and then we wanted those people to get ranked and we wanted scheduling to work.
You know, it’s not rocket science, but it’s a lot for one person who hates coding to build. So fortunately, we were able to use CoderPad. I remember you and Vincent on the show, one of my favorite episodes. I think maybe even I went to him and I’m like, “What do I do?”
We had met, because he had read my blog. I think it was the post about how resumes are stupid and typos matter. So fortunately, we were able to use CoderPad within our product and license it, but even outside of that there are a lot of moving parts.
So I went around trying to find a cofounder and my friend, Art, he wasn’t really willing to leave his job fulltime, but he was willing to jump in and help and build something to get the product off the ground.
On top of that, I remember as a proof of concept, to do the first few -- we wanted to see if anonymous interviewing could even work before we built too, too much. We generally try to build as little as possible and validate. It’s this lean startup idea. At the time I didn’t know what lean startup was. I thought it was because we were so strapped for resources that we should make sure this thing can work before we spend weeks trying to build it.
So I remember it was me, Vincent, Parker Phinney, who runs Interview Cake. You should have him on the show. He’s fantastic. Who else? Art was there, too. And we just emailed some of the people that had signed up through that marketing site that was on Hacker News, and said, “Hey, we’re going to book you some anonymous practice interviews.”
Then we used UberConference and CoderPad and just stapled together some disparate things to try to make it look like it would be an -- it was an anonymous interview. It’s just basically combining some tools together and making a flow that wasn’t the worst. And we just interviewed those people to see if they liked it and see if it would work, and then it seemed like it would. At that point, Art and I started building some stuff.
I’m a huge proponent of starting small. I think almost everybody should start it that way. And you really started well before writing any code for interviewing.io. You were interviewing hundreds of software engineers as a recruiter. What was it like interviewing somebody to be your cofounder?
Very different. Art ended up – I said he didn’t join fulltime. Eventually I got my friend Andy to join, and he’s great. But none of those people I put through any technical interviews, in part because I had worked with them previously on stuff.
So I think for me, the biggest questions were, one, do this person and I get along? Do we make each other better? Is it fun to be around them? Can I see myself being locked in a room with them for 12, 16 hours a day without biting each other’s heads off?
The second thing was, and this is really important for all early startup employees, not just cofounders, but can this person ruthlessly decide what matters and not get lost going down technical rabbit holes? So can they hack some shit together and then fix it later, rather than having to build the thing perfectly?
And also, do they know when it’s important to stop hacking shit together and actually build something more robust. Especially for a technical cofounder, that’s so much what you do all day is make those decisions.
And then lastly, I knew, for me I’m not a very linear thinker. I go all over the place. I think this is something that frustrates the hell out of my employees. But I wanted somebody that was more of an analytical linear thinker and could round out some of my flaws and imperfections and fill in those gaps. And hopefully, I could do the same for them. That ended up being the case, and it was very lucky.
That’s such a good point about wanting to hire early employees who know how much to code, know when to hack something together, know when to stop.
It’s basically knowing what the bigger picture is and not being so absorbed in the minute details of your job, that you just want to be the best software engineer possible, and you create amazing software that the company doesn’t really need.
Yeah. You can write the most beautiful stuff and you’re out of business a few months later and it didn’t even get to see the light of day.
It’s super tricky for people who come from a software engineering background, where it’s all about having the right unit tests and making the best decisions and writing the best code, because that’s all you have to worry about.
Being a founder you’ve 15 other things to worry about and the code’s not the only thing that matters so you have to be able to make these tradeoffs. What kind of questions can you ask somebody to determine whether or not they’re that kind of person?
Honestly, what I did with Art and then later with Andy was to just try working together. I knew both of these guys pretty well. I knew I got along with them. I knew that we made each other laugh. That’s also really important. It’s like dating or marriage, and everyone says this but it’s true. You have to just enjoy being around each other and you have to be able to diffuse tension with laughter, because there’s a lot of tension.
But for us, we just got in a room and we’re like, “Alright. Let’s just build some stuff. Let’s talk about -- Let’s say we want to build this part of the product. Let’s just start drawing some stuff on a whiteboard and being like, “What would this look like? Are we aligned? Do we care about the same things?”
It’s really hard to ask that, I think, without just working on it. I think maybe if I were a better interviewer, which is ironic because I run a company called interviewing.io, but if I were a better interviewer maybe I could suss out some of these things through a series of very intensive top grading behavioral interviews.
For me, the best thing to do is just get in a room, be like, “Let’s build this part of the product together. Let’s design it together,” and then it comes out very, very quickly if you’re not aligned on things.
And you don’t always have to be, but then is it constructive when you disagree? Can you communicate well? Can you limit the communication overhead? How many words do you need to explain things to each other?
That’s basically a relationship. That’s like a romantic relationship without the romance.
Yes, exactly right. Or maybe you’re both in love with a product rather than with each other.
There you go. You both love your baby.
Yeah, it’s like a weird three-way.
It’s a love triangle.
Or maybe with your users. Maybe you should be in love with your users and the product. It’s too complicated now.
It’s getting out of hand, Aline. It’s like a love square now.
Yeah, we don’t need that.
So I think with interviewing.io, it’s obvious to me why software engineers love this. I mean, if you had told me ten years ago, “Hey, you can do free anonymous interviews online” -- is it free for engineers?
Yeah, of course. Of course, it has to be.
Okay. “Yeah, you can do free anonymous interviews,” I would have signed up in a jiffy, because I get to save face. I get to practice my interviewing skills, get better. I might even get a job out of it.
The other side is probably much harder, because you’re dealing with probably a lot of engineers who aren’t that competent to go through the normal channels, who aren’t already getting interviews. As a company, maybe you don’t really do business with interviewing.io because it’s this weird new thing. How did you get your first few customers to sign up from the business hiring side of things?
Thank you for asking. The first few were harder than the last few. Our pitch to companies is basically, “Hey do you want to talk to some randos off the internet without knowing who they are, and put eng time into it?”
You can imagine how that pitch can raise some eyebrows. Of course, that’s not literally what we say, but that’s what people internalize. So we explain how it works. We say, “Look. Resumes are stupid.” And increasingly, in the climate that we’re in, fortunately more and more companies are bought into this idea that a resume is not the source of truth. So that’s been to our advantage, and I’ve written a lot about resumes. That’s also helped things move along.
But honestly, for the first few customers that we landed, we had to let them try it out. Now the proof really was in the pudding there, because they would talk to a few of our candidates, and then they’d be like, “Holy shit. This is so much better than the people we’re getting through our other channels and certainly better than the people that maybe even we’re sourcing ourselves.” Because when you’re sourcing, you’re looking at the same signals everybody else is, so there’s no opportunity to arbitrage anything.
Our employers would basically talk to a few candidates. We’d do free pilots where maybe they would talk to four to six, and then after that, they’d see that most of those candidates are ones they wanted to engage with. In a typical good hiring process, maybe 20 to 25% of candidates make it from the technical screen to the onsite, and that’s on top of spending 10 hours a candidate to source them and then having to do recruiter calls before you know if the candidate is good. So you’re really investing a lot of time and then only about a fifth or a quarter of people actually make it through to the next step.
In our case, it’s around 70%, and you don’t have to spend any time sourcing. So we save something like 200 eng hours -- sorry, 200 recruiting hours per hire and something like 15 to 20 eng hours. So it’s nontrivial, and once people got their heads around that, they were generally very committed.
The other thing is, especially if you’re thinking about starting a business where you want people to try your product, think about how your pricing can reflect that. Fortunately in our case, at the beginning we were charging these per-hire fees, and companies were already used to this idea of paying a recruiter only if they made a hire. So it was de-risked, and the pricing model was something that was already familiar to them. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. You know what’s fascinating to me is that usually when you see an industry as crowded as the one that you’re in, recruiting and hiring and job placement, you see prices get driven down.
You see a lot of people coming in and saying things like, “Hey, you’re charging 20% of the first-year salary? I’ll charge 15% to place an engineer.” Or, “Hey, I’ll do it for a flat fee, $5,000.00 a head.” Why hasn’t that happened here? Why are you able to charge as much as you do?
It’s moving in that direction. It’s gotten a little more commoditized. These days, most of our revenue is coming not from these per-hire fees, but from large flat fee deals.
We’ll approach a company. They’ll try us out. They’ll talk to a few candidates, see that those candidates are a good, and then they’ll generally pay us for a year of candidates up front, which ends up being about 50% cheaper than paying us per hire, ala carte. So exactly what you describe is what’s happening.
But the other thing that I’ve seen, that aside, is I think the reason it isn’t as extreme as you describe is that companies are hurting so badly for engineers that price generally is just not a friction point when you’re selling. If you can promise people that you can get really good butts in seats quickly, they’re willing to pay a premium for it.
So you said something earlier that really resonated with me, and that’s that with interviewing.io, it felt like you’d been handed a gift, and you knew that in the hands of a very capable person, the gift would be taken to fruition, but it’s in your hands. And you’ve got to be that capable person and you’ve got to be the one who makes this company work.
I think that’s something that a lot of founders can identify with. I identify with it. What are some of the best decisions you’ve made since starting that have helped you get to where you are today, where you’re making millions in revenue, where you’ve got thousands of engineers that you’re helping to finding jobs, and where you actually do feel like you’re the right person for this?
I think most of my good decisions have been the people I’ve hired. None of this would be possible if it were still just me. It’s been unreal. Every time I look at -- I’m sitting in an office that has a glass window and I’m looking out onto the office right now, and I’m just looking at the people that work here, and why the hell are they here? They could be anywhere, all of them. All of them could be anywhere and they could be making more money. It’s crazy to me, and I’m just so grateful that people that are really good are willing to put their time into this.
I guess the thing I’m most proud of, and I think one thing that I did do well is create a business model where doing good is the thing that gets you paid. And I think that’s rare. In our case, we’re trying to build this efficient marketplace, and the more efficient it is, that means, hopefully, the more -- not hopefully, definitely, the more meritocratic it is.
In hiring, efficiency is defined by, are you hiring the right people for the right jobs? So the best people just -- the more you can place the best people in the right opportunities, the more efficient you. And then, by extension, the more money you’re making.
So that’s crazy. You don’t have to do mental gymnastics to be like, “Oh, we’re doing this thing,” and then through some Rube Goldberg machine, eventually some good will happen in the world. It’s like no, this is a very, very direct A to B journey, and I’m so happy that that is true, and I’m just happy that the people that work here see it.
I don’t have a ton of experience hiring people. A lot of people listening in right now are fledgling founders or aspiring founders who are very soon going to have to start making hiring decisions. We’re probably going to do a lot of things wrong. What are some things we can do to get it right the way that you have?
I’ve messed up a lot. People think that just because I know stuff about hiring that it’s easy for me. It’s not. I’ve made some bad hiring decisions. I’ve let people go. People have left. These things happen. It sucks. They do.
But I think one piece of advice that I would give, especially to new founders, is to remember that if you’re trying to hire software engineers, in the market that we’re operating in, hiring is not a vetting process as much as a selling process. People don’t have to work for you.
So from the moment you engage with somebody, maybe you’re sourcing them. You’re writing to them saying, “Hey, come work for me.” Maybe you’re interviewing them. Make sure that every time you interact, you’re adding value for them and you’re giving them a reason why your company is awesome.
When you interview people, if you’re fortunate to even get people to talk to you, think about what kinds of questions you can ask them that don’t just vet their ability to write code, but also showcase why the problems you’re solving are interesting and unique.
So try to ask them cool, real-world stuff. Take them to lunch. Spend a lot of time with them. Care about what they care about and weave a narrative where the disparate path they’ve had up until this point culminates perfectly in working for you. And if you can’t tell that narrative, maybe they’re not the right person.
Also, don’t be afraid of saying no to a hire if it doesn’t feel right. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure. You’re like, “Shit, I need somebody working right away. I’m drowning.” If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.
Okay. So let’s get back to talking about how you grew interviewing.io from something small into what it is today. And specifically, I want to talk about the sales side of things, you calling up companies and convincing them to take a chance on you, to trust they’re hiring process to you basically.
I know in the early days you were doing a lot of demos, a lot of trial periods and just hoping that people would choose to use you after they saw that it worked. I imagine things have changed a lot since then. So what are the biggest milestones in how your sales process has evolved?
You know, it depends on the size of the company. If we’re piloting with some huge brand, we’re going to bend over backwards. We’ll do whatever. “Okay. Try as many candidates as you want.” I’m exaggerating a little bit, because eventually we do want to get paid.
But I don't know. It hasn’t changed that, that much. Certainly, I remember the first time I made a deck to sell. Most of the selling -- when I was the only one doing selling, most of the selling I was doing was just trying to have coffee with people and just doing a demo -- well, of course listening to their needs first and then showing them the parts of the product that I thought spoke to their needs.
But then eventually you get to the point where you have collateral and different decks and different decks for different audiences. Your sales process matures. Eventually, one of the milestones for us was hiring a customer success person, where we have enough enterprise brands that work with us now, that are used to a certain white-glove, high-touch experience.
One of the guys that works for me whose job wasn’t even to do sales. He was mostly doing marketing and product, he and I were just running around playing whack-a-mole, trying to pretend that we had a customer success department. We were just running ourselves ragged, and it wasn’t good for anybody.
So making that hire was great, because we put on our big boy pants at that point. And I was like, okay. Okay. We have a person who’s dedicated to making sure that customers are getting value out of the product.
Other things that changed, early on. I keep talking about how there’s practice and then there are real interviews. Early on, we didn’t have that. Everything was just one big pool. So some people were there as practice interviewers. Some people were there as candidates. And then we also told companies, “You can just hang out in this pool and you’ll be matched with people, and hopefully they’ll want to work for you, and you can just sell them.”
So every interview was practice until it wasn’t. It was this Ender’s Game situation, where it’s like -- oh, shit. I just ruined Ender’s Game for everybody. I’m sorry.
I’ll cut this out. That’s what I’ll do.
Don’t cut it out. It’s funny. I want to ruin it.
I know you do, Aline. I know you’re not sorry.
No, I’m not sorry at all. I hope this whole exchange stays in. So it was just this one big pool, and one thing we learned from talking to our bigger customers and from listening to some of their interviews on our platform after the fact was that they did not want to have to sell that hard, because they were leaning on their brand.
If you have some big brand, you should be able to leverage that. So then we changed up our product. We had a practice pool, and then for our bigger customers, candidates could sign up. That was a big turning point for us.
Another big turning point was getting into subscription pricing, so stopping just doing per-hire fees, and making it so companies just paid us some flat fee for some number of candidates. That increased our revenue 6x over the span of a quarter or two. It was crazy.
Woah. That’s nuts.
So there’s a lot of advice floating out there for founders. We’ve talk about it a little bit this episode. We’ve talked about starting small and iterating. There’s also do things that don’t scale. Talk to your customers, et cetera. Is there any advice that’s common for founders out there that you don’t think you follow, that you just skipped over, and things were still pretty much fine?
There are a few things. I don't know if this is controversial or not, but I don’t agree that you should be doing a lot of management early on in your growth. If you find yourself doing a lot of people management when you’re five people, six people, seven people, you’re probably doing something wrong or you hired the wrong people.
When you’re hiring this early, you should find people that can figure out what to do, and it’s your job to communicate constraints and goals to them. And then you just want to set them loose on those constraints and goals.
Doesn’t mean that you don’t check in with them. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t helpful. But ultimately, if you’re looking over their shoulder all the time, either you’re doing it wrong or they’re doing it wrong, or you’re both doing it wrong.
Another thing is, people talk a lot about having a ton of different perspectives. If you have people that work for you that fundamentally aren’t aligned with your mission and don’t fit into the culture, it’s bad, especially early on. And this may be a bit controversial, because you do want to be encouraging of discussion and you want people to suggest things.
But fundamentally, everybody has to be marching in the same direction, and if they’re not it’s going to kill you. It’s exhausting. We had some friction at interviewing.io, for instance, where externally, people often think that we are first and foremost a platform that’s dedicated to diversity and inclusion. And we certainly believe in both of those things, but that is first and foremost not what we do.
We believe in talent being evenly distributed. We believe in surfacing it, and we believe in giving great people opportunity. But we don’t specialize specifically in creating opportunities for women or people of color. We’re just going to try to make hiring less bad for everybody, and we hope that that ends up creating a more inclusive environment and that anonymity is something that’s useful for people that feel marginalized.
But we’re not a DNI platform. There are cases where people at the company wanted us to go in that direction, and that’s not something that I wanted to do. So fundamentally it’s important that everybody has their eye on the same North Star.
Okay. We’ve talked about some of the things that have gone right with your business, some of the decisions that you’re proud of. What are some of the things that have gone wrong, where if you could go back in time, you would change them? And also, in the present, what obstacles lie between where interviewing.io is today and where it could theoretically be, where it’s the only solution that any company uses for hiring?
I think the main thing that’s stopping us from being the only source of candidates for companies is our candidate supply. It’s really hard to run a two-sided marketplace, because you’ve got a balance, in our case the number of candidates and the number of open roles in companies.
Keeping those balanced is really difficult. A lot of my job is running back and forth between those two sides, where I’m like, “Okay, shit. It looks like we’re running out of candidates. Alright. How do we turn that up? Oh, shit. Okay. Now we have a surplus of candidates and I need to go back out and sell or I’ve got to empower other people to sell.”
I wish I were better at that stuff because it’s really, really hard to keep things balanced, and I think that maybe if we were more aggressive and just went all in on getting a ton of candidates and then said, “Screw it. We’re going to find the companies later,” maybe that would be a better way to do it. I just try to keep things balanced, and that may not be the best way to do things, but so far, it’s worked. It’s worked okay for us.
Another thing that I think I did wrong is that it just took me way too long to get started. After I put up that -- and this maybe will be poignant to your audience. Don’t make this mistake. I put up that marketing site. We got all those signups, and then it took me months to mobilize because I was terrified. I wish that I just found a cofounder or just went for it myself the next day in retrospect instead of just sitting being like, “What do I do, what do I do? I’ve been handed this gift and I’m going to screw it up.”
What finally got you over the edge to actually start moving?
I just got really angry at myself is the honest answer, like “What are you doing? What are you doing, you stupid piece of shit, just --” You know what’s worse than doing the wrong thing is doing nothing. It sounds so trite but coming to that conclusion yourself can take time.
There’s a lot of stuff like that where you just have to have that raw emotional experience on your own, and somebody can tell you the answer. Somebody can be like, “Aline, here’s what you need to do,” tell you what to do. You can read it in a blog post or a book. You could listen to it on a podcast like this. But it won’t really resonate with you and make a difference until you actually struggle through it on your own and come out the other side.
And you did come out the other side. You are now running a team. It’s no longer just you struggling by yourself to get something done. I’m curious how your role has changed since then on a day-to-day level. You could still be getting your hands dirty with everything. You could be sitting back and making high-level decisions about sales and increasing the supply of developers. You could be delegating a lot of the stuff as well. So what’s the balance like for you today?
I mentioned earlier, we brought on a customer success person who’s under the sales umbrella and that’s made my life a lot better. We’ve also brought on our first actual salesperson, which has made my life better already.
I guess a lot of my day-to-day is thinking, like, generally as a founder you’re spending time hiring always, or you’re thinking about when you need to do more hiring. One of my favorite things about my job is writing, doing content marketing. Our blog has been such a great channel of users for us, and it’s also been great for me because I get to write about things I care about.
Most of our blog, if you check it out -- of course I’m going to plug it. It’s blog.interviewing.io -- is about data in interviewing. So how deterministic are technical interviews? How consistently do people perform from interview to interview? What happens when you make women sound like men in interviews and vice versa? How does that affect outcomes? What matters in your coding style when it comes to technical interview outcomes? Does it really matter if you write super modular code or not?
We’ve examined all of these questions and a ton more. We’ve looked at what traits make people better interviewers, and this is like my favorite thing. I guess if I could just sit in a cave all day and write, maybe I would. Fortunately, I can’t do that but to this day, because I really enjoy doing it, I still do it, though fortunately other people on the team are now doing it as well.
I do a lot of high-level product vision stuff, like what should we be focusing on? What should our voice be? What features are going to get us the most bang for our buck without as much work? Although again, I’m trying to work myself out of jobs in all of these and we have great people that work for me now that think about the details of that and they probably do it much better than I do.
And then, of course, fund raising is something you generally have to do all the time as a founder, whether you’re actively raising or thinking about raising or thinking about what metrics are going to matter for your next raise. It’s always in the back of your mind.
What’s the future look like for interviewing.io? At what point are you done, and at what point are you happy?
I’ll be happy when hiring is fair. That may never happen. I also may never be happy. I don't know. I really love what we do now, and I just want to do it as long as it feels like it’s fruitful and it feels like we’re moving the hiring world in the right direction.
People have asked me about whether I see an acquisition in our future at some point, and my answer to that is always, “If it’s a partner that shares our vision for hiring being fair and if they can amplify our efforts and if we believe in the way that that partner has done things to date, then we’d be very excited.”
I would love to be in a position where we’re figuring out what makes people good at stuff, and no matter who people are, we just can put them in front of the right opportunities, then I’d feel fulfilled. But short of having a bunch of resources and a partner that’s going to do that, I think we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and try to do more of it.
Sounds good to me.
I’ve kept you long enough, Aline. It’s a tradition that at the end of every episode I ask you what your advice is for people listening in. We’ve got an audience full of people who are primarily but not exclusively software developers, working fulltime jobs, and a lot of them are considering starting a company, considering starting a startup of their own. What’s your advice to somebody in that position, Aline?
I think you should just dip your toe in the water. Figure out -- you know, sometimes you think you’re sitting on the best idea ever and if only you had the fortitude to get out there and do it, then everything would be great.
The fact is, whatever idea you have is probably going to be very -- either it’s wrong or even if it’s right it’s going to change a lot, so you don’t have to be so attached to that particular idea and put all your eggs in that basket, but if you do think that you’re on to something, find a way to try it out.
In our case, it was putting up that marketing site and seeing if anybody signs up. That’s not the solution to everything. Some businesses are much more complicated than just putting up a marketing site saying, “Join our waiting list,” but many businesses aren’t.
Think like, what is that core idea that you have and how can you validate it very, very fast? And then if it looks like there’s something there, then go all in. But I think just seeing some encouragement from the world where somehow the world says back to you, “I want your idea,” is going to be very fulfilling and is going to make it easier to take that plunge. But before you take the plunge, you can just dip your toe in the water.
“Dip your toe in the water.” You heard it here first. Aline, my pleasure, as always, talking to you. So glad you came on the podcast.
Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to with interviewing.io and what’s going on in your personal life as well if you share that sort of thing online?
Well, you can go to interviewing.io. You asked me the stuff I did wrong. I think there’s a blessing and a curse when your name is also a domain name, but that is the name of our company and that is where you go. Please check out our blog and if anybody has questions about starting a company or hiring or anything, you can email me at Aline, A-L-I-N-E, @interviewing.io.
All right. Thanks so much, Aline.
Thanks, Courtland. You’re the best.
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