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OpenAI has always had a lofty mission: To ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI) benefits every person on the planet.

The team started as a handful of researchers gathered in CTO Greg Brockman’s apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. They weren’t driven by the promise of equity, or even lucrative business prospects — OpenAI started as a non-profit. Instead, they were united by a shared vision of creating something transformative for humanity by achieving revolutionary breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, has described AI as “the most transformative and beneficial technology humanity has yet invented,” a belief which underscores their hiring philosophy.

In a startup world obsessed with speed, OpenAI’s approach might look unconventional. For them, it’s not just about filling positions quickly. It’s about curating a team that embodies the mission and vision to drive unprecedented innovation — even if that takes a little more time.

No startup should compromise on ensuring the vision resonates deeply with each person they hire, even for the sake of hiring quickly. For startup founders, this means recalibrating priorities. You have to recognize that the true catalyst for growth is balancing fast hiring with thoughtful hiring.

OpenAI’s hiring philosophy is what separates fleeting startups from enduring institutions — those who build with intention for the long haul.

Ideological alignment is mission-critical.

From its early days, OpenAI has touted a lofty, altruistic mission — they want to create open access to artificial general intelligence (AGI) that benefits all of humanity. Given this, it’s not surprising that they’ve always focused on hiring people who are fully bought in.

This has always been the case for OpenAI, even if it takes a little longer to find the right person. In an interview with Wired, Altman talked about how it wasn’t easy to find qualified people on board with their mission:

“Back in 2015, when we were recruiting, it was almost considered a career killer for an AI researcher to say that you took AGI seriously. But I wanted people who took it seriously.”

Most companies have a very myopic view of what a “great person” looks like. It’s an engineer who has a CS degree from Stanford. It’s a potential founding account executive that has an extensive network of C-level contacts in the tech industry. Of course these are excellent qualifications. But you simply can’t understate the importance of hiring people who truly believe in your mission regardless of what your mission is.

If you’re building a CRM or some other B2B enterprise software, you might not find a ton of candidates for whom your mission deeply resonates. But you should absolutely prioritize hiring individuals who can find some “magic” in your product. Regardless of the role, you want people who genuinely understand and believe in your mission and what you’re offering.

A marketing manager needs to seamlessly weave it into their messaging. Customer success teams must grasp customer needs within the framework of your product’s core values. Engineers need to collaborate with product teams to ensure that all updates and improvements align with the product's ultimate goals.

If you look at the LinkedIn profiles of employees at mission-driven companies like SpaceX, Aurora, and Palantir, you’ll see that a lot of them have multi-year tenures, commonly more than four years. People at these companies tend to have an ideological alignment with the thing that they’re building, and they end up sticking around for the long haul. This is what every startup should embody in their hiring process.

90% of startups fail — and one major reason is because most companies get this wrong. They hire people solely for their skills and not for how much they care. And according to Sam Altman, “If you don’t get [hiring those first ten employees] right, the company basically never recovers.”

Here’s how to approach your hiring process so you’re spending the time it takes to get the right people to propel you forward.

Don’t hire someone whose job you’ve never done

This is something you’re already acutely aware of. When you’re starting out with a really lean team, you and your co-founders are the only ones performing all the essential functions of the company, from fundraising to engineering to operations to sales and marketing.

Except a lot of companies don’t actually do this. So many founders rely on their first hires to fill the roles they don’t want to or don’t know how to do themselves. But if you don’t know how to sell your product, for example, how are you going to know who to hire to sell it? As Altman says, “The classic example of this is a hacker-CEO deciding to hire a VP of Sales because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. This does not work. He needs to do it himself first and learn it in detail.”

Gain a deep understanding of the challenges of each role

Consider this time of “wearing many hats” to be foundational to a hiring program that is set up to choose the right people for the job. Spending time learning the difficulties of the role you’re hiring for, especially the ones unique to your company, is the only way to confidently identify the talent that is going to know how to solve those problems better than you can.

Documenting the specific challenges you faced is a good way to set yourself up to be impressed by candidates. You will probably have a high-level sense of what was particularly challenging about the role. But if you can get really granular about your experience and a candidate knows exactly how they would have approached a situation differently, you’ll have a much better sense of if they’re suited for the role.

Use a 60-minute interview to learn something new

Pretty much anyone who’s done a job long enough can create a resume to make them look effective in the role. They can likely talk the talk in an interview, too.

Altman says, “It’s amazing how often people are willing to forgo these requirements; predictably, those hires don’t work out in the early days of a startup (they may never work).”toi

That’s because too often, the interview process is a Q&A about the resume, rather than an exploration of the candidate’s viewpoints, approaches, and capabilities. And at worst, the same interview happens with each employee a candidate talks to.

The ultimate goal should be to avoid over-indexing on existing expertise. In its early days, OpenAI embraced “the blessing of inexperience” — the idea that if you don’t know something is going to be hard, you’ll be more likely to try it and succeed. (Ramp is another company that takes this approach.) You need candidates who are optimistic and who are unlikely to be deterred by a challenge, and it takes time to find those people.

To do so, Altman suggests, “Go deep in a specific area and ask about what the candidate actually did—it’s easy to take credit for a successful project.”

But how deep can you actually go in, say, a 60 minute interview? You can’t find out everything about a candidate, but that’s a lot of time to learn about one thing.

Imagine going on an 30 min walk with the candidate where all you do is talk about a single project they accomplished. Get deeply curious — take the opportunity to learn something about their approach rather than find proof that they’re qualified. Ask them what impact they hoped to have with the project and if they felt they succeeded. Why was that impact important to them? What was so hard about the project? What was the most memorable aspect of the project? When did they feel discouraged, and what did they do? Whatever path you go down, stay curious and drill deeper to get a better sense of their true thought process.

An approach like this might feel like a waste of time, and it might feel like you’re not going to get everything you want out of a candidate. But that’s also the idea. If you’re confined to a specific set of questions that the candidate has likely prepared answers for, you’re severely limiting yourself. With an open-ended approach, not only will you learn more about the candidate’s viewpoints specific to their role, but you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to work through something with them.

How to think through the logistics of your hiring process

There’s nothing more annoying to a candidate than a hiring process that feels half-assed. And it’s even worse if it’s alienating candidates who have a real potential to make a positive impact on your company. And, by taking the time to think thoroughly through the logistics of your hiring strategy, you’ll inevitably hire people who are a better fit for your company.

Hire them first — then decide

Consider adopting a strategy that Altman has been known to employ: hiring candidates on a contract basis before making a permanent decision. Then you can assess their work quality and fit within your team dynamics without committing to a lengthy interview process. As Altman puts it,

"You’ll get a much, much better sense of what it’s like working with this person and how good she is at the role than you can ever get in just an interview. And she’ll get a feel for what working at your company is like."

Like with a lot of these approaches, this one might feel like a longer time commitment, but in actuality, you’re more likely to learn a lot quicker if someone is not a fit. Assign them a few projects so you can get a feel for their capabilities but also see how they are to work with. This way, you’ll not only see the quality of their work, but you’ll get a very real sense of what it’s like to work with them — and you’ll get some projects done sooner. It’s not a huge commitment if it doesn’t work out. It’s win-win.

A good recruitment strategy takes up a lot of your time. In a blog post written just a couple of years before OpenAI was founded, Altman said:

“After you figure out your vision and get product-market fit, you should probably be spending between a third and a half of your time hiring. It sounds crazy, and there will always be a ton of other work, but it’s the highest-leverage thing you can do, and great companies always, always have great people.”

That’s a ton of time — and working with a recruiter can help optimize it. Yes, recruiters work for you, but they are skilled for a reason — take the time to talk them through what you want to achieve with a hire. They're excellent listeners and can help you figure out what you need, probably better than you can. A great recruiter can offer perspectives that may shift your understanding of the role and help you identify what you’re really looking for.

Always be hiring — even when you’re not

Founders need to get out of their heads the idea that when you come up short on a certain task or skill that that is the time to begin the hiring process. Altman says founders need to view recruiting “as something you always do, not something you start when you need to fill a role immediately.”

You should always be on the lookout for people who can contribute more to your company’s success than you can. And even if you’re not looking to hire for a specific role at the moment, don’t miss out on excellent people just because they don’t fit what you think you need. Founders should think like Rippling, who focuses on hiring people for their inherent aptitude, not for their fit within roles the company has defined.

This takes more of your time overall, but by casting a wide net, you’re increasing your chances of finding the right people for the company, even if that means finding them a little earlier than you had anticipated.

That said, it’s important to make sure you can define the value any new hire will add. Don’t just hire people because you think it’s time to — or as mentioned before, because you haven’t done the work to understand what’s needed in a particular function.

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