Recruiting lessons to be learned from Tesla


For high growth startups recruiting is literally the lifeblood of the company. In the many startups I’ve been involved in my deep experience and expertise enabled me to hire numerous “A” players to helped our companies succeed. But today, about a decade after my last venture capital funded startup the competition for engineers, scientists, and top gun sales and marketing talents is fierce, as the barriers to entry for starting a company have dropped by at least an order of magnitude.

How do you win the brutal competition to hire and retain top drawer talent? There are a number of excellent lessons embedded the The Wall Street Journal article Tesla Is the Hot Spot for Young Job Seekers. As usual, the Journal’s editors do a superb job of adding
sub-titles to their headlines that summarize the article takeaways in a single sentence: Despite long hours and frenetic pace, a job at Elon Musk’s electric-car company is a career break many idealistic engineers find impossible to pass up.

Here are the lessons every fast growing startup should pay attention to, though not all will be within your reach:


As in real estate, startups are all about three things: location, location, and location. In this case location is Silicon Valley. Despite serious efforts being made to catch up by other metro areas Silicon Valley dominates the start up world like the New England Patriots dominate the NFL; both are perennial winners. If you can’t move to the Valley then shoot for another hot startup area: Boston, New York City, Austin, Boulder, and L.A. to name a few.

A magnetic founder

Elon Musk is a generational talent. Your odds of being another Musk or partnering with someone like him are nil and none. However, having a charismatic front man is highly valuable, especially when that front man is a woman. Sigrid Reddy, one was one of those charismatic leaders that everyone loved to follow.  The first charismatic front man I knew in the tech world was Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, developers of 1-2-3. Mitch was highly confident, personable, funny, and magnetic – people were attracted to him. If you are an introverted engineer look for an extroverted founder. I always played Mr. Inside to Miss or Mr. Outside and that division of roles and focus worked well.

Work on a product that has both market and social impact

Not only are Tesla’s cars beautiful, incredibly fast, and economical to operate they are the spearhead of breaking away from employing polluting fossil fuel as fuel. Like have a truly charismatic founder, having a double bottom line of profit and social impact is very rare and hard to achieve. But as I used to tell my teams if they complained about how hard their tasks were, “Look, if it was easy everyone would be doing it. It’s really hard and we need your talent to do it.”

Per yesterday’s post, the company needs to have many short term measurable goals, leavened with ample feedback. Tesla sets weekly production goals which keep ramping up. This pace can wear out many people, while others find it exhilarating. The art of the startup is creating stretch goals, not impossible- to-meet goals.

A simple and compelling mission 

Mission equals the company’s reason for being, its purpose. Tesla’s Accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy is a fantastic mission in several ways:

  • It’s short, simple, and in plain English
  • Like all great missions, it can never be fully achieved, it will continue to drive the company throughout its life
  • Social benefit is built in
  • The mission global in scope, not confined to a single country or a single industry

Tesla’s stated mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy appeals to many of its 45,000 workers, some of whom are willing to work 100-hour weeks and eschew the common perks of tech companies, such as free food. Instead, some employees say, they run on adrenaline, stock options and a shared passion with the company’s leader to change the world.

I used to joke with my teams that adrenaline was my drug of choice until I discovered endorphins generated by swimming a mile of crawl, that is.

Ship your products and upgrade them frequently

I still remember asking Ray Ozzie, then a newly hired engineer at Software Arts, later a superstar developer and Microsoft’s  Chief Technical Officer and Chief Software Architect why he joined Software Arts, then a small startup from Data General, then a mainstay of the Route 128 minicomputer companies. His response startled me: “I worked on half a dozen products at DG and none of them ever shipped!”

“What really attracts young people to Tesla is instant gratification,” Kiran Karunakaran said. “You see these incredible things you’ve worked on come to fruition, on the road, in months,” he said.

In my experience engineers thrive on both peer recognition and seeing their products being used by millions of people. If you can offer the opportunity for both you’ll be able to out-recruit behemoths like Apple and Google.

Empower your employees to make a difference than makes a difference

Do away with middle management and provide clear paths to the company’s decision makers for everyone, not just senior managers:

Partway through the summer, Ms. Atluri (and intern) spotted a way to tweak a step in the manufacturing line that she thought might speed up production. She put together a PowerPoint presentation for the rest of the team and, encouraged by the response, she suggested following up the next week with management to discuss implementing the change.

“They were like, why not just try it tomorrow?” she said. The process changed the next day, and within a week the line was running more efficiently, she said.

Keep everyone busy and engaged

Boredom and slack time are poisonous for top talent that want to be on the playing field every day, not sitting on the bench watching others play. Soon after entering the high tech startup world I learned I would never finish my work each day, which taught me to prioritize. While at times I was terrified I was never bored. In fact once I started recruiting I always told candidates, “I’m not going to make you a lot of promises about joining our company, but I guarantee you will never be bored.” Such is the case at Tesla:

“Everybody should have more work than they can possibly finish at all times,” the person said. “It forces the person to draw the line on when they give up—when they say, I’m done for the day. At Tesla you have to achieve some kind of comfort knowing you didn’t do it all.”

So while you are highly unlikely to have a founder like Elon Musk or to achieve what he has there’s no excuse for not emulating their best practices. If you are going to shoot, why not aim for the moon?

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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