James Mayes

Blog: Have you tried hiring a failure?

In Investment, Mobile, Personal Development, Recruitment, Social Media, Start-ups on March 7, 2011 at 11:59 am

Being a veteran recruiter, I enjoyed those heady days of the dotcom boom – the activity, the buzz of the market and yes, the money was good too.  There’s one particular recruitment story that stays with me from that time though – and as we’re in the middle of what some would describe as a similar boom, this time with Social Media tech sites, it’s been back on my mind.

Back then, one of my clients was a start-up firm in London.  They were building something around mobile payment technology,  had a great technical team and finance in place.  However, they weren’t that hot on the operational aspects of running a business.  I had a great relationship with the CTO & CEO and over lunch, we got talking about the next big hire they wanted – a highly experienced Operations person, potentially to become COO.

The specification was fairly simple – involvement in finances, some business development, business planning, staffing – generally keeping the company in good trim.  Then it got interesting though….  they wanted a failure. They were specifically looking for someone who’d been involved in start-up life, preferably on more than one occasion, and had a demonstrable track record of working in failed businesses.


They reasoned that if a business succeeded, it could have been down to great staff. Equally, it could have been down to timing, market conditions, lack of competition, luck…

If any of these things had been the key factor, it’s probable the business would have succeeded, to some extent or other, with very little personal analysis of why that had happened.  With a failure though, reasons are often so much clearer – making it easier to ascertain what an individual had actually learnt.

For sure, you can hire someone who’s been a success AND been smart enough to define why it was successful – but will they have experienced (and learnt) as much as someone who’s been through the pain?

I’m sure there are differences of opinion on this one – for me though, it’s always good to see another perspective! By the way – if you enjoyed this one, I wrote a post a while back on the subject of Educating for Failure – you might appreciate that too…

Image credit.

  1. James,

    Interesting scenario and I can see the reasons behind but how would you ‘market’ a candidate who in effect has failed???

  2. Here you go, here’s you candidate.
    I came out in September to Sweden to manager the business as CEO for at least the next 2 years. Within weeks I realised that the debts they had incurred here (over the last 12 months) were just too much. I quickly learnt Swedish law, put the company into reconstruction (Swedish process) & we have just liquidated the business (last Tuesday). The learning curve has been immense – how to keep a motivated team around me for one, Swedish law; managing as a cash only business; creditors expectations you name it I’ve done it & in a challenging culture.
    My challenge now is how to turn that into a positive on my CV? Answers please?

    Great blog also, by the way!

    • Sounds like a real baptism of fire – but you learnt so much, in such a pressure-cooker environment. I’d say from here, you need to take two angles. Firstly, your own CV & online profiles need to shout about the experience you’ve been through. What you walked into, how quickly you gathered information to make the right decision and, as you say, how you managed to take the staff with you on that journey.

      Secondly, I’d your experience is rare. If it were me, I’d be thinking of ways to target companies or partners who could really benefit from that experience. For example, are there management consultancy or accountancy operations in Sweden who specialise in turning round companies in this situation, or undertaking salvage operations?

      Just my thoughts… but thanks ever so much for stopping by to comment and share your experience. I’m no longer an active recruiter, but come find me on LinkedIn or Twitter, happy to help in any way I can! Links on the blog side bar, I’m easy to find!

      • Hi
        Thank you for replying – much appreciated.
        I’m coming back to the UK so the Sweden option is not viable.
        However I am seriously considering setting up some sort of consultancy business that specialises in this to support companies avoid the situation or administrators to gain maximum asset value.
        I’ve sent you a link request on linkedin & added you to twitter. Anything else you can think of, Id really appreciate it.

    • Hi Beki,

      I think there might be a few people in my company (http://www.resourcesglobal.com/) who might be interested in your experiences. Please feel free to email your CV to me on robert.nunn@resources-uk.com

      Good blog post James btw!


  3. Wow what a big ask. Whatever mistakes we have made in our careers, I’m pretty certain we wouldn’t dwell on this in a public way. The interesting challenge in this one is to define failure and then to find someone who is candid enough to fill those shoes. Mission impossible?

  4. Interesting post James. I think the salient point is to ask yourself whether or not the company failed in spite of the individual, not because of them. I must admit that we don’t tend to (knowingly) hire people that have “failed”.

    • Absolutely, that’s got to be important. I think the point to my original client story was that they knew dotcom companies often went pop, even though good people were involved – clearly big difference between that, and the person that actually caused the business to fail!

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