Interview the interviewer:
Angel investor Adam Quinton talks hiring, bias, and one surprising conclusion
with Adam Quinton // @adamquinton
Part two: An angel investor interviews outside the box
Adam Quinton is a former investment banker, current Adjunct Professor at Columbia, and angel investor. We’re thrilled that he was able to sit down with our staff sociologist Liz Kofman for a discussion on hiring and bias so wide-ranging, we are publishing it in three parts!
LK: In our last conversation we were talking about attitudes and entrepreneurs. How does your review of companies compare with how you’d interview someone in your previous financial services roles?
AQ: Well in traditional interviews you’re typically looking at how someone fits into an existing and/or well defined role, so you know what technical skills and experiences your questions need to focus on to fit the person into an already well-defined box. Whereas in a startup context it’s much different because you’re not even really interviewing the person at all—it’s not like you have power over them to give them the job. In many ways they have more power over you. Unless you’re going to be a very large investor, any investor including a VC taking a typical VC stake is only going to have modest influence over the company in reality, so it’s not what I’d call an interview at all!
But it’s also fundamentally different in the sense your mission as an entrepreneur is to make something “big” (that hopefully I can get the chance to invest in) and that returns a lot of money. But the exact path from here-to-there is not well defined at all. How you execute, everything about it is very flexible, especially for very early stage companies, and often notwithstanding the confident pitch that we’re going to be a billion-dollar company because of X reason, the reality is that how you get there now is going to be very different in practice than how you said you would get there. There’s a lot more ambiguity I think, and it becomes less a question of the person’s technical skills and more to do with their softer skills. By definition any startup is doing something that’s not been done before—otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it—so because of that there’s no ready at-hand checklist that tells you whether someone is the right person for the job. And that means that it’s much more ambiguous.
LK: I see what you’re saying—you’re forced to interview people for whom there’s no job description, so instead of looking for competencies you have to rely on gut feel when you’re deciding if someone’s right or not. But that “gut feel” sounds like it could easily open the door for our tendency to stereotype and our bias for individuals that are “like me”?
AQ: Yes I think that you’re totally correct in that analysis Liz! Because of the level of ambiguity and uncertainty—not because people are bad— you’re basically at high risk of defaulting to or be more subject to “pattern recognition”. I’m not judging founders on the same set of well-defined criteria, but rather: Does this person fit my general perspective of what’s right for this role? Do you “look like” the people I know who have done this before and been successful. And that’s pretty much the definition of a stereotype. The aspects of pattern recognition that plays into that: age, gender, educational background or whatever, means that stereotypically you are going to be very impressed and swayed by someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, maybe even down to the hoodie! That “like me” bias is going to come into play unless you consciously act to short circuit it. To the extent that on the investing side you do have a lot of guys and a lot of former entrepreneurs, all people who have just been doing it for awhile and have seen those previous models play out no surprises that men get much more access to VC funding than women founders. So the inevitable end result of likes like and invests in like … without conscious intervention to try and correct for the impact of the unconscious bias that stereotyping represents.
LK: Do you have any strategies you use for mitigating this potential bias in some way?
AQ: Well to my mind there are number of ways you can be more methodical about how you approach an opportunity in the same way that you would conduct a structured interview with the help of Unitive for example! Thinking not “do I like this person and do they look like prior winners” but, to the extent that I’ve got to make some objective decisions here, “do I think that the market opportunity is big defined in terms of market size and the product and will people pay for it and timing?” And “Do I think that the team, the best that I can assess it, is not just people I like and am comfortable with (because they are like me) but people who have the relevant skills and competencies?” and thirdly, given where they’re headed and what the team is like, “is the traction objectively at an appropriate level?” So you can do that and do very much I try to do that; though I don’t think I’m necessarily particularly good at it!
Just because they’re not banging on a drum that they’re going to be a billion-dollar company doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be successful.
I think the other piece which I’m very conscious of and it goes back to that “risk aware” rather than “risk-averse” distinction is just to be conscious of the fact that different people present themselves and present their opportunity in different ways. And just because they’re not banging on a drum that they’re going to be a billion-dollar company doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be successful, that they’re not ambitious, that they’re not willing to take risks. I think that’s one piece of the equation that could be more generally applied by folks. Because I think most people agree with the market/team/traction trifecta — investors may prioritize those differently but would all say ‘yes, that’s what we look for and how we judge it’—but I think the disjuncture between that claimed objectivity and the actual outcomes is that people don’t think about the biases they have about the person on the other side of the table. And that can be obviously way beyond just the way they present themselves.