Hiring. It’s only the most important thing in the world for a company like ours that has outsized ambitions. Early on, we learned what nearly every single company in history finds out – nothing about hiring is easy.
At TaxJar, we enter the hiring process for one reason: to acquire someone who is better in that role than anyone else in the company.
We want employees who will not only excel at the job at hand, but bring a skillset that will teach the rest of the team along the way – whether that’s bringing better ways to write code, improved processes, or different ways to think about KPIs and data analytics. There are no egos here. We all want to be better because we know it will make TaxJar better.
Unfortunately, great intentions don’t guarantee great hires.
As we also found out, neither does the traditional interviewing process. A couple of years ago we discovered that our interviewing process didn’t yield obvious, no-brainer hires. Our hiring process was broken. We had to do something different to make the correct hires, or else we were going to fail as a company.
This was when the mutual trial period was born (well, born to TaxJar, at least). It’s been so successful for us that it’s now a mandatory part of our hiring process. We won’t hire anyone without first having them spend time in a mutual trial with us.
What’s so great about mutual trial?
For those doing the hiring, mutual trials answer two super important questions that can’t possibly be answered without first working together with a candidate (especially in a distributed team):
- Can the candidate move the needle for us? Can they be a difference maker? We don’t want average. We want stars. We offer trials to candidates that have impressed us in multiple interviews on Zoom. They talk a great game. They have the right skillset. They seem like they are a good fit. The trial is their time to show us they can “walk the walk.”
- Can they comfortably thrive in this work environment we’ve created? We’ve worked incredibly hard to create and foster an environment based on production. Output is how our employees are judged. We find that candidates either fit into this environment nicely or they just aren’t comfortable.
We don’t have all the fun. Remember, this is supposed to be mutual! The candidate gets a ton of value out of this experience, too. They get to answer some equally important questions:
- Can I see myself getting excited to work on the problem TaxJar is solving? We know sales tax isn’t for everyone. If you don’t believe in what we’re doing, you just won’t be successful.
- Do I like the people I’ll be working with? We think this is perhaps the most important question a candidate has to ask themselves.
- Can I thrive in this unique, distributed team environment? As hard as it is for us to believe, remote life isn’t for everyone.
5 Rules for a Successful Mutual Trial
After some experimentation, lots of feedback, and a lot of learning, here’s what we’ve learned leads to a successful trial (by successful, I mean one that ends in a decision):
No trial = no offer
No exceptions. We hope a candidate is able to spend somewhere between 80 and 160 hours working with TaxJar during their trial. If you assume 75% of this time is relatively heads down, working on projects, and the rest is with team interaction, you end up with at least 60 hours of project work, and somewhere between 20-40 hours of time interacting with the team (vs a few hours of “fake” interview time). This is plenty of time for the right decision (for both sides) to be made. This means we frequently lose out on talented folks with a full time job who we like. But we also find that candidates who really want to work with us will make time — like take a sick or vacation day, for example, or work nights and weekends.
We treat candidates like employees
Relax lawyers, we don’t mean that literally. What we mean is we give candidates the same level of access and transparency to our company and business as we do with the rest of the team. We believe it’s extremely important that a candidate sees the same version of who we are and how we work as a full time employee. This means the trialer is invited to all company meetings, and team planning sessions, and is added to Flowdock where they’re privy to the same communication channels as all other employees. Without this, how is a candidate supposed to figure out if they want to work with us?
We fully immerse candidates in the team
We go out of our way to make sure a candidate has the opportunity to really get to know individuals on the team, and the culture of our company. As we work through projects, we highly encourage the candidate to take advantage of interactions with the team so they can form a strong opinion on whether this is a place they want to work.
Here are a few ways we encourage this:
- As we develop projects for the trial, we look for components that require team interaction, and encourage the candidate to set up 1:1s with various team members to gather information.
- We invite candidates to our Friday company-wide video conferences. During these meetings, we learn weekly functional progress, discuss company metrics and goals, and learn what’s on employees’ minds.
- Candidates join weekly planning calls. Both the business team and the product/dev team have weekly planning calls, and the candidate is asked to attend and participate so they get a feel for our operating mechanisms, pace, priorities, and how we work to get things done.
- Flowdock is our preferred team collaboration/chat tool. On day 1 of a trial, we set candidates up with full access to Flowdock, so they have the same ability to communicate across the team as any other employee.
We set clear expectations up front
We talk to candidates to let them know what we need to see during the trial in order for it to end up with an offer. Each trial is structured so that the candidate is providing real results, on projects that closely tie to the job they are considering. As an example, for our social media & content marketing specialist hire, we’ve turned over the keys to our social media accounts to give our prospective employee the opportunity to make some real world posts. While the candidate digs in, she’s also working on a strategy to give us both insights into how she thinks about the role, and a chance to highlight her expertise.
We go with our gut
In our experience, most of the time it becomes very clear before the trial is scheduled to finish – both to us and our candidate – whether or not a full time position is the right move . As soon as we know — good or bad — we communicate with the candidate. If we have seen what we want and the candidate wants to join the team, we extend an offer. On the flip side, as soon as we have an inkling things are not going to work, we end the trial.
Oh, and one last thing…we also try to find some time during this whole process to make sure the candidate knows that she or he is going to have to sing if they get hired….
Common Questions About Mutual Trials, Answered
From time to time, we get questions from other companies who are considering testing the mutual trial. I’m sharing some of these common questions and our answers.
Q: Do you pay candidates during their trial?
A: Yes. What we’ve found works best is setting the candidate up as a contractor, with a contract agreement and an NDA up front. We generally pay a reduced hourly rate (think of it as more of a stipend) so we all understand there’s motivation to push through the trial and for a decision on full time employment, not a lasting contractor/client relationship. Also, we always discuss salary expectations prior to the trial so there are no surprises after the trial is complete.
Q: If a prospective employee is currently employed, do you still require a trial?
A: Yes. If someone is really interested in the role, and is already employed, there are always ways to find the time for a trial. It may require some nights and weekends, or taking a couple days of vacation from their current employer. We also try to be more accommodating on time expectations. As example, maybe set an expectation for 10 hours/week for a month vs. 40 hours/week for 2 weeks, with a spike of 1-2 days full time. Our philosophy is that if someone is excited enough to work with us, both sides will find the time for a trial.
Q: What if a great candidate doesn’t seem up for the trial?
A: This happens, and we simply move on to other candidates.
Q: What is your success rate with trials?
A: Around 70%. We do get some candidates who opt out during the trial, and others where we (usually quickly) realize we missed something in the interview process.
Q: Do you ever run multiple trials for the same role, at the same time?
A: Only if we are willing to hire multiple people. Our culture isn’t one where we want to pit multiple candidates against each other for the same role. Remember, we treat every candidate like an employee, so it would be a bit awkward for them to be in the same meetings, knowing they are competing for a role. However, if we are open to hiring multiple positions, which is the case at times, then we’re open to multiple trials.
Q: We’re busy. When is the best time to start a trial?
A: Never let a busy schedule prevent a trial from beginning. If you want to give your candidate the best chance to see how your company works, a busy time may be the best time. And, if you can’t give him/her time during a busy period, will you ever? Building a great team is the most important thing leaders can do, so make the time.
If a mutual trial trial sounds like a great way to find your fit, come say hello and submit an application. TaxJar is hiring!