Hiring at Geckoboard: How to hire cultural fits (and earn higher employee NPS scores)

Our guest today is Paul Joyce, CEO and Co-founder of Geckoboard. He founded Geckoboard in 2010 to help businesses communicate their data in real time and in a manner that humans (like you and me) can understand easily. Currently serving thousands of customers worldwide, Geckoboard’s team spans eight time zones and is growing quickly.

Geckoboard is not only Paul’s business endeavour but also his dream of building the work place that every employee loves. Research has consistently proved that employee engagement does affect growth. With an employee NPS score of 91, Paul has accomplished what many businesses can kill for. How did he make sure that Geckoboard is the right place for every hire and every hire is the right addition to Geckoboard? In the following talk, Paul revealed his hiring and working philosophy that gets the right hires – those who provide ‘taps’ for the business instead of ‘drains.’ Listen to the podcast below, or read on to learn:

  • The kind of interview to stay away from
  • How to ensure cultural fit hires
  • What to communicate throughout the hiring process
  • What fuels employees’ happiness
  • How to maintain culture as your team grows

Useful links from the talk

This interview with Paul Joyce, CEO and Co-founder of Geckoboard, was conducted and condensed by Hagi Trinh from Recruitee.


Thank you for joining in our podcast “How to Hire”!

It’s a pleasure to be here.

First thing first, could you tell us about Geckoboard team and your growth plan by the end of this year?

At the moment we have 36 employees mostly based here in London. We also have people in India, France, and a few in the United States as well. But most of the people are here in the London office. We have a very sustainable approach to growing the team. We basically do it when the revenue allows us to. It allowed us to double the team size in 2015. We grew again in 2016 and we’ve got pretty expansive plans for 2017. We’re going to be hiring across all parts of the business, in particular product and engineering, but also in marketing as we come into quarter two. So I anticipate it would be adding a substantial number of extra teammates by the end of this year.


Because you have part of the team remote and you hire across all departments of the business, I can guess that your hiring process is diverse. Could you describe a typical process that you always use to structure your hiring around?

Sure, you are actually right. The hiring process is quite diverse. I mean, it depends on whether someone is here in the office or remote. One common theme across where we’re doing any hiring is to try as best as we can to stay away from the usual interviews that don’t really glean practical information. We try to put an emphasis on really understanding how this person is going to fit into our team, what they might be like to work with. That gives them a chance to see what it is like to work with us as well. So I think it’s a more honest appraisal.

For example, in Customer Success, we will not always necessarily ask for qualifications or experience, but we ask them to do some tasks that customers frequently have trouble with Geckoboard. When they complete some of that, we will give them an example of a customer query that might come in. They don’t need to have product-specific knowledge to be able to answer. It is usually something like “Hello Customer Support, can I cancel my plan? Can you do that for me? Thank you.” And then trying to solicit what sort of response they would give to that. That gives a very good impression of how they might react in a real-life situation. It also gives you an opportunity to see how they might react with quickly or thoroughly responses.

When we’re hiring engineers, there are several steps to that process. First of which, after the basic screening is a telephone screen. If that’s successful, we will set a coding challenge which is something quite lightweight. It’s not very heavy and they can complete that in their own time. It’s an opportunity to see how they go about approaching problem solving. If they get through that stage, they will come into the office. They will meet quite a lot of the team at that point in time. And they will expand upon their solution to the coding challenge with some pair coding with the team here. We also go through the architecture of our system and give them a flavour of the type of work that they might be working on.

Alright, that sounds really great. It’s really nice to hear that you involve your team in the hiring process. We see that it doesn’t happen that often. It’s usually the CEO or the HR manager who would assume that that is their responsibility and they would do that alone. Did you already involve your team at the beginning when you just started hiring the first employee? Or did you see that as something you learned along the way?

I think it’s been important from day one that teammates are involved in the hiring process. We place a huge emphasis on happiness in the workplace and part of that is working with people you respect and you can get along with, which isn’t to say that it’s all the same type of person. In fact, it’s not. We’ve got a very diverse range of different backgrounds and we believe in having a great plural group of people who are very diverse at their backgrounds and different ways of viewing the world. But that also has to be bound by the fact that people need to be able to get on with the people that they’re working with. So we have done that from a very early stage, and it’s not something that we take out of the process at this point in time.

If there is one person making the decision, you’ve got one person that can be blinded by a whole number of factors while making that decision. Given that a long-term sustainable culture is very important to us, it’s vital that the rest of the team are bought into the recruitment process. I think when we approach decisions like this, it has to be that nobody has got a veto who can say absolutely “No way.” It’s a discussion and everyone’s voice is heard in that. But as you grow, we have to look at this, because you can’t have every team member involved in every hire. So we try to take a pragmatic approach.

I can imagine. If you have like 36 team members involved in every candidate, it would take a lot of time.

Yeah, I don’t think that would be a sensible approach.

To go back a little bit, before you have candidates applying, how did you find candidates? Did you publish jobs to job boards? Did you use referrals?

Most of the team has come via referrals, but that takes a while to speed up and it isn’t necessarily the quickest means. I think in common with a lot of tech startups, we have difficulty in just seeing the number of available candidates. I think there is a problem on the supply side. There is absolutely no doubt about it. High-quality candidates that are a good cultural fit are not falling from the trees. We have used a number of things: we’ve come to job fairs, we advertise in usual places like LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, GitHub Jobs – all these kinds of places. We have used recruiters in the past. That’s been a mixed bag for us. Our experience with recruiters has been very hit-and-miss. At the moment, we’re kind of taking a break from using external recruiters. The ones that we have used in the past – we have had varying experiences. Put it this way: I think we feel a little bit more confident just excluding that as a source of candidates at this point in time.

You mentioned that it’s hard to find cultural-fit candidates. It’s actually what we also experience a lot here. As you have also said, the task trial is good to reveal the technical skills of a candidate, but how do you see if they are a culture fit or not? Do you have a solution to this?

So nothing other than actually speaking to the candidates themselves and really trying to work this out. I think it’s important not just for us as an organization. It’s also important for the candidate that there is a good fit there. We have certain values that we talk about from the job application all the way through the interview process. We want to make sure that we understand potential candidates: what they are looking for in their next job. And I don’t just mean “I want to be working on x, y, and z.” It’s more like “What is it that they want to have out of work? Where do they see work fit into their life?”

For us, work-life balance is an exceptionally important part of the culture that I believe makes Geckoboard a good place to work. You can see it reflected in when we do employee NPS every quarter. The most recent one was 91, before that 86. These are very high scores. You can see it also on our Glassdoor profile where former employees and current employees have put up their thoughts about what it’s like to work at Geckoboard. As a result, this is something that we want to make sure that it’s a really good fit with the candidate. The candidate needs to make sure they are comfortable with that and that is something they want as well.

So how do we make sure of that? By having an open and honest conversation telling candidates about what we stand for, also being clear about what we don’t stand for, and hoping that people select in based on that. As you’ve mentioned it, when you have a technical aspect to an interview, it’s easier to assess somebody’s capability. But the culture side is a lot more different than that. So no, we don’t have a very quick and easy test. It’s just about a constant conversation and try to be as clear as possible as we can upfront and hope that we get that.

Alright, that’s very nice to know. Let’s get to the technical perspective. As we are both tech companies, we’re curious if you use any tools in your hiring process or not.

We have an applicant tracking system that we chose a couple of years ago. But honestly, it’s very low fidelity. We track where we put jobs up using Google Docs and spreadsheets. When we have a lot of people interviewing a candidate, they will fill out a Google Form that goes into the spreadsheet that can be seen once everyone has filled in their feedback, so that we can eliminate groupthink and echo chamber style of responses. But other than that, no we don’t use any technology. I would be interested. Do you guys use any technology on your side to help with the interview process?

Sure, actually we use our home product.

Of course.

It’s the best way to test our product as well. So we use Recruitee to make job openings, post them to job boards. When candidates are applying, they also have to fill out an application form. Instead of Google Form, we have this function built in. Then they will all be in Recruitee. Any team members involved in the hiring process will review the candidates there. And we can see everything at the same time. It’s very transparent. It helps us reach decision and consensus faster.

That sounds interesting.

Thank you. Now for the hires. If you hire for different roles, you will have different expectations. But is there a common thing, or the most important thing, that you are looking for in any new hires?

As I mentioned, culture fit is probably the most important thing. I think early on, a few years ago, we made some hires that weren’t a great culture fit and we learned from that. We got our fingers burnt somewhat during that experience. That really forced us to think about this as a serious issue during the process. So the common thread across it would probably be smart, creative, problem-solving people who are curious. We want people not just because of their technical ability and what they can bring to the table, but actually how they get on in the team environment where sometimes there are a lot of unknowns. Often there is a number of people with different perspectives and different thoughts and views. How do they handle that? Is that something that they’re open to? Are they open to having their view challenged and their mind changed? Or is this more of a sticking point?

I think for us, we still do a huge amount of discovery. We are learning so much from our customers – the understanding of what this market is and what people need is evolving constantly. So there is no set way of doing or approaching it. We are not another CRM. We are trying to invent a different category of software. That requires a mindset that is genuinely plastic and curious and strives to truly understand the problem that we’re solving, as opposed to just putting in the hours to get something done and not really knowing why and where.

As I can see, you have founded and worked with Geckoboard for six years. In all those years, what is the most challenging thing that you have found in hiring?

Sourcing. I think the most challenging thing is finding a supply of great quality candidates in our market at this point in time. That has definitely been the number one problem that we’ve faced. There is so much competition that we’re in London. First of all, there is competition from other startups which of course is always going to be attractive to some segments of people. But there is also competition from hedge funds and investment banks and organizations that have much deeper pockets than our own, and also traditionally seen as higher-status jobs. So you’ve got a bunch of very smart candidates who wouldn’t necessarily consider a startup as a viable career choice and move into things like finances and banking and whatnot. I believe that that is changing and I’m happy that it is. I think particularly to the more curious and open-minded people who are open to new experiences, startups give them a viable alternative to the banks. But yeah, I think the biggest problem is sourcing high-quality candidates. And doing that at any sort of scale is difficult.

It is really difficult, especially in technology. You’ve mentioned before that one of the biggest or most important aspects of Geckoboard to candidates is that you have a great culture and you focus a lot on personal development. Is that one of your solutions to tackle this challenge?

I think there is a perception and it’s grounded in reality that startups are about crunching, doing ridiculous hours, and sleeping under the desks – all those kinds of things. That may work for some organizations. It isn’t how we’d like to do things. When I started Geckoboard, my background was to work on the technical capacity for financial institutions and technology companies here in London. In those places, people are used to getting up, come into work to make sure that they are there five minutes before their boss arrives, and they leave at five past boss. They put the time on and make sure that people can see that they’re there and they’re working. I always left at around 5 o’clock but I could feel the eyes burning in the back of my head as I did so, because lots of people were expected to stay on later even though they won’t be productive.

So there are two reasons that I started Geckoboard. The first one was because I believe that this product wanted and needed to exist. And I want to be part of that. I want to make it happen. The second was that I believe that there is a more sustainable way to work. I have a wife and two kids and I really enjoy spending time with them. I don’t believe it should be an either-or choice to work hard, work on something great, work on something ambitious, and spend time with the people that you love. That has been the cornerstone of Geckoboard from day one. That permeates all of our thinking, including hiring, strategy, and how we grow and become a long-term sustainable business. If we are a flash in the pan, then we can burn through people and somebody might say “it’s a short-term thing” and “let’s flip the company” or something like that. We believe that we’re building a product to last. We believe that we’re establishing a new market, and as a result, we need to keep holding people and make sure that this is a great place for them to work. So we measure that empirically and qualitatively. We discuss it. It’s top of our thoughts whenever we’re thinking about expanding the team and how we do it as well as what we can offer to people who are already here. This isn’t a checkbox we ticked off. This is something that we live and we breathe every single day. And I think it is difficult to convey that because this isn’t an uncommon thing to say. A lot of people talk the talk but not that many walk the walk. We’ve seen a certain amount of cynicism when people first join Geckoboard and say something like “Ok, well, this is what you told me during the interview and this is what you’re telling us.” But I think it’s natural that people are cynical about those kinds of things because they’ve probably heard it all before. But I think once people have been here for a few weeks and certainly for a few months, they realise that this isn’t a checkbox or something that we just talked about. This is something that we live and we breathe and it’s vital to our success as a company, which is why I think we have such a low staff turnover and a great retention rate.

It’s really nice to hear that you implemented it since day one.

Absolutely. I would like to say that is one of the reasons that I want to start my own business in the first place.

I also believe that during the six years of hiring, there must be something that you have changed your mind about or you have learned. Is there something significant that you have learned along the way that you didn’t think about at first?

I think one of the things that I kind of assumed – this is out of pure ignorance and I know this is going to sound very silly now – was that: particularly as we’re small and we’re growing with a small team with a couple of people, it’s very easy to assume that that level of communication or that level of understanding that you have as a small team will continue. But at a certain point, when you get to a certain number of people, and I don’t know where that is – maybe 15 or 20 people – you suddenly need systems and processes in place in order to maintain that culture. That has to be something that you actively work on – that open communication – and ensure that everyone understands what’s going on. My assumption in the early days was that that could be something organic and fluid and happen automatically. My thinking is the opposite now. It needs to be worked on and it needs to be structured like any other piece of work. We need to make priorities around it and set objectives and work towards making the culture sustainable. It’s not something that will happen organically. If I could go back in time and teach myself something, that would probably be it. But I think it doesn’t take a lot to make some great stride in this area.

Last but not least, do you have any advice for entrepreneurs of fast-growing companies in need of hiring some superstars for their teams?

I try shying away from advice as I can due to the fact that every company is different and every culture is different. But I would say it’s that we have found it helpful to make active decisions about stuff. There is this “hire fast, fire fast” thing that a lot of organizations sign up to. We hire very slowly. We want to make sure that that is a good fit. We have found that just bringing warm bodies onto seats and expecting the culture thing to work itself out doesn’t work for us. So we’d like to make active decisions at every step of the way and that includes taking your time to make sure that there is a good fit. You know the old analogy of taps and drains within an organization. Some people are additive and they add things to your organization. Some people take things away. I think if you hire too quickly, you’ll get too many drains. So we would rather – the phrase that we have used in the past that may sound a little crude – have a hole in our orchard than an asshole. If somebody comes in and they can be quite destructive, they’re inflexible, they’re not very open, it can lead to all sorts of hits – maybe not productivity wise in the short term, but certainly in the long term and in terms of how happy people are at work.

Alright, thank you for sharing and thanks a lot for your time!

Final thoughts

We would like to thank Paul Joyce for sharing such helpful insights! His approach to hiring and growing the team is a refreshing change in the current landscape. “Hire fast, fire fast” and “hacks” do not have to be the way to go for everyone. By building and maintaining a sustainable work culture, Paul has actively created a winning team that delivers Geckoboard to customers’ hearts. We can’t wait to see how much Geckoboard team will grow!

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