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Hiring at Hotjar: How constant optimization results in a genius hiring process

Our guest today is David Darmanin, and we’re talking about hiring at Hotjar. David has a doctorate in Law, is passionate about design, and is a conversion rate expert (in that order). Back in 2014, David was frustrated with the lack of an all-in-one, affordable CRO (conversion rate optimization) solution. So he brought a team together to build that dream tool. The result is Hotjar. During its seven-month beta, Hotjar already produced amazing results:

  • 17,000 beta users
  • 22,800 websites tracked
  • 43,332 heatmaps
  • 12,208,811 recordings
  • 424,250 polls & survey responses

By now, Hotjar has gained worldwide traction and “staked its claim on the future of CRO,” VentureBeat reports. Standing behind this remarkable success is a talented team who works 100% remotely. How did they work this out? In the following talk, David shares with us his secret recipe for cooking up the dream team. Some key points:

  • Once you go remote, you go remote all the way;
  • Identify the right people for remote work;
  • Know your hiring preferences and refine them on the go;
  • There are counter-intuitive, yet critical hacks in the hiring process;
  • Get beyond what candidates tell you;
  • And there are two key values of an ideal candidate.

Useful links from the talk

The interview (You can click each header to tweet the quote!)

This interview with David Darmanin, CEO and founder at Hotjar, is on hiring at Hotjar and was conducted and condensed by Perry Oostdam and Hagi Trinh from Recruitee.

David Darmanin: Everyone has different challenges. And even in every company I’ve been involved, everyone has a completely different style, like you said. It’s quite interesting to share some of these stories. I think especially when you start growing, recruitment and people, like what we’re experiencing now, are the biggest challenge of all.

Perry Oostdam: Could you tell us a bit about your team at the moment?

David Darmanin: We’ve just recruited three people. Contractually speaking, we’re around 13 now.

Once you go remote, you go remote all the way.

Perry Oostdam: Is it all remote [work]? Or are some people together in an office?

David Darmanin: No, we decided early on that even though the co-founders all live kilometers away from each other, we would be remote. Because there is nothing worse than the feeling of some people are together in an office, and the others are not part of that group. We still have a lounge. We have a beautiful office here in Malta where we fly everyone down twice a year. So we have events and enjoy the beautiful weather here. But we only go there as a lounge, so there are no sofas or cliche startup office stuff.

Perry Oostdam: Ping pong, etc. – I get it. What’s your plan for the upcoming year? Do you want to double in size?

David Darmanin: We’re not a big fan of showing off how big your company is in terms of people. We think it’s more impressive to look at how many customers you have changed their business life for, or how much customers you have generated value for. Plus, having built before businesses that we reached 150 people, we know we probably want to avoid doing that again. Because that’s where things become complicated. I think right now, we have six positions currently open at the moment. Basically, our plan is our ambitions. We have a one-page strategic document, which outlines what we want to achieve this year, what we want to achieve in three to five years, and what our big, hairy, audacious goals like 20 years into the future are. From the plan we’ve seen, looking at the end of the year, we’re probably going to double in size. And in over three to five years, we’re probably going to be around 50 people. From then on, we have no clue what’s going to happen. I’m trying to keep it as 50, but I have no idea what I may end up with.

Perry Oostdam: It depends on success, right? The people that you’re hiring now mainly focus on sales and marketing, or do you still look for other roles as well?

David Darmanin: We have no sales stuff. We actually brought in our first marketing people two months ago. It was myself and a co-founder doing most of that. The way we’ve done it to make sure we don’t go “Hey, why do we lose control?” is having a financial spreadsheet and a running revenue. What we do is starting to set the budget by department – more than department because I hate the word “department,” it’s more by area. So we’d say “Listen, roughly what type of profit margin do we want? If we are aiming at, for example, 30%, there is a 70% going to be invested. Then we say “Where will that be invested?” We’re making a conscious decision upfront, for example, that marketing and product get the same equal investment. As we go along, we’re making sure that we invest equally in product and marketing. Though our plan is to invest much more into product than into marketing.

Identify the right people for remote work.

Perry Oostdam: It’s funny that all your jobs are remote. We talked to Josh from Baremetrics and he actually has the same; the team from Baremetrics is fully remote as well. What is it difficult for you when you hire remotely? Is there anything that you come across that’s a big challenge?

David Darmanin: No challenges which are specific, I’d say, to this experience. Because equally, there are also challenges if we decide to have an office in Europe. The challenge would have been to find people locally or to fly them in. I honestly believe that those challenges are much bigger than the challenges we’re facing with remote [work]. Overall, I think remote [work] is actually easier. But I started off lucky that I had worked for two years remotely with a UK company. They were really good at doing it, so I had this kind of training in it. I’d say the biggest challenge is probably making sure people don’t overwork, because you don’t have control of the visibility of them doing that. You can get surprised by that. You don’t realize it and all of a sudden, someone says “You know, I’m burned out,” for example.

Perry Oostdam: That’s funny that you say that, because you would have assumed that you need to chase people to actually get things done. I think the fear of most people is that if I hire someone remotely, they don’t do enough.

David Darmanin: That, I think, is a big misconception. Because it all comes down, at the end of the day, to choosing the right people. If you are employing for remote [work], you need to employ self-driven people or people who are very ambitious. Or it’s not going to work out. I don’t want to discriminate in any ways, and we don’t actively employ older or younger people. But I think there is this automatic filtration system, which is: if you are really young, you probably don’t want remote jobs. Because you want to be more in an office, having fun, and doing crazy stuff. So we’ve found that most people who are attracted to this type of jobs are probably the more matured people with families. Those make for much more reliable people. If anything, these are the guys like me, right? So I’m having a young kid and another one on the way, spending too much time at home and too much time working. It’s interesting, it’s a very different dynamic.

Know your hiring preferences and refine them on the go.

Perry Oostdam: What a lot of startups are curious about, and what we hear often is this question “Where do you get your people from?” Is it different now that you’re becoming a well-known name in this startup scene and people find you? Or do you still need to go out there to promote and scout?

David Darmanin: What I’ve found, and it sounds horrible, but it’s just something I’ve discovered, is that there is a tendency that the people who find you don’t tend to be the right people. I don’t know why. It hasn’t happened every time, but I’ve definitely seen a pattern. What I mean is that there is a big tendency that people who find you are the people who are jumpy and are looking for jobs all the time. So I’ve noticed that. Or maybe that’s just me psychologically. I like preparing a role and defining it before anyone has ever approached me. Then I put it out there and purposefully find the best person for that role.

In fact, we have a rule that even if someone we think is fantastically awesome contacts us, we will not engage with them unless there is a specific role. So we avoid defining roles for people that have proposed us. Because it’s so easy to fall to that temptation of “Oh he’s an awesome guy. Let’s just bring him in because we need that eventually.” I always say we stick to our plan, we stick to what we’re trying to do. The short answer after that long talking is “No, it doesn’t become easier.” Maybe we haven’t reached that point yet. I’d say on the marketing side, maybe it becomes easier. With writers and those positions, we tend to get really good people. But in generally: No. I think the big challenge is still finding really really good people – obviously we get a lot of applicants. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone by saying that is because we get a lot of applicants. It’s just very difficult to find sometimes the match of specifically what you’re looking for in the people who are applying. So it’s the whole dating thing, right? Finding the right one.

Perry Oostdam: You have a team that scouts for these people? What do you typically do?

David Darmanin: We’ve started to experiment a little bit with headhunting. Don’t get me wrong, but it helps a lot that we’re a brand. Well, not a brand, I would say a mini brand, or a tiny brand. So for example, when we post on Inbound, we tend to get a lot of activity from there. But yes, we’re starting to do scouting now, both by ourselves and also starting to use some headhunting for instance. But the big problem with headhunting is when you find the most amazing people ever, but they come to an interview like “Yeah, hmm, I don’t know. I don’t care, you came to me, right? I didn’t come to you.” The whole dynamic of that relationship is not great.

Perry Oostdam: Ok, instead of “I want to work for you,” it’s playing hard to get.

David Darmanin: Exactly, more or less so. “What’s up? What have you got to offer?” Right? The dynamic of that is not ideal.

Perry Oostdam: This is why it surprises me that you’re saying the people who go toward you are not always the best fit. I hear often that the more your brand grows and becomes well-known, the more people want to work for your brand and believe in your offering. So I would be inclined to say that it actually increases the quality of candidates.

David Darmanin: It does. My point is that we’re still so small that we haven’t felt that jump yet. Although I would agree with you, I’d say it kind of feels like it’s starting, but there isn’t yet that jump or people say “Listen, I believe in what you’re doing and I want to join you.” And I think partially it’s because we haven’t yet been out there enough communicating what we’re trying to do, so that people can want to be a part of that.

There are counter-intuitive, yet critical hacks in the hiring process.

Hagi Trinh: Can you describe your typical hiring process?

David Darmanin: Sure! We’re crazy and obsessed with our hiring process. It’s totally way more detailed than it should be for a company of our size. But as I said before, they are probably going to think that we’re crazy. Here is what we do, the flowchart looks something like this: we start always with a survey. The main reason why we use Recruitee is because you offer that. That’s one of the main killer features we like that we can configure that. And we like doing really long surveys: 10-12 detailed questions. The reason for that is: “If you don’t really believe in joining us, that’s the perfect kind of filter upfront.” Because the biggest waste of time we’ve had right now is doing too many interviews. We want to eliminate that. So, make a scary survey – step one. This survey is designed in a very intentional way. We have an operations manual that highlights every step of this. It’s like seven-page long. There are standard questions that always need to be included in there. Out of the 12 [questions], there is always, for example, one key question that we say is our key filter question. We start by looking at those answers. If that answer is wrong, you’re automatically disqualified. That makes the process of reviewing very easy. That’s critical when you are, for example, hiring for the VP of Marketing and having 320 applicants. In that case, you need to make sure that there is a quick way of filtering out people. I know this sounds horrible, but the truth is that you need that. It’s all about not whether they’re good or not. It’s all about whether they are a match or not.

To take a step back, one thing that we did purely because of employment is that we define our culture by using a lot of details. We have eight culture values and we’ve designed our questions on our own. For example, one of them is always be learning. So we have a specific question about “What have you learned in the last year?” We want to see what is the trajectory, what is the journey you are on, and what you know today. Are you a growth person? Or are you just a person who knows how to do something and that’s it. It starts with the survey, then we have all the email [response] automated from Recruitee. We love that.

At that point, we would request videos. We ask them to record videos and upload them to Dropbox or whatnot. We decided to do this because we’re doing tons of interviews. We’re doing per position 30 interviews. When we calculated the time on that, it was a huge waste. Because we’re constantly reviewing and optimizing how we use our time, we said “Ok, what if instead of us 13 doing 30 interviews, we do 30 videos, and out of them we choose five?” That would be a huge optimization. So we created the questions and the flow for that. And when we’re doing that, we love it. We have again, very intentionally, five standard questions and these cannot be changed by a role. They are standard because the video stage is purely culture fit to see “Will they match culturally?” We do this because early on, on the dev side, we’re eliminating people because they didn’t have the dev skills we need. It was a mistake, because if they are a good culture fit and they can learn, then we’ll teach them. That’s much more important.

From the videos, we then ask some trick questions. Basically, we invite them to do an interview. At that stage, there is an interview and we bring in three people. We also have roles. There is always a hiring manager and two other people. One of them is always the CEO. Each three of the three has the veto power. You can say “No” on a person and that’s it. There is no debate. Then we have a Trello board with a structure. On the left, we have links to the videos, the Recruitee profiles, etc. Then there is the flow: the questions, explaining the role, all this, and we go through that.

If the person makes it through that stage, we go to what’s called the task stage. They’re invited to HipChat. Then onwards everything is done purely via chat. Because our work is remote, we want to evaluate how good they behave in that environment. They’re given a task in a Word doc. There is no video, no audio, so that we can see how they ask questions, how quickly they understand things, if they can communicate with us. They’re given two to three days, which is a paid period of time – we pay them for that work. And the task again – there are a lot of definitions of how the task should be – has to be something that we would actually use. We found out at the beginning that we’re giving fictitious tasks, so we’re like “Yeah, this is good, this is bad.” You don’t really question the work. So it has to be something we’re actually going to use. That’s why we pay for it. At that stage, they have to work with the team and present to the same panel. If we believe in what they’ve done, that’s the stage where we then negotiate.

What’s great is that we always define a salary range upfront, and we do not negotiate outside of that range. The reason is that we don’t want to become a company that employs purely based on salary. There is more than that to it. What’s great is by doing this – as we call it – “performance recruitment,” at the stage when the person decides to join, we literally just change their email and HipChat and they’re ready to start working with us. So everything has been done and ready to go. The moment they accept, we have a Trello board kicking in with an on-boarding process. That is all automated. Some may tell me “Sounds like an overkill.” Probably it is, but what’s great is that at the size of 13 and the size of revenue we’re at, we’ve decided we’re going to focus completely internally on growth and optimization instead of externally. Because we know that once we reach high levels of revenue, we won’t have the time to focus internally. We want everything automated there like a well-oiled machine.

Perry Oostdam: How will it go at that point? Will you still be doing it? Or do you think it’s going to be an HR department doing these things?

David Darmanin: I think our plan is to stick to our hiring manager and CEO system for as long as possible. I think it’s doable, because essentially all I do is look at the five videos that they hand picked. I then usually join three interviews. That translates into one or two maximum tasks. It’s actually quite scalable.

Get beyond what candidates tell you.

Hagi Trinh: What is the most significant thing you’ve learned and adopted into your hiring process so far?

David Darmanin: That’s a good question. I’m torn between the video thing, which was great. Because we’re very agile, we’re constantly optimizing our process. It was a very big win that we went in, looked at the number, analyzed the data and the hours, and made that change that has such a huge impact on everyone. Obviously, you have to calculate when you think about it. If it’s 10 interviews times three people time one hour, and if you don’t like the person – typically if you don’t like the person, you know within five or 10 minutes – the waste is just unbelievable. Comparing that to 10 videos that you look at, maybe for 10 to 15 minutes, and then you know. That’s a huge save. The other one is probably also reviewing the questions. Some of the questions that we’re asking and refining have a quite a big impact. What we really like is that we ask people very intentional questions, and this has to be done in voice on record. It cannot be done in writing, because certain questions are better asked on the spot than others when you have time to prepare. And then, what we do is that we ask that same questions to references and see how much that matches. So this thing that we’ve improved on, which is this kind of combining things across stages, is a huge win as well.

Hagi Trinh: Is this also your advice to startups hiring remotely?

David Darmanin: Absolutely. Cross-referencing is key. And whenever we’re interviewing people for roles that are like customer success or marketing, we actually ask references from customers, not from colleagues only. So you can see what type of experiences they’ve been creating for them. But the biggest advice I’d say is following your gut feeling. That is so important. If it doesn’t really feel like a match, then… We’ve made so many mistakes. If you really need a role, you convince yourself that that person is the right person. Scoreboard systems that eliminate that human choice are also important.

These are the two key values of an ideal candidate:

Perry Oostdam: Any tips you want to share with startups regarding hiring?

David Darmanin: I think communication. Hire for communication – people who can really communicate are important. Because with remote [work], communication is key. Second is the ability to learn. That is so important. Once you have those two things together, that’s key. When I think back when I joined some companies before, I knew nothing. But they employed me because they saw the potential of me learning. So be that company that believes in someone’s ability to learn. I think that’s also important.

Perry Oostdam: Great to hear that. Thanks David for joining us!

Final thoughts

We would like to thank David Darmanin so much (!!!) for sharing such resourceful insights into Hotjar’s hiring process. While many regards hiring as a three-step process (posting job ads, interviewing, offering), David and his team have gone the extra mile to cover the multi-faceted art of hiring. Hotjar is a champ not only in creating tools to optimize conversion rate, but also in creating workflows to optimize the conversion rate of great candidates. We can’t wait to see how Hotjar team grows in the future!

*Update: After this interview, Hotjar published their own guide for growing early-stage SaaS startups. The guide offers strategies, resources, and advice on how to create, position, and grow your SaaS. From deciding when to hire to onboarding new employees, it offers extra insight into the topics discussed with David above. It’s an excellent read you can’t miss.

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