Two years ago, Tim Chen presided over a tech startup that employed mostly former Wall Street finance types (who were mostly new graduates). He’d bootstrapped his company, Nerdwallet, for over five years at that point, and they were already profitable, but he knew there was another level to be reached — another gear to shift into. They could go from making good money to impacting the finances of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. He wasn’t exactly sure what this future looked like, but he knew what it would take get there: a total talent reboot.
While there were already 50 dedicated and passionate employees at NerdWallet, Tim knew he needed to grow exponentially, with a focus on engineering, design and product talent. There was only one problem — which, unfortunately, led to a few more. Because Nerdwallet had never raised money, it never got the buzz or the coverage that usually comes with a check. Without being able to point to prestigious investors or skilled engineers, it lacked the cache that, for better or worse, most technical talent looks for in a startup. Chen needed to find a way to somehow put Nerdwallet on the map for the best and brightest with seemingly no levers to pull.
So let’s skip to the end. Obviously, Chen prevailed but not without bringing several other heroes into the fold — namely, Florence Thinh, who built the recruiting team that was instrumental in growing Zynga from 40 to 3,000. Now as VP of Talent at Nerdwallet, she’s helped the company rethink its approach to recruiting and nail some pretty exceptional stats: a 85% offer acceptance rate in 2015 with a passive hire rate that increased by 3x from 2014 to 2015 (that is, great people who weren’t actively looking for a job at the time). In this exclusive interview, Chen and Thinh share how they upleveled talent while growing the company from 50 to 270+ in two short years.
Before he could build out Nerdwallet’s ranks, Chen set out to make a few senior-level hires that would not only help him steer the ship, but attract the right type of attention and respect from other prospective candidates. He needed marquee names, what he calls “tent poles,” the people who could keep the multi-ring circus running and set standards and expectations for everyone else.
The first three tent poles he recruited made all the difference in the world. Thinh, brought on to lead people operations, was transformative and brought her Zynga and Khosla Ventures street cred with her. Dan Yoo, was lured out of LinkedIn, where he was VP of Business Operations and Analytics. And Bhaskar Ghosh, who later joined from LinkedIn as VP of Engineering and Operations, held tremendous prestige in the engineering community. Sounds great, but getting folks with these resumes to join a little-known startup wasn’t a walk in the park.
“In order to get senior people on board, I had to think about what social proof I had to leverage,” says Chen. “I knew I couldn’t start with an engineering leader, because no one at the company was going to be a draw for them at the time, plus I had hacked the website together myself, so engineering wasn’t a clear priority. I thought, well, the most direct route is probably biz ops because they know the value of consulting and banking, and that’s the talent I have right now.” This is how the conversation with Yoo kicked off. When he started meeting the staff, it was clear they were world-class in their field. He was intrigued but not sold. At the same time, Chen had interviewed over 20 candidates before landing on Thinh as the perfect fit for HR.
She was also curious to learn more, but proceeded with caution. “All of my friends were asking, ‘Where are you thinking of going? What is this company I’ve never heard of?’” says Thinh. “A lot of them were even like, ‘Sure, good luck with that…’”
While it was clear Nerdwallet’s recruiting system was far from optimal, there was something that stood out to her: Chen himself was uniquely invested in the process. It was clear to Thinh that talent would be a top priority at the organization. Even as a candidate, she saw how many different people he spoke to just to benchmark what the company actually needed, and she was impressed that he had her speak with both people who had been there for years and mere weeks. He seemed to know his stuff. She knew if she joined she wouldn’t have to start from scratch or beg for support. So, like Yoo, she was open to the possibility.
“When you’re talking to people who operate at a high level, they’re very connected to other people at that level and that’s really influential in their decision making,” says Chen. “They see someone else of their caliber at your company and they know not only is the company serious about success, but they know they’ll be able to come in and do their best work with good people.”
So he hatched a plan. He told Yoo and Thinh about each other — that they were each at the offer stage, seriously considering leadership roles at the company — and suggested they go out to dinner to talk. They hit it off, discussing their various experiences, who they knew in common (35 shared LinkedIn connections), and ideas for the company. Even though neither of them had signed, they were each impressed with Nerdwallet’s taste in talent and its ability to get the other one interested.
“At the end of dinner, he just looked at me and said, ‘Alright, are we going to do this, Flo? If I’m going, I need you there too,’” says Thinh. “It was amazing to me how influential it was to see someone with his credentials and talent joining the company. I knew I would respect his work and the team he would build. It was social proof for sure.”
They ended up starting on the same day.
The lessons: Use what you have to get tent poles in the door. Consider the social dynamics at work. Big-time talent is often your best selling point for landing more big-time talent. And, as a CEO, the best thing you can do to set yourself apart is to show how knowledgeable and invested you are in a particular functional area. People don’t join companies where they’ll have to struggle to make an impact or explain their every move. They want to feel empowered and that they can trust the CEO to be an informed thought partner.
On top of that, Chen’s offer to his first tent poles included room to grow and play. Prior, Yoo had been a VP. Nerdwallet made him COO. Thinh had been a director, now she’s VP. No matter how senior someone is, they don’t want to stop learning or expanding their capacity. They’ll gravitate toward places where they know they have built in opportunity and are bound to be challenged. So when you’re looking to recruit a tent pole, think about how to give them the highest ceiling possible.
The Ongoing Benefits of Tent Pole People
In addition to bringing expertise and seniority, the right tent pole hires will confer a number of other important advantages.
First and foremost, they usually have awesome networks. “Flo has this incredible social circle of experienced Silicon Valley leaders that she knows well. Dan was connected to all this incredible talent at LinkedIn that had since gone elsewhere,” says Chen. “That made a huge difference for us. I went from not being able to get a conversation with great engineers and PMs to having multiple candidates for every role that came up. Suddenly our lack of funding didn’t matter.”
Thinh saw how this worked first hand. “I'd be talking to some really incredible people who I knew from Zynga or before, and they'd take the meeting because they knew me and Dan and they wondered why we had decided to join.”
This is one of the biggest factors in Nerdwallet’s ability to make so many passive hires. If you’re going to pull someone amazing out of another company before they’ve even considered looking, it’s probably because of the people, not just the role, says Chen.
I would see these hires coming through that were just exceptional to the point that I was legitimately confused about what they were doing here. But I got used to it.
Second, tent pole people make it clear how others can grow at the company. “Before Dan and Flo showed up, I would constantly hear people say, ‘Hey, I’m not getting a lot of career development. I don’t know what staying here for a while looks like. I don’t think I’ll stay that long…’” he says. “Having tent poles changed things immediately. People started to say, ‘I want to be like Flo in five years,’ ‘I want to have a career like Dan’s.’”
Having a senior leadership layer people look up to and like makes working at your company an aspirational pursuit.
“When I first started hiring for Nerdwallet, I had all these prejudices that proved to be totally untrue — I was all about pedigree and education and the names of the companies people had worked at before,” says Chen. “But soon it was clear that there was little or no correlation between where someone had worked in the past and how they were performing here. Other things made a much bigger difference.”
When Thinh joined, she worked with Chen to tease out exactly what qualities made for an ideal Nerdwallet employee. The result was overhauling the recruiting process and defining the attributes — most importantly, the central attribute — that signaled success (more on this later). Since then, this framework has filtered out hundreds of candidates that looked brilliant on paper and has prompted many remarkable non-obvious hires. After you have stellar leadership in place, rebooting talent boils down to precision matchmaking.
At the heart of every match are aligned values. Yes, “values” is a squidgy term that usually means nothing. But at Nerdwallet everyone knows them, often from memory, and acts accordingly. It’s become a fundamental part of the talent reboot. A former hedge-funder, Chen was used to competing against the other five analysts in his office. Collaboration was out of the question. And when he started Nerdwallet, that culture followed him.
“It was so wrong on so many levels. We had people from different funds running different verticals in the company and there was no teamwork or dialogue or common goals," he says. “Today, our values are all about driving the actions we want to see. Like, 'How do we get groups of people to quickly learn from and work together well?'”
As you can see, these values aren’t run of the mill — they’re directly correlated to situations that arise, productive actions, and potential conflicts:
Consumer, Company, Team, Self: We believe that doing what's best for consumers is the right strategy. Putting company and team goals before our own allows us to collaborate with greater trust and effectiveness. It's the fastest path to success, collectively and individually.
Drivers Before Solutions: Figure out what the most important thing to do is, then do it. Solve the right problem by addressing the root cause, not just symptoms. It takes a thoughtful and strategic approach to unlock step-function growth.
Healthy Relationships, Hard Conversations: Disrupting consumer finance is incredibly hard work. We take risks, make mistakes and experience failure together. Cultivating positive relationships and empowering one another with honest and direct feedback accelerates our ability to overcome roadblocks.
Relentless Self-Improvement: Continuous improvement compounds quickly — for yourself and for the company. A growth mindset is your best tool for tackling the tough and ambiguous challenges ahead. Approach each day with the humility to recognize your weaknesses and a commitment to developing yourself and others.
Plus, there’s not too many of them to remember. This has been a boon for Nerdwallet, where Chen and Thinh regularly hear people using phrases verbatim in meetings like, “Hey man, remember drivers over solutions! What’s the next step?” or “We need to have a hard conversation to keep this relationship healthy, okay?” The company’s values have become so embedded that they’re basically primary directives, helping people navigate whatever comes up.
So, what does this have to do with recruiting? Just like they guide people’s work once they’re on staff, these values are used to identify and attract the right people too.
“Drivers before solutions is the most telling one because that’s not something that most Stanford or Harvard grads are naturally good at,” says Chen. “They’re good at solving problems, but they have a hard time deciding whether they’re working on the right problem or what to do next when there’s no map or structure or clear path forward.”
Understanding the cause or impetus of an outcome is critical. It helps you arrive at better solutions faster, and it streamlines communication. Instead of everyone on a team throwing out and debating various solutions for hours (which Chen and Thinh both experienced firsthand before the reboot), they have the ability to backtrack, agree on what matters, and work toward it together.
This trait is so critical to success and productivity at Nerdwallet that it’s become the focal point of the recruiting experience. They’ve seen it again and again. The people who thrive have this mentality, while those who flounder don’t.
“Early on in the interview process, we give candidates an exercise to see if they can identify the drivers behind very abstract problems, and there’s an amazing divergence between people who do this well and those who don’t,” Chen says. “It’s not all in one area. Some people are good at seeing technical drivers. People like Flo are great at seeing interpersonal drivers. We want people with some form of talent in this area.”
The lesson: Startups benefit tremendously from identifying that one vital, commonality that all of their successful employees share. Make that the cornerstone of your recruiting process and test for it early to apply an effective filter. Devise your test so that candidates may not necessarily know what you’re looking for, but that will clearly reveal whether they have the trait you want or not. Reinforce this trait after people join through continually communicated values.
Every time you hire someone who passes your test, you’re compounding the positive effect, says Chen. The opposite is also true.
Every hire you make is a stem cell that will replicate. People bring in other people like them. That's why hiring low performers can cause real damage.
Hiring poor performers also hampers your recruiting abilities. You have to assume everyone knows everyone somehow, says Thinh. So if you’re trying desperately to land a candidate who knows that you just hired three people she thinks are lousy, there’s no way she’s taking the offer. The stakes are higher than you think.
In the process, don’t forget that you need to both find good matches and prove yourself to be an incredible match, Thinh adds. So many companies get caught up in vetting people that they don’t pay attention to the impression they’re making — this includes some of the biggest tech companies out there. But the audition goes both ways, and, as she puts it, “Sometimes you only get that one shot at convincing someone to join, and if one of the six people they talk to at your company turns them off for some reason, that’s it. You don’t get another chance.”
This is why she’s designed Nerdwallet’s recruiting process to be a white glove experience from initial touchpoint through signed offer letter. This comes with the usual trappings — a very personable recruiter, a comfortable on-site interview, fast and responsive communication — but it places extra emphasis on the people component.
“Everyone on the interview loop is specifically trained so potential candidates have a great experience from the outset ,” says Thinh. “We don’t want to be throwing bodies at an interview just to make it happen. We want everyone to be fully briefed on every candidate that walks through the door. Even if a candidate doesn’t get an offer, we want them to walk away knowing they were given their best possible chance and thinking, ‘Wow that company is super cool.’”
She credits Nerdwallet’s 85% offer acceptance rate to this standard of candidate care. “A lot of it has to do with courtship — high-quality experience and our strong and visible culture manifested in every conversation they have,” she says.
Lastly, good match-making requires a certain amount of psychologizing.
“What sets Flo apart is that she can really get inside a candidate’s head and understand what truly matters to them — even if they couldn’t tell you right off the bat,” says Chen. “She’ll ask questions like, ‘What is something you want to learn in the next year?’ That often surfaces a lot of insights into what’s important to the person and what they want in a career move. You can’t just give everyone the same sales pitch to join your company.”
As Thinh explains, she focuses intently on getting candidates to explain how they make decisions. What's their criteria? Who are the people they lean on for advice? It might sound like chit chat, but they’re actually giving her key context clues. Once she has a thorough understanding of how they evaluate choices, she’ll ask them, “Where would you rate your ability to say yes right now, with 10 being an unequivocal yes?” Most often, people say 7 or 8. That gives her room to ask about the gap between where they’re at and 10.
“If they say they’re at a 7, I’ll ask them what those last 3 points represent in their lives. I try to get them to name their reservations,” says Thinh. “That way if there’s something I can do to change the deal for them, I’ll go back to the team and reevaluate. Regardless, I tell every candidate I work with, ‘Listen, you and I are going to go through this together as partners. The more you share with me the more I can help you make the right choice for you.’ I don’t push — you never want to push — and sometimes it might be in everyone’s best interest to part ways if it’s not a go.”
Arriving at the right outcomes of these conversations is an essential part of your talent reboot.
Flat organizations without titles have become a lauded hallmark of the startup ecosystem. But that’s not always the best way to go. When you reach a certain size — as small as 20 people — titles can become critical trail markers for precisely the people you want to retain.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t start out with the mindset that titles were bad, so I have seen the flipside,” says Chen. “But then I started getting feedback that people didn’t know what was next for them at Nerdwallet, and instead of asking, most people just leave and let job hopping be the way they get ahead.”
You realize that people really like defined goals that drive continual improvement.
When Thinh arrived, she saw this pain point and worked with a consultant to further refine job architectures, or what she calls the career development matrix. It explicitly spells out the qualities and skills people are expected to have at every tier of seniority — when they’re a coordinator vs. a manager vs. a director and so on. “When you look at it, you think, ‘Wow, I can see the next 20 years of my career,’ says Chen. “It’s concrete in the ways that people are supposed to get better over time.”
Thinh says that her first impression of the Nerdwallet team — when it was just at 50 or 60 employees — was that everyone had a huge appetite for growth and progression, and some kind of roadmap to show them the way. Having seen rapid growth at Zynga, she knew that it wasn’t only important to have an outlet for this energy, but one that would scale as the team scaled. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s a tool that would not only make it clear when people should be promoted, but would serve as a manual for young managers who are just starting to make these decisions.’ We needed a blueprint."
During the next 45 days, Thinh and the consultant worked closely with people at all levels of the company to understand what enabled success for each tier and title. What personal qualities should a manager have? What types of experiences should an executive have under their belt? What types of interns should get offers? Again, this is why tent poles are so critical, Chen says, so you can also point to someone amazing and say, “That’s what a director is like.”
“The development matrix is all about increasing the lifetime value of our employees and showing them how they can invest more time here and why they should,” says Thinh. “We did this for almost every single functional area — engineering, design, content. That way, all these title distinctions weren’t just generic but actually tailored for people to identify themselves and where they’re at in their careers.”
While many companies will promote solely based on skill-level or ability, much of Nerdwallet’s career development matrix references the company’s values. Higher levels of seniority should have fully embraced and demonstrated the core values in clear, obvious ways. On one hand, this filters out jerks who shouldn’t be taking on greater influence, and on the other, strongly incentivizes people to internalize not just the skills but the beliefs that create excellence.
Right now, the matrix lives on Nerdwallet’s wiki and is available to all employees, not just managers. It’s often brought out and walked through during one-on-one conversations throughout the company, serving as a rubric for people to discuss promotions as well as simply check in on performance. Thinh's plan is to regularly revisit and revise it so that it’s always up to date.
Like the other touchstones of Nerdwallet’s culture, the matrix is also used religiously for recruiting purposes. Many candidates are interviewed for more senior jobs where they would be coming in and managing existing employees. In order for anyone to be hired, they must exhibit the same qualities and reflect the same experience as the matrix spells out for any other employee. Is this new person a manager as dictated by Nerdwallet? The matrix will tell you.
“It provides great internal transparency for us throughout the entire new hire process, from understanding and identifying which roles we need to fill to evaluating candidates within a set framework,” says Thinh.
Titles are not the enemy when it comes to recruiting or managing a large company. According to Chen, they serve a couple of purposes:
They highlight problems: This might not sound good, but disputes over titles are super helpful for shedding light on deeper issues. “There are a lot of people who want a different title than they have simply because of the status, or they wonder why they have one title and not another and they bring that up to their manager. That’s how you know someone may not have a career path that they understand or are excited about. The title talk is really a symptom of something else. And once we see it we can address it,” says Chen.
They point into the future: Just like you need to give your tent pole people some overhead space to grow into, titles at your company show that there's a next step to get to, another mountain to climb, a reward for hard work and longevity. When you don’t have titles, people lack a clear template for what’s next and what’s possible, Chen says. This is when people stagnate and stop striving.
Distinct titles and progress ladders have another helpful byproduct: Staying power. Once you’ve rebooted your recruiting process and staff, the next big challenge is to keep it going. It can be easy to fall into old patterns at the first sign of success. Formalizing the mechanisms and principles of your new system will give them permanence.
“Once you have values, a system for hiring, tools for career development, things get easier and easier — at least that’s the case in our experience,” says Chen. “It’s like you’ve recoded the DNA of your organization to yield stronger and stronger employees. I’m not too worried about scaling this reboot because it’s built into everything we do now. People aren’t just using it, they’re living it.”