Think like you think, not do what you do

I spoke with an entrepreneur last week, and we talked about a smart hiring trick.

He runs a buy-low-sell-high e-commerce business, picking up distressed inventory and selling it at market prices through Amazon. He wants to get out of the way as much as possible, and hire people or companies to just take care of details so he can think big, and leave early to play with his kids.

He’s already figured how to outsource things he’s not capable of doing (writing scripts to spit out Amazon-acceptable product feeds) and things he doesn’t want to do (like packing boxes and attaching shipping labels, which now he lets Amazon do, or formatting logos to look just right, which now he lets a guy he found in Bangladesh do), but he hadn’t figured out how to get stuff out of his head.

In his case, he buys inventory and then thinks about things like how to name it so that Amazon customers will find and understand it, how to price it, how to tweak the descriptions just so, etc. – tricks of the trade he’d built up in his head. He knows he’s the bottleneck for his organization, and he knows he’s doing work that someone else should be capable of doing.

Generalizing, he had a specific business process and practice that he had designed iteratively and that only he knew, but it was something he should have someone else doing. I bet most of us have those: I spent an hour that same day reformatting resumes so that formatting problems would be corrected, irrelevant data would be gone, and my logo would look right at the top. This was a dumb use of time, and I probably spend 8 hrs/month doing it. (It is an awesome logo.)

He felt stuck. He knew if he hired a data entry person on Craigslist, they wouldn’t get what was in his head – the job is data entry, but the thinking was something above that – and so he didn’t know what to do.

My recommendation was to level up the skills he wanted. In his case, what he really needed was a smart, process-oriented writer – someone who had experience taking unformed thoughts and forming them in a consistent, structured way. Maybe they wrote technical documentation, or product reviews, or insurance dictionaries – but they would be able to take a process, document it, and follow it.

I didn’t encourage him to lie – he wasn’t hiring a writer to, well, write – but he needed to find someone who was better than the “traditional” job description, pay a bit more, and then let that person decide what to do. “Talented writer needed for ongoing data project” is a fair title, for example.

Generalizing again – if you’re having trouble hiring someone to get something out of your head, think about the skill they need to think like you think, not to do what you do. Articulate that skill (and figure out what to pay for it) and you’re much more likely to find the right person, and get yourself out of the way.