Never hire ahead of the curve

"It depends on the size of the agency, on the level of funding available and the personality of the agency"

Alex O'byrne | Co-founder | We Make Websites

How would you explain what “never hire ahead of the curve” means?


Never hire ahead of the curve means that you hire when you have the need for the person. So you are doing it slightly reactively - just in time or more commonly normally after the point you need that person.

What do you think about this ‘advice’?


Our agency We Make Websites has about 100 team members and is now part of a much bigger company - Tech Mahindra (with 100,000 employees). But in the early days, when there were less than 30 of us - which I think is a tipping point for an agency - I would say we did this a lot and struggled constantly.

At that point all the senior people could do every job. We muddled along and then suddenly realised, “oh shit, we need a project manager” and you would hire them.

The problem with that:
A) approach is that it’s very stressful and you burn out a lot.
B) as with anything, it's not great to be doing it when you're desperate. You end up maybe hiring people, you wouldn't end up seeing in the business. It's a bit like dating. You see the perfect person in a candidate, because you think they're going to solve your problems rather than looking at it more rationally and future facing, if you gave the hiring process a bit more time and thought.
C) there is operational chaos. Because you effectively always understaffed with this approach

The big plus:
It is cheaper.

Why? You’re not spending money before you're getting a return on investment. Therefore it makes the model more viable for a bootstrapping agency, because the founders and the senior people take on the burden that is left by not hiring ahead of the curve.

Once your agency gets bigger than 30 employees, you want to be a bit more mature about it and hire slightly ahead of the curve. Not in the same sense as a big tech company would - that can afford to build a team of 50 people for some future strategic goal.

It's more like:
We know we're going to need a manager for this team in the next 6 to 9 months, let's hire them now.

Would you give this advice to other people?


It depends on the size of the agency, on the level of funding available and the personality of the agency. We Make Websites was always very scrappy and we were constantly hustling (sorry such an overused word I know). Like let's just make it happen and we can figure most things out later kind of attitude.

Whether it was project management, design, finance, sales or whatever else that was needed, there would always be a person that could do it all to a degree to keep the wheels turning. I think it was necessary at that point because we would just rely on projects to get positive cash flow, which allowed us to grow.

If not, what alternative advice would you give to agency leaders?


Another classic cliche, which I do believe in, is “hire good people and get out of the way”. Now if you've raised any money and you can afford to take the risk of doing that, it generally makes you grow faster and with less stress. So that's my preferred advice nowadays. The challenge is can you afford to do that?

Key moments Alex O'byrne hired ahead or behind the curve


A few years ago we hired a senior delivery manager into our technology team. At the time there were about 20 people in that team. He’d come from a bigger company and was able to bring with him a solid approach to HR, which we hadn't had up to this point.

We were always very much like “shit, OK we need to hire someone, this person looks good, can you join next week? Here you go, here's a project.” Which is kind of fun for a bit, but eventually you need things like onboarding, role progressions and stuff that you need strategic thinking time for.

And he wasn't a doer i.e. he wasn't a developer - he was a manager of developers and we only had 20 developers at the time. By the time he left we had about 50. And so it felt like a big hire for us at the time and in hindsight it was the right thing to do. Because he built out a team that still exists today. So that's an example of when we hired ahead of the curve and it worked for us.

When hiring behind the curve and making it work it’s normally a case of validating an idea in the market and then staffing it. In the early days we weren’t developing apps for Shopify, which is an ecommerce backend service for ecommerce brands. We knew there was demand for it. One of our developers could do it, but we deliberately didn't build a team around it. We just said to him “hey, can you prove this works? And then we'll hire a team around you.”

Which is what we ended up doing. That was a lot cheaper than hiring three full stack developers and saying “okay, now go find some work to do”. Given these examples, it can both work.

So it’s impossible to just keep bringing in new people just in time to deliver the work. We absolutely need to onboard, train and make sure that we are delivering within the processes, governance and compliance and cultural values we've got within jellyfish.

Alex O'byrne's bio


Alex O'Byrne is the co-founder of We Make Websites. An agency that is a true Shopify Plus expert. The agency was recently acquired by Tech Mahinda and is now on a path to becoming the world's leading Shopify agency.


Humble promo of Alex O'byrne and We Make Websites


Alex spotted an opportunity and took it! When Shopify was still being snubbed by ecommerce brands, Alex believed in the product and its vision to become one of the world's leading ecommerce platforms. He's since grown and exited his agency WeMakeWebsites. In the process Alex moved to the US from the UK to expand his business - something so few agency founders would dare - and it paid off. I really respect Alex' perseverance and courage to be an early adopter.



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