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Crucial first hire: the "do-it-all office admin"

Back in June of 2006 after having closed a small series A, it was time to move out of our spare rooms, get some basic startup office space and hire a couple of employees so we could move fast and get on with our mission.

One of the best decisions we made at the time was to hire a “Do-It-All Office Admin” (DIAOA) as one of our very first hires.  The point was to free up everyone else to focus exclusively on building the business. Basically, we needed someone to tackle all of the “distractions”:  anything that isn’t a direct action related to a core goal.  The list of distractions was growing fast:  find office space, determine what kind of office space we even wanted, get a cheap (used?) fridge, get a laser printer, plan a party (for recruiting purposes, of course), figure out what kind of benefits we should offer and then get something priced out, sweet talk the neighboring office into sharing their wifi connection for a few hours, etc.  All important things but also all things that are incredible time sucks and aren’t going to make or break the success of the company at the early stage.

In the two and half years until we sold the company, we had two successive people fill this role.  Neither had more than a year of professional experience when they started, but both did incredibly well in the role and have moved on to greater success (one was just accepted into an MBA program and interned at BCG and the other is currently in law school full time).

Here is some advice on hiring a Do-It-All-Office-Admin.

Personal characteristics to look for:

  • Self-driven, tenacious, energentic – this person will need to be able to take a loose project description and drive it to completion, with little help.
  • Eager to gain experience – they may not have experience but they are eager to prove to the world how they can shine.  Startups are great places for these types.
  • Smart – because smart people will respond to challenges like “figure out a way to get free pastries from that new bakery downstairs for our next board meeting”
  • Trustworthy — this person will invariably have access to sensitive information like cap tables, employee records, bank statements and your email inbox (if you let them)

I could write an entire blog post on how to suss out these characteristics during an interview, but for now the critical things are (a) call multiple references and ask direct, frank questions and (b) give situational interviews and ask the candidate to problem-solve and walk you through how they would execute on example tasks (intentionally vague/challenging example tasks).

I can’t say enough about how important and valuable our Do-It-All-Admins were and how grateful I am for their work.

Here’s a starter JD for reference…

You must:

  • Be driven to accomplish a lot and learn a LOT very quickly
  • Be smart and have great problem-solving skills
  • Be resourceful, upbeat and enjoy getting things done on a startup budget (translation: you must be frugal, scrappy and happy)
  • Have web and computing skills, including maybe a little HTML and a good command of MS Office

Example responsibilities:

  • Find office space – identify criteria for office space, select real estate agent, work with agent to narrow down to 3 or 4 spaces and arrange visits
  • Recruiting – Post jobs online, screen candidates for basic fit, arrange all phone screens and interview days and follow-up with candidates
  • New hires – develop a streamlined new hire paperwork process, make sure employee is 100% set up and productive on their first day
  • Spreading cheer – be the face of the company to the employees and all visitors, be upbeat always and keep things lively
  • Office management – make sure printer ink, paper, soda is in stock, keep office relatively organized, everyday coffee prep
  • Independent tasks – do whatever misc tasks are needed with minimal guidance, e.g. “get a used refrigerator here by Friday for less than $250″
  • Exec admin – arrange board meetings, do lightweight word/powerpoint/excel prep and whatever else the CEO needs to keep moving quickly

Background:

  • You have some professional business experience, and ideally have a college degree
  • Experience with accounting, HR or recruiting a plus

About this opportunity:

  • Although this is a junior role, you will play a key role at a venture-backed high-tech startup.
  • You will report to the CEO
  • If you are looking for an exciting, demanding job that provides unique experience and gives you a chance to shine, this is a special opportunity.

25 Comments on "Crucial first hire: the "do-it-all office admin""

  • Galen says

    Great post Joe. Thanks for the JD!

  • Galen says

    Joe – two questions: how much do you pay and do you offer stock options?

  • Joe says

    I think we were paying in the $12 – $16 per hour range. Note that in this economy things may be different. Look at it this way: I would have gladly worked for next to nothing in my first job in order to gain experience vs. working at a much higher hourly wage on a fishing boat in Alaska or whatever. My point is that the reason to take a startup job early in one’s career is more about the experience that the pay…

    I’m 100% soooo confident that once our first “DIAOA” becomes a lawyer and the other becomes a startup CEO or consultant, they won’t value the cash they earned from their work at Snapvine anywhere near the experience.

    As a rule, we offered stock options to all full time employees regardless of title of level (but not to part timers)

  • Joe,
    Great points here! The office assistant may be the most important employee during the early days as without them, the devs, the sales guy (always singular, no?) and the rest of the team is stuck doing all the things that keep the day to day going.

    As far as pay goes, normal rates apply based on the city you’re in. But I think you’re about right at least for NYC. The only thing I would say is that it would be nice to work stock options in for part timers (if possible) especially the ones that are as important as this one.

  • Surj says

    Awesome post old bean. I wish had used these methods in the past … :-)

  • Thanks for the comment, Jesse. All that other “stuff” can be incredibly distracting and so its huge to have someone who can just take care of it. I think it is a bit of a burnout job, but great experience especially for someone with limited work experience.

  • Hey Surj! Nice to hear from you! Let’s catch up soon!

  • This is a great post Joe. I've read it in the past and every once in while I think back to it. I'm in the midst of needing a DIAOA and about to post a job for one. I don't really care for title Personal Admin or Executive Admin, I'm just not that kind of guy. However, this DIAOA seems to resonate with me! I'm curious, how long did your DIAOA admin stay working with you? Did you eventually move them into a different role within your company?

  • Thanks, Peter! I had two DIAOA's and each held their position for about a year. One was promoted laterally into marketing and the other took on a split role of Legal Clerk and HR Manager at WhitePages after our company was acquired.

    In both cases, I purposely hired the kind of person who was bright, eager and who would outgrow the role over time. My thought was that in a small and growing company, I would have plenty of positions for a high-aspiration person to grow into, and with all the dynamics of growth, I'd rather have someone eager to achieve and over-deliver than someone who just wanted to do a routine job and never advance.

  • I share your belief about wanting someone eager to achieve and over-deliver than someone who just wanted to do a routine job and never advance. It's a great story that your two DIAOA's went on to contribute in different ways after one year!

  • I love this post, Joe. I was a rookie when I first joined a startup in 2006, became their office admin and later joined as a co-founder.

  • rmkf1027 says

    +1.
    We just hired our first this week. As one friend sagely observed “…..more revitalizing than a mid day nap.”

  • W. Anderman says

    Excellent post. After building a two decade IAR career under global financial brands we have moved onto an independent clearing platform owned by our former firm. No longer able to speed dial for various resources needed at the speed of thought, what an excellent idea. We are going to post for a DIAOA at the local university immediately. Thanks…

  • Thanks for the note! Please let us know when you've landed the hire! Also, thanks for the acronymn, DIAOA…I've added it to the post.

  • Awesome!

  • W. Anderman says

    Clarification: Joe, I picked up the acronym for Peter Chee who posted here about two months ago. I liked it when I saw it too. I found you through Venture Hacks which I found through Fred Wilson's AVC. See you around!

  • I've added “DIAOA” to the post…i think that acronym sticks — thanks!

  • Indeed, thanks for pointing that out

  • Investor says

    This kinda people are available; unfortunately they prefer to be CEOs themselves, not office admins :)

  • Totally :) you nailed it…this post is about hiring a certain profile of person as much as it is about the role itself. I'm betting both of our DIAOA do very well in the future (it's a little bet that i've got with myself)

  • Edwin says

    Hmmm, Am I the only one here that thinks this is a waste of money? Getting office space is surely something that everyone should get involved in and isn't going to happen too often. Screening candidates for interview should be handled by the recruiters, and again, how often are you going to be recruiting?

    Every heard of bringing your own coffee to work? I'm sure the investors will love you blowing all the money on a party. “Spreading the cheer” – this is a clown's role.

  • naynerz says

    damnit.

  • naynerz says

    can u just delete this thread.

  • naynerz says

    you make good points, but i think it's important to look at the bigger picture:

    yes, paying for office space is an incredible cost. however, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. having your own office space creates for a better team-building culture, where people are able to cohesively share ideas in a space they can call their own. it is important for people to feel comfortable in their work space… like a second home, if you will. when people are comfortable and happy, they are more productive – don't you agree?

    also, another point is that, depending on the stage of your business/product, having your own office space also gives you privacy. while it is nice to be working with your friends or colleagues of other cool startups, it can also be inconvenient… meeting rooms can be limited, internet could be spotty because of too many people on the same connection, desks are too close together, or too far apart, etc. and in a worst-case scenario, there is always the chance that there will be people who could, consciously or unconsciously, steal your business ideas, poach your employees, take your equipment, or other unethical things… when you have a bunch of ambitious people in the same small space, tension is more severe and prone to causing unethical behavior… and believe me, it happens all the time.

    the reason why everyone should not be involved in finding office space is because it detracts people from what they should be focusing on: product. if you have your devs and sr. managers all thinking about where to find office space rather than on the building the core business, you're really wasting time and resources on something one or a few people could be thinking about. remember, most of your money should be recruiting talent and paying for physical equipment (computers/servers/etc.) – do you really want a manager you're paying $100K/year to do product strategy thinking about finding office space?

    and your comment about coffee and the party — again, these are management practices that are meant to motivate and keeping employees happy… these are, in fact, small frills that come in at low-costs… not anything frivolous that is actually breaking the bank.

    btw, if you have ever hired anyone through a recruiter — paying 15-25% of expected annual salary of the position + retainer … THAT is ridiculous spending.

  • naynerz says

    you make good points, but i think it's important to look at the bigger picture:

    yes, paying for office space is an incredible cost. however, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. having your own office space creates for a better team-building culture, where people are able to cohesively share ideas in a space they can call their own. it is important for people to feel comfortable in their work space… like a second home, if you will. when people are comfortable and happy, they are more productive – don't you agree?

    also, another point is that, depending on the stage of your business/product, having your own office space also gives you privacy. while it is nice to be working with your friends or colleagues of other cool startups, it can also be inconvenient… meeting rooms can be limited, internet could be spotty because of too many people on the same connection, desks are too close together, or too far apart, etc. and in a worst-case scenario, there is always the chance that there will be people who could, consciously or unconsciously, steal your business ideas, poach your employees, take your equipment, or other unethical things… when you have a bunch of ambitious people in the same small space, tension is more severe and prone to causing unethical behavior… and believe me, it happens all the time.

    the reason why everyone should not be involved in finding office space is because it detracts people from what they should be focusing on: product. if you have your devs and sr. managers all thinking about where to find office space rather than on the building the core business, you're really wasting time and resources on something one or a few people could be thinking about. remember, most of your money should be recruiting talent and paying for physical equipment (computers/servers/etc.) – do you really want a manager you're paying $100K/year to do product strategy thinking about finding office space?

    and your comment about coffee and the party — again, these are management practices that are meant to motivate and keeping employees happy… these are, in fact, small frills that come in at low-costs… not anything frivolous that is actually breaking the bank.

    btw, if you have ever hired anyone through a recruiter — paying 15-25% of expected annual salary of the position + retainer … THAT is ridiculous spending.

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