The Paid Auditions Playbook

Paid auditions are just that, opportunities to work with someone before you tie the knot and become employee and employer.

And there are three reasons why you should them.

The first is that no matter how confident you are in your ability to hire, no matter the process you use, the only way to understand technical competence and ‘fit’ is to work with that person. By extension, if you don’t use a paid audition, you significantly increase the risk to your company. Hiring the wrong person can bring your company to the brink of collapse. Most founders have a story like this to recount. I know I do.

The second reason is that the risk in hiring isn’t just on the company side. It’s also on the candidate side. There is a growing acceptance that the pitch (from an employer) rarely correlates with the reality once on the inside.

Candidates know this.

They’re more reluctant than ever, at least for startups, to leave a safe job behind in exchange for this risk of a new venture working out. It makes sense that there be an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’. In the case of a paid audition, the candidates get paid to try before they buy.

The third reason is the benefit of ‘fresh eyes’. The regular introduction of people into your business sheds new light on issues and almost always exposes new ways to increase momentum.

If you subscribe to one or all of these benefits, the next step is to get practical by asking yourself one question…

Can they be my ally?

This is the question you as the hiring manager should be asking yourself. You’re looking for an ally and not for someone to join ‘your family’.

Think about this carefully.

Entrepreneurs often use the term ‘nurture’ when describing the business, relationships and culture they’ve created from nothing. Nurturing also happens in families to help children grow and flourish but it’s dangerous for a founder to think about hiring in the same terms. Families are complicated and don’t rely on product and financial performance to be sustainable.

On the other hand, allies share a common, performance-based belief system where allies stand to benefit individually when they collectively achieve success. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman goes into great detail on this in The Alliance (highly recommended).

To that end, hiring managers need to ask themselves will this person:

  1. Bring their full expertise to help achieve the milestones essential to my company’s success?
  2. Act like an owner?
  3. Be strong, kind and humble in the good times and when the going gets tough?

I use these questions as the basis for starting and ultimately concluding the success of a paid audition.

Can I do my life’s best work here?

This is the question a potential hire should be asking themselves as they consider and enter a paid audition. As a sign of respect and in an effort to further develop our relationship, I prompt candidates to continually ask themselves this question as they consider and undertake the paid audition.

Ultimately, if they are excited to learn, achieve, solve the challenge at hand and get well compensated for their investment in time, they will do their life’s best work.

Remember, they are assessing you as much as you are assessing them!

For the most part, paid auditions fail for 6 reasons:

  1. The purpose of the business is unclear
  2. Milestones aren’t crystal clear
  3. Candidates feel like an outsider
  4. Duration is too short (or too long)
  5. Assessment happens at the end
  6. Agreement was made to work for free

They also lead to competitive advantage

However you arrive at the decision to enter into a paid audition, turn the following steps into a habit that differentiates your business.

Introduce the mission

This step is often overlooked. Hiring managers or the founder assume the world has completely understood the vision and purpose of the business through their marketing efforts.

Assume this is never true (because it rarely is!).

Go into all the detail necessary to help the candidate feel inspired by the mission you will achieve. You might confidentially share sales collateral and pitch decks with them to land this message. It will make all the difference.

Create crystal clear milestones

Each task that a candidate will undertake must be clear, specific, time-bound, measurable and most important, practical. With the ‘Can they be my ally?’ question in mind, I frame the auditions like this:

  • Provide sales targets and a challenge to optimise existing sales processes for sales candidates
  • Set feature enhancement tasks which rely on hypothesis-led and data-driven experiments with customers or people who use the product for product candidates
  • Design and implementation of campaigns that demonstrate a change in the company’s core metrics can be the ask of marketing candidates

These are just some examples which also apply when auditioning freelancers.

Eliminate potential for candidates to feel like outsiders

The first step is to welcome candidates into your company’s way of communicating. This means making yourself as available to the candidate as you would any other team member. If you use Slack or another team-based messaging service, get the candidate on there too. They should also be part of businesses standup rituals and one-on-one meet routines where their schedule allows.

Nuance alert: The nature of paid auditions is that they nearly always happen outside of normal hours. This allows the candidate to keep their day job while auditioning for you.

This means candidates won’t always be able to make standups or respond to emails or Slack messages as quickly as you or the team would like.

Be explicit on how you and your candidate will communicate with one another.

This is the lynchpin of the audition.

Over-communicate how you will communicate.

If you don’t, you and your team will become frustrated and this is the single greatest way to make your candidate feel like an outsider.

Set an audition of between 6 and 10 weeks

Most candidates will be juggling their day job and auditioning at your company and they will need time to demonstrate their expertise and fit.

I find that a paid audition duration of 6 and 10 weeks works well.

They can be shorter but the risk in this is that you don’t get past the honeymoon period. This can mean that you don’t get the opportunity to see the candidates true colours…the whole point of the paid audition!

Assess progress each week

Leaving assessment to the end of the paid audition is a recipe for disaster. The hiring manager won’t be able to recall everything that happened during the last 6 to 10 weeks. There is also a good chance that the candidate may also move off task through a lack of guidance. The bigger issue here is that the candidate will get an insight into how the business is run. If you’re not serious about performance now, will that change in the future?

Set up a weekly conversation to exchange ideas, coach your candidate and assess performance.

Pay for the candidate’s time

Time is your most valuable asset. The same is true for each candidate. Pay them an agreed hourly rate for an agreed amount of time. In the case of a sales audition, this might include a commission.

It’s a mistake to agree to audition for free. It simply doesn’t represent a fair exchange of value and this lack of incentive impacts motivation.

Closing thought

Three questions usually come up when talking about paid auditions. The first is isn’t this the same as a probation period? The answer is no. The probation period comes after the hire is made. Consider it a secondary opt-out mechanism for both the candidate and the company.

The second question is how is this different to an internship? The reality is that a paid audition and an internship are structurally very similar. As I’ve written about before, I look at internships as an opportunity to bring new but less experienced talent into a business. A paid audition is more focused on introducing experienced talent to help accelerate growth and momentum.

The final question relates to paperwork. Is there an agreement template I should use? A paid audition should use a standard contractor agreement which covers appropriate legal and confidentiality matters.

The best part about paid auditions is that they offer the chance to learn quickly.

If it doesn’t work out, the candidate gets paid, you learn and you mitigate the risk of hiring the wrong person.

And if it does work out, you’re off to a flying start!