Watch what they do, not what they say

Before starting Digital Intent, my two partners and I were trying to build an “e-Harmony for jobs” at a startup in town. We put a beta put together in six weeks which allowed candidates to complete a profile and be matched with employers using an algorithm combining education, experience and skills, as well as a proprietary competency and culture model.

In our customer development interviews, employers told us that culture fit was at least as important, if not more important, than someone’s skillset and experience. This went against our initial hypotheses and our gut was screaming that this was wrong, but the feedback was consistent and overwhelming.

We acquired 15,000 Chicago-based candidates within an 8 week time frame. Still skeptical about the feedback we were given, we did two sets of rankings, one weighted more heavily towards culture, the other towards experience and skills.

The feedback? The skills-weighted candidates won hands down.

Testing your problem hypotheses is important, but early feedback that conflicts with your original vision shouldn’t be taken as gospel. You’ll often find that what a customer thinks they want in the abstract is different than what they want in reality. If you catch yourself thinking “that can’t possibly be true”, there’s a good chance you’re right.

The truth is people will say all kinds of things that they think they think. HR people have been hit repeatedly with the “culture fit” hammer over the last decade, and it sounds like the right thing to say. And it is important. Just not as important as skills or experience.

As Ronald Reagan used to say, trust, but verify.


Sean Johnson is a partner at Digital Intent and helps companies design, build and grow new digital products. He’s very pale. Follow him on twitter.

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