On building MVPs and hiring technical teams: a conversation with Hitlist founder Gillian MorrisFeatured
I spoke with @gillianim, founder of Hitlist (http://www.hitlistapp.com/), a travel tech platform helping users find cheap flight deals for last minute travel. Although the business and travel sector are facing macro headwinds from COVID-19, Gillian shared timeless insights on becoming a founder, bootstrapping, creating minimal viable products (MVPs), and building teams. On becoming a founder, Gillian proposes a fascinating and useful framework: think of the experience as business school. She was 26 and had not yet found her passion but felt that through starting a company on her own, she would learn incredibly valuable lessons including and beyond what she would have learned in business school. Using the standard business school tuition cost and timeline (~200K for two years) as a guide, Gillian picked a backstop to take a calculated risk: she would spend up to 2 years and/or 100K on her business. If everything failed after these inputs, she would pursue something outside of entrepreneurship. But if she succeeded (and this she defined as an outside stranger investing in her company), she would continue. On building an MVP as a non-technical founder, Gillian recommends not relying on other people. Become technical yourself, even if you are not technically inclined to start. There are numerous resources available such as Lambda School, Code Academy (which Gillian used), and other coding bootcamps to help you ramp up quickly. Try not to waste much money on outsourced development teams and instead build, to the extent that you can, on your own and with your team. On building technical teams, Gillian went to every technically oriented meetup in NYC (where she was based at the time), including Python meetups and talks at MongoDB. She eventually met someone who introduced her to someone he met online who then introduced her to someone he met at SXSW, and this final person later became her CTO and co-founder (showing just how valuable each seemingly irrelevant collection may end up being!). Through these events, Gillian also met people who would go on to be Hitlist investors and early users. On hiring team members for startups, Gillian recommends finding people who have built up enough economic slack and have sufficient disposable income and corresponding risk tolerance to be able to look for something more interesting (and sit on the other side of the money versus interest trade off). You ultimately want to hire people who will be financially okay even if your startup fails, so it is critical to consider the context of prospective hires and stand in their shoes to evaluate their fit. Beyond this, look for people who have shown leadership and started something themselves (not just companies but also clubs or local initiatives, for example). Look for people who have gotten their hands dirty. Sometimes people with big corporate brand names on their resume tend to have a “hiring” mentality that is not a fit for startups. Specifically, when tasked with solving particular problems, these big corporate hires may not be comfortable or able to dive into the weeds and may default instead to hiring someone else to solve each problem. Moreover, the best hires can come from the most unexpected places. For example, one of the best people Gillian ever hired had actually first come to Gillian for advice on her own company but ended up joining Hitlist for 2 years and played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for their commercial viability. On weathering the current COVID challenge, Hitlist has incorporated a subscription business, is sharing with loyal customers ways in which they can still support Hitlist, is monitoring key performance indicators to ensure they have sufficient margin, and is focusing on special projects that would not otherwise be possible. On advice for her younger self and early career women, Gillian recommends getting the job of the assistant to someone in a leading position you would like to have some day. Her first corporate job was as an assistant and in hindsight, provided an excellent window into what it was like to be that aspirational person. Through developing a close and trusted relationship with this person, you are also better positioned for career growth and acceleration.