How To Hire a Lean Startup Master to Run Your Online Engagement Program

Earlier this week the Executive Director of a state-based environmental organization here in Oregon dropped me a note asking for input on a job description her team was in the process of drafting. Her organization is losing their long-time web and email guy and they want to shift the position a bit. The job title for the new position is “Engagement Manager & Digital Strategist”.

I have been a longtime agitator for social good organizations to move away from the outdated communications paradigm that consisted primarily of building large email lists of relatively unknown people and then blasting one email after another to that list. For years I have been urging organizations to focus on building real relationships with supporters by providing them appropriate and meaningful things to do and then tracking and getting to know the people they engage with over time. At the same time I have been a proponent for social good organizations to embrace lean startup principles for evolving their online engagement efforts.

The ED’s note seeking my input is clear evidence that her organization has indeed already embraced a culture of engagement where members and supporters are viewed as more than just walking wallets. And her comments in the note (as well as much of what was already drafted in the job description) make it clear that they want to find an entrepreneurial person to fill the new role.

Interestingly, her request was actually the second one of its kind that I have received in the past few months seeking my professional opinion and insights regarding a hire of this kind. In both cases the job descriptions looked quite good. The organizations had done a good job outlining the hard and soft skills someone needs in order to leverage online technology to develop and scale programs that engage and track relationships with thousands of individuals over time.

Both organizations had a feeling for what they were seeking in this new entrepreneurial role, but were not quite sure how to create a job description that would make it stand out and grab the attention of the right kind of candidate.

One problem that faced both organizations was whether to require candidates to have specific experience with their particular toolset. The answer to this question is always “it depends”. But most systems (CRM’s, CMS’s, Email advocacy toolsets, etc) are highly trainable. In most cases, an organization should not limit the pool of applicants to those that have used their specific tools in the past.

The fact of the matter is, if you’re looking to hire someone creative, entrepreneurial and driven to find new solutions to radically improve how an organization can use online technologies to build deeper, more productive relationship with people, then the top qualities you need to optimize for are creativity, entrepreneurial drive, online and/or offline organizing and the ability to quickly and nimbly spin up and try different things. One of the worst thing that could happen would be to find someone that is a master of your tools but mediocre at those higher-level skills.

The truth of the matter is, if they are smart enough to leverage the tools they need to develop and evolve new approaches for radically improving an organization’s online organizing and engagement efforts, then they can pick up the gotta-have skills related to your specific CRM in a matter of days or weeks, and become a superstar in a few months.

You want someone that is smart about data and knows how to gather and leverage it to make a real impact on the relationships on which your organization depends.

What else to look for when hiring for an entrepreneurial role:

1. The person has to know what a vanity metric is

The person has to know what a vanity metric is and be able to respectfully stand up to you and your board when you’re asking for something that won’t lead to impact. These include things like fan count, website visitors, email addresses in the database, etc. I would emphasize that you want someone that is metrics driven and that knows how to set goals that actually drive to impact. Furthermore you want someone that then uses those goals to guide their work. As the old saying goes, “What gets measured, gets done.”

2. The person needs to fully understand that even the best plans never work over the long run

This is especially the case when it comes to developing online tools and strategies… It is best if the person has seen what it looks like to evolve a truly successful new online tool or strategy. They need to be experienced at setting clear goals, measuring real impact and constantly learning and evolving every aspect on which they are working. This is the only way long-term success is even possible in today’s fast paced technical environment.

3. Failure is sometimes more valuable than success

The acceptance of failure is huge in the Lean Startup world… But failure is only more valuable than success when it happens quickly and results in you becoming smarter/better and is quickly followed by an evolutionary pivot toward something awesome. You want someone that is not afraid to hack things together to test their theories, ideas and assumptions. You want someone that can and will jump in and find a way to quickly build something that gets the learning process started. This will often involve finding off-the-shelf tools that are not quite what you need but are close enough to get the ball rolling.

The problem most large companies and orgs have is that in order to try something they think they need to build it all “right” from the beginning. They are afraid of looking stupid when they launch something that is not perfect. They get a new idea, hire expensive consultants or staff developers to build stuff they think will work without any real market or constituent feedback.

This model of innovation is way too risky and expensive. Executing on new ideas online is just too fast and easy these days. Think evolution! I am proud to say that I have conceived, built, launched, and killed entire products/companies in less than two months. And the education my team received from the experience can be seen in everything we do here at ActionSprout.

When we started out creating what is now (which is being used by hundreds of orgs around the world including folks like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Unicef, the Democratic Governors Association, the DailyKos and many other nonprofits and political campaigns around the world) we thought we were building a peer-to-peer pledge drive tool. We planned it out, built a minimum viable product and launched the first version in about three weeks. It was buggy as heck and we were careful only to let close friends that had a high threshold for pain in to play with it. But it worked well enough to put in front of a dozen or so end users who quickly taught us that we were about 45 degrees off the mark. I have been directly involved in the formation of dozens of companies, products or web projects. Furthermore, I had two cofounders that are equally experienced. Yet, our initial strategy and product plan missed the mark.

If we had hired a bunch of external consultants (or even a few developers full time) to build my vision to be exactly what I was sure the world needed, we would have sunk months and hundreds of thousands into building it out before learning that, though the seed of the idea produced a good harvest, we needed to throw it all away and start again if we really wanted to have an impact on the world.

The fact that I am receiving inquiries from ED’s asking for input as they look to hire these kinds of people gives me great hope about the social good sector. For years I have been griping about how far behind nonprofits are in embracing the very Lean Startup principles that are empowering tiny teams to create the kind of innovative companies powering the vast majority of what we all take for granted online today.

Thank you to Drew Bernard, Founder & CEO of, for contributing this blog. 


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