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Brian Halligan, chief of HubSpot, on the Value of Naps

December 05, 2013
The New York Times
by Adam Bryant

Q. Were you in entrepreneurial roles when you were younger?

A. I had a painting company during college, but nothing particularly interesting.

Q. And after college?

A. There was a guy in our neighborhood whose name was Richard Harrison, and he ended up in sales at a company called Parametric Technology in Boston. It was a really early start-up. He hired me out of college, and that turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I joined when it was $3 million in revenue, and when I left 10 years later, it was $1 billion in revenue. It just took off, and that’s where a lot of my leadership lessons come from. After I was there for about a year and a half, they asked me out of the blue: “Would you move to Asia and start Asia for us?”

Q. And you were how old?

A. About 25. I remember flying into Hong Kong, looking down at the city and thinking, “I don’t know a single person here.” I had to figure it out, and I just started doing whatever I thought made sense. I built a big business for them over there —– about $100 million, with 300 or 400 people. It grew really fast.

It was formative and influential for me in a couple ways. I have a lot of confidence in young people, and I have a lot of confidence in everyone’s ability to do more than they think they can do. I have very high expectations for people, and I push people to reach even higher.

I take these young kids at HubSpot and I give them huge responsibility. Sometimes they mess it up, but more often than not they get it right. I think, at least in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated. I think my gray hair is overrated.

Q. What’s unusual about the culture of your company?

A. I’m a “seam head,” which is like a baseball stats guy. I read “Moneyball” and got excited about it. One concept that I love from it is “VORP,” which stands for “value over replacement player,” or the value of a current player over somebody who might replace him.

I apply that same concept inside my company. If I’m going to hire a developer in Boston, the supply and demand’s quite interesting. Developers have lots of options. They can start a company. They can go to work for Google. There are a million things they can do if they’re good. So the supply is really constrained, and the demand is massive. So there’s huge competition to hire rock-star developers.

But let’s say we’re hiring a support person. A really good support person is hard to find, but we’ll get 100 résumés for one opening. So when we look at the dynamics of those two hiring funnels — and stock option grants, promotions, money and all that — we think about it in a very different way.

Q. Anything else unusual about the culture?

A. There are a bunch of little things. At noon three times a week, a bunch of people do push-ups in our lobby. It’s very odd. Sometimes there are three people; sometimes there are 50.

Another unusual thing is that I’m a huge nap guy, and so we have a nap room at HubSpot. I have this new initiative in my life, and I’m trying to push my colleagues to do it, too, where I want to work less and think more. In a given month, I do a lot of very mediocre stuff, but once in a while I come up with a really good idea. Maybe I’ll come up with two in a month. Those two inevitably happen when I’m either falling into a nap, or coming out of a nap, or waking up slowly on a Saturday morning. I’m trying to engineer more of those in my life. I’m trying to encourage more people to have naps because, hopefully, more people will have these brilliant ideas.

Q. Tell me more about your thoughts on managing young people.

A. We’re trying to build a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers. I just think cultures are stuck in the 1990s and don’t match the way Gen Y’ers work. So we set it up for them in a way that they really like. They want to work wherever they can work. They want a ton of freedom. They want to change jobs every six months, so we’re very aggressive about pushing people around to different jobs.

They care less about money and more about learning. We want there to be a certain percentage of the company that moves every three months between departments and does new jobs. One of the things I track is what percentage of the company changed jobs in the last three months. If that’s flattening out, I get worried because I know these Gen Y’ers will leave if they’re not moving around.

Q. Have you received feedback over the years about your leadership style that made you think, “Fair point?”

A. A lot. I don’t think I’m a particularly good manager, running all the day-to-day details. I catch a lot of flak for that, and I hired a chief operating officer to keep the trains running on time. I’ve also heard feedback that I push too hard on rethinking things. That is a very fair criticism, because I tend to rethink everything. But sometimes the tried-and-true way is just fine.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I’ve interviewed tons of people and I’ve got a decent track record, but not great. I’m very self-aware about the fact that I’m not a perfect interviewer. Just because I interviewed you and I like you, and I think you’re capable, doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. I rely about 20 percent on my interview and the interviews my colleagues do with the person, and 80 percent on references. I’ll find people we know in common and check what it was like to work with the person I’m interviewing. The truth comes out and that’s when you get the real story.

I think people overestimate their ability to pick. It’s like the N.F.L. draft. People overestimate their ability to pick the right player. You look at Tom Brady, who was chosen in the sixth round of the draft, and he turns out to be one of the best football players ever.

Brian Halligan, chief of HubSpot, on the Value of Naps

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