A Different Approach to Job Applications: A Stonemaier Experiment

23 October 2017 | 29 Comments

Every now and then, I receive a job application. Usually it’s someone who knows about Stonemaier Games and fancies the idea of working here. Sometimes it’s a generic, mass-emailed application. And twice I’ve received job request emails from the mothers of applicants.

The problem is, Stonemaier Games isn’t hiring. That is, we’re not actively seeking new employees–we’re doing just fine with Jamey (me) as the only full-time employee, Alan and Morten working a few hours a week, and I coordinate everything else through independent contractors. So I typically thank these applicants for their time and file away their e-mail.

Recently I realized that this method wasn’t good enough. It makes hiring an all-or-nothing ordeal: Either you are hiring, or your not. Why can’t there be a middle ground?

I’ve hired employees at previous jobs, so the context I had for the hiring process was this:

  1. You spend a lot of time somehow figuring out exactly what you think you need, then you spend more time precisely defining the position, then even more time promoting the position and actively searching for quality applicants.
  2. You review resumes, cover letters, and answers to specific questions. You make reference calls, and you host interviews. You often end up comparing candidates who seem slightly better than other candidates based on subjective, arbitrary metrics. And sometimes you end up tossing out all of the data in favor of your gut instinct.
  3. Eventually you make a hire, and unless it’s an internal hire, the first time you really know if someone is a good fit is after they’ve started the job. It’s like marrying someone after 3 dates.

No part of that process is appealing to me.

So I decided to try something different. I created a job application page on our website that talks a little about who we are and ways to get involved. Then I say this:

We’re currently not actively seeking full-time employees, part-time employees, or independent contractors, but we want to stay open to working with talented people. If you have a specific skill set that can improve Stonemaier Games, please fill out the form below. We’ll read your application right away, and we’ll be in touch if–and only if–we accept your offer.

That paragraph is followed by this form:

That’s it. It’s the entire application. The main question is completely open-ended. An artist could use it to share a link to their portfolio, or someone could write an entire essay. It’s the opposite of “all-or-nothing,” as it’s just as open to someone who wants to contribute a one-time fix or improvement as it is to someone looking for a career. And if I do hire someone for a short, specific job, I can learn about them firsthand, informing a future decision to expand them to a part-time or full-time employee.

I tried to be very intentional with the phrasing of the question, “How can you make Stonemaier Games better?” It puts the applicant in a different frame of mind than a normal application, as it’s not about me telling you what Stonemaier Games needs. It’s about you telling me what you’re really good at and why you think Stonemaier Games needs you.

Is it a perfect system? Nope. It’s brand-new, and I have no idea how effective it will be. But I think it has potential, and it’s much better than having no job application system at all. There are a lot of talented people out there, and if someone of them are interested in offering their talents for compensation to Stonemaier Games, I want to be open to that possibility.

I think the greatest shortcoming is that if I don’t even know what Stonemaier Games needs, how are you supposed to know?

What do you think about this system? If you’re a creator, what’s your approach to hiring and job applications? If you’ve ever applied for a job, what did you like or dislike about the process?

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29 Comments on “A Different Approach to Job Applications: A Stonemaier Experiment

  1. One month on, and I’m interested to hear how your approach has gone.

    I currently work for a large organisation with a structured recruitment approach which is clearly v different to your situation. However, in the past I was seconded to a small voluntary organisation which was looking to grow but couldn’t afford to employ people who weren’t going to add significantly more value than the costs of employing them (which are of course much much more than just salary costs). The approach we adopted there was to build up trust in people over time, and get to know them gradually – initially as volunteers, then in paid casual work, then in paid short term contracts. Finally, if they fitted in, proved to be reliable and if we could see a way they could bring in sufficient value, then we might offer them a permanent role.

    Feels like that sort of model of gradually building trust before committing could work well for small games companies where trust is crucial. I guess with the gig economy a lot more work may go this way in the future.

    1. Dave: I like the approach you described at the voluntary organization! I find it incredibly helpful to get to build up that trust over time.

      So far the new method has drawn some very interesting applications! While there are some potentially full-time applicants that I may consider in the future if we have a need, I have signed an artist from the form to work on a project, and I’ve noted several proofreaders who I’ll try out soon.

  2. I’m admittedly less excited about this idea. I think it will have the desired effect of having a better answer than “we’re not hiring”, but not much more.

    The reasons are many, and largely involve not knowing your plans and goals. Do you have the income available to hire people and you just want to keep it a small operation, or do you not have the cash flow to afford hiring people that are available? Where do you see Stonemaier in 10 years (and is there a more established company that you are striving to grow to become)? Applicants might be able to suggest something that they can help with that you haven’t thought of, but if you have a 10 year goal in mind they might be able to suggest more specific things that they could help with that aligns with your overall vision.

    Also, if you can afford to hire people, what kind of pay scale could you afford? A $40k/year employee? A $60k/year employee? A $80k/year employee? They will all bring very different things to the table, and will have different capabilities, but will fit into your organization very differently.

    If I were you, I would consider approaching it as a board game. It feels like you’re in the “building up your economy before you focus on generating victory points” stage. How much should you sacrifice now for investing into long-term potential? Maybe you get really meta with this and find a way to turn this into a board game mechanic :)

    1. Derian: Thanks for your thoughts! I agree that it would help applicants if I knew what I wanted, but I think the best way of putting it is that I’m happy with the way things are, so it’ll take some convincing from someone to encourage me to make an addition. If someone can offer me $90k of value, I’m happy to consider $90k of compensation.

      These are great questions, though, and I’ll continue to think about them bit by bit. :)

  3. I really like this idea. The hiring process for so many companies is inefficient, and as you said, results in companies hiring employees based largely on how they look on paper (which may not provide any actual indications for how they will perform). One nitpicky technical item : it may be worthwhile to change the last sentence of the opening paragraph to “we’ll be in touch if – and only if – we are INTERESTED in your offer.”

  4. Jamey – this is a great post. Within my own field (geoscience) I have spent a lot of time mentoring new hires and college graduates over the years. One thing that I am always asking them is this, “How do you add value to an organization?” Most of them cannot give a clear, concise, or defendable answer to this question.

    Organizations are not interested in what classes you have taken, if you were a voted “top camp counselor” once upon a time, or if you like to rock climb in your spare time. They want to know how all of this put together has made a value creator. If you cannot clearly specify how you create value, they will not be able to specify why they should hire you.

    So, your question of how someone can make Stonemaier Games better is spot on. It forces them to think in this context.

    I can make you better by NOT applying. It will be one less application you will have to sort through, which will give you additional time to continue working on awesome games! :)


    1. David: This is such an excellent comment. I agree 100%. That’s why I really don’t care about someone’s resume. Sure, there are elements of their background and experience I need to know (e.g., if they’re an artist, I’ll need a link to their portfolio), but I don’t care about their GPA, extracurricular activities, or even in many cases their previous work experience. I just want to know how they’ll add value to my company.

  5. Jamey,

    I’m fascinated by the approach as you have more than 1,000 Ambassadors to whom you could easily access for a number of activities, not least of which marketing, if someone wanted to showcase your games, say in D.C. (there are a quite a few of us in the National Capital Region); customer service (which I believe you already do in terms of sending out replacement parts); and myriad other things. I do hope you’ll circle back with us, but after the first few days, I don’t know if you’ll see a surge of applications.


    1. Joe: Indeed, the ambassador system we have in place is a fantastic resource for talented people ranging from proofreaders to teachers to moderators to playtesters. That’s still the #1 way for me to experience firsthand what it’s like to work with someone. I think maybe the difference here is that many ambassadors are seeking to share their passion, but they’re not looking for a job. Though that’s an assumption–I’ll mention this post in my next ambassador newsletter.

  6. Had a blast reading this cause I had just applied the day before! I think it’s an interesting approach, I like that you added some specific sub-points under the question. The only downside to not having it be a more specific job opening is that you might have to sort through more applications.

  7. Interesting for sure. I find that a lot of top talent in the job market circumvents job boards or listing all together and just searches for companies they find interesting and then reachs out. Your approach at least gives them a streamlined place to do so. I would guess because of the high profile nature of your business in the gaming space you might get a lot of very unqualified traffic, but there might be some diamonds in the rough. Keep us in the loop.

    1. Casey: I’m curious to see if that holds true. I’m certainly more interested in someone who seeks out Stonemaier specifically (whether it’s a job application or a game submission) that a general catch-all application.

  8. I think that is a great idea! I’ve had a few people reaxhout to me now with this same concept: what my company can do better with their help. It’s flattering to know people are interested in what you do enough to want to be involved. I think you’ll find some really great people that would love to help and have good ideas.

    The challenge is to figure out the ROI of such help. I’ve started working with some of the individuals I mentioned above in various capacities to see where things go, one project at a time and then I’ll re-evaluate. Good luck!

  9. This is a really interesting idea, especially because any small to medium sized company is going to have places where they could benefit from additional experienced attention. However, that doesn’t mean that it would be wise/beneficial for the company to hire someone full time, depending on where the company is as far as financial state and size go.

    Here’s some examples for Stonemaier Games specifically:

    -Artist: It could be extremely useful to have an in-house artist. Of course, Stonemiaer probably doesn’t have the art need to keep one busy full time. Plus, what if a game wants a style that someone else is better suited for?

    -Graphic Designer: Like an artist, it could be really convenient to have an in-house graphic designer but the same question time need exists. Of course if this person could have other duties they also excelled at, a half and half type job might work really well for this with a smaller publisher. Especially if a company is publishing 3-4+ different products a year, this starts to pay for itself.

    -Customer Service/Event Management/Marketing: While these are a variety of skills they tend to get lumped together, especially in the tabletop industry and if I were to use the form to pitch my skills this is probably what I would focus on. I know you handle large volumes of emails every day, not to mention your community engagement and as a company developed around a personality that’s important. At the same time, there’s any number of actionable items in emails that someone else could handle for you. Additionally, there’s support for events both smaller and larger (eg. Gen Con or the Stonemaier Design Day) that could be handled by someone else, freeing up more of your time to focus on other aspects of running your company. There’s also the possibility of having a presence at additional conventions that you yourself don’t go to.

    What all of these (and plenty others) come down to, though, is no matter how much an individual can benefit your company, would the company be stable enough with the added costs to make it worth it? If it would, it’s probably worth hiring. If not, then it might be worth waiting. I suspect there’s some business language for the stability/growth balance that has to go on here, but it seems to me that that’s key for this conversation.

    1. Alex: Thanks for mentioning these categories! I actually did make an offer to an artist to become our in-house artist, but they decided they’d rather work for a variety of companies. And while my graphic designer has a full-time job elsewhere, we keep her busy enough that she only works with Stonemaier. :)

      As for customer service, event management, and marketing, that’s an intriguing area, as it’s largely covered by me (though to a certain extent by our replacement parts team). As you noted, we have limited involvement in events (I mostly run the events we’re involved in), so if that’s ever an area we wanted to explore more, I might look to hire or contract someone.

      I think the question you ask is really key. I wouldn’t want to have someone change careers to work for us full time unless I could give them some job security, at least for a few years.

  10. I think you’re going to get a lot of applications today and throughout the week, which is interesting, considering you’re not hiring at the moment. Nonetheless, I think that the new process is very good, if you were wanting to get a lot of applications that show initiative and creativity.

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