Hiring in a World of Volunteers

13 August 2015

You’re in a job interview every day, all the time, for a job that may not even exist yet.

Three years ago, I was running my first tabletop game Kickstarter project (Viticulture). I got a message from a guy named Morten in Denmark asking if he could see the rules to the game (as I know now, I should have had them posted from day one, but I was learning on the fly).

When I sent Morten the rules, I didn’t expect much. I figured he’d make a decision to back or not back the project based on what he read.

So it was much to my surprise that Morten replied with a ton of great suggestions to fix typos and restructure the rules to make them easier to understand. These are the types of things that hundreds of volunteers help me with today, but at the time I didn’t know that people enjoyed assisting in that way. Morten was the first.

MortenI consider a Morten a rare find, though, particularly for Stonemaier. Over the next three years, Morten consistently assisted us with proofreading, advice, and project management (he lives in Denmark with his family, so he’s able to chime in on Kickstarter when I’m asleep).

I learned that Morten was particularly passionate about solitaire game design, and his Automa system has become a core part of Tuscany and Between Two Cities. When Morten had some ideas for a Euphoria expansion, I signed him on as the designer for it. And we’ve discussed the possibility of Morten designing a cooperative game for us.

All of this culminated in Stonemaier Games making Morten our first hire a few weeks ago. He’s our part-time Development Specialist, and he’ll be designing and developing games for us, helping out with social media, and adding value in all of the various ways he’s helped us out over the last few years.

And it all started with the simple gesture of proofreading the Viticulture rulebook.

***

I think we’re entering a new era of the hiring process, particularly with crowdfunding-driven companies. We hired Morten not because we had a job opening. We hired him because we knew how invaluable he was to Stonemaier–he had demonstrated time after time that we couldn’t afford to not hire him.

At my last job, the hiring process was very different. We would create a new job position and description, post it on a bunch of websites, try to quantify all the applications we received (almost all of which from complete strangers), filter them down to the top 3-5 applicants, call their references, then interview them multiple times before making a decision.

There’s nothing wrong with that process, except that there’s a huge amount of uncertainty when you’re hiring someone you haven’t already worked with. Someone might indicate that they’re a “people person” or that they’re “detail oriented,” but unless you’ve seen them on a bad day or witnessed them coordinate a project from start to finish, you don’t really know.

That’s the big difference with volunteers. I knew most of Morten’s strengths and weaknesses as they pertained to Stonemaier well before the idea of hiring him ever became a possibility. I knew that he was proactive because he proactively does stuff all the time. I know how well he accepts feedback and criticism because I’ve given him tons of it. And I know that Morten is willing to call me out on my crazy ideas and weaker moments because he’s done it dozens of times, and that’s an incredibly important asset to me (it’s one of the reasons I value my cofounder, Alan, so much).

Perhaps most importantly, I knew Morten’s passion for Stonemaier Games. You don’t volunteer for a company for three years with nothing to show for it if you don’t love what they do. That’s the type of person I want to represent the Stonemaier name.

***

So what does this mean for you? As I mentioned at the beginning, it means that you’re in a job interview every day, all the time, for a job that may not even exist yet. You may or may not want the job, but that’s somewhat irrelevant.

When you comment on a blog or tweet, you’re in a job interview. When you shake someone’s hand at a convention, you’re in a job interview. When you share a Kickstarter project with your friends, you’re in a job interview.

The great thing is that none of this means that you should be on your best behavior all the time. Rather, it means that you have the opportunity to be yourself, and if a company likes you for who you are, then they’re probably going to be a great match for you.

But the key is the way you volunteer for the companies you love. If any part of you wants to someday work for a specific company (or one of a few specific companies) in any industry, find ways to help them starting today.

I want to be specific about this, because I don’t mean for you to contact your favorite company and say, “How can I help?” Rather, read this Kickstarter lesson about helping them first, then just go do something to help them. Finding ways to help is a hireable skill on its own.

***

I’ll end on a word of caution: Your favorite companies may never have job openings, and if they do, they may never hire you. It’s nothing against you or the time you volunteered for them. It’s just business.

So if you do choose to actively help a few companies with your time, even if you have the hope that it may someday turn into a paying job, please make sure that it’s about a lot more than that. It should be about love, passion, and fun. If it stops being fun, stop doing it, because eventually you might start to resent the company for not hiring you–that’s not the intent of this article!

I’m really curious about what other companies think about this process. Have you ever hired a volunteer to a part-time or full-time position? Do you view that as an upgrade over the traditional hiring process?

 

32 Comments on “Hiring in a World of Volunteers

  1. This post could not have come at a better time. Thanks, Jamey, this is excellent. It’s motivational for people like myself who want so badly to be a part of the industry and are working our way in from the ground up. It’s a slow process, and it HAS to be about the love of what you do and not about getting a job. I think the appeal for companies is that they find someone they know has a passion for what they’re doing. If you’re willing to do it for free for years, it’s probably something you’d be ecstatic to be paid to do.

  2. What a terrific write-up Jamey. Congratulations to you and Morten. (This is Chris writing this particular answer.)

    I have a rich background in comics, and eventually published a graphic novel called “The Fro” (http://amzn.to/1TxQaOF). In working with independent publishers (and in working in film for a while), the concept of volunteering is almost a de facto part of the conversation. People don’t feel like they can put money into a project early on, so they look for volunteers. This most often happens with Writers wanting to produce a book, but they can’t draw. So they look for volunteers, and often the early ones have no solid concept of just how much work it is to draw a comic (or produce a small film).

    I learned early on that you pay for what you get. I also learned in my Engineering career that there are three pieces to the “iron triangle”. You can get something better, faster, or cheaper. Actually you can get two of those three, but you’ll never get all three. Combining those two thoughts, I am always remiss to JUST hire someone on a volunteer basis, unless perhaps they are interning from a University. That special case allows them to get course credit, which although not money, is a reward for their most valuable asset – time.

    In general, I also think people don’t necessarily need money, but they do need some form of compensation. In your case, because Stonemaier is a strong brand, they can proudly say they have worked with or for you. I saw this when I worked at EA SPORTS. You take a pay cut to work there, because they can pick and choose from the best in the litter.

    Otherwise, I try my best to pay OOORRRRR… I accept the impact of the iron triangle. If I can’t pay someone to do the work, I have to understand they need to make money to survive. Therefore, I can bet they will need prioritize other work that makes them money first. That means I can expect them to be slow. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just the reality that we live in a world where people need money to survive, and they deserve payment commensurate with their skillsets in your business’s context.

    So, when I hired my team for The Fro, I knew I had to pay them, so that 1. They would be able to give me some level of priority 2. They would give me their best work, and 3. They would be able to stay with me for the duration of the project. And they did, and the book was beautiful. HOWEVER, it did run long. I anticipated it, and I could see near the end, the team was getting worn out with the workload. They finished it, but I had to work extra hard at the end to maintain quality, even though they later told me I was one of their best paying clients ever (They live in Indonesia). I feel 100% sure that had I tried to hire volunteers to pull off the 78 page book, I would have had turnover or completely reverted to drawing it all myself. So when fellow film students and Writers wanting to publish a book come to me, I always encourage them to pay something, even if it isn’t the volunteer’s market rate, to keep the best talent they afford.

    At TROBO, we have had one volunteer, who was an intern, and he was a star. But life got in the way, and he left after a month. Totally cool; I’d hire him in a heartbeat, and I’m grateful for the time he gave us.

    So in general, small projects can handle volunteer work, but with bigger ones I think paying what you can really helps.

    1. Chris: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I think the key difference here is who makes the first move. A person can volunteer their time, or a company can actively seek volunteers. The former puts the impetus on the person (the volunteer). The latter can be more complicated, and it often justifies some sort of compensation. As is the case with art or graphic design, I never recommend seeking uncompensated help.

  3. This is really super interesting to me. I was hired by Greater Than Games after a couple of years volunteering at conventions and organising the other volunteers. I spent a lot of time with these guys, and it was really out of the blue when I got the phone call about a job offer for a position I’d never really applied for and didn’t exist before it was offered to me. Having an industry made up almost totally of small companies (with a few notable exceptions), I can’t imagine that my experience is all that different from many other people.

    Thanks, Jamey!

  4. In college, unpaid internships from companies who could afford to hire the skilled help they were receiving left a lot of folks with a sour grapes attitude toward free labor. But, for something like this, where you can’t necessarily afford to hire help initially and grow to the point of needing someone, you of course should pick who best represents your ambitions and goals right this moment. I think the distinction here is important.

  5. Jamey, a billion times YESSSSS to this entry. As a hiring manager, I can’t tell you how many times the person I interviewed is vastly different from the person who shows up for work. But we just go off blind faith/intuition that the person we hire will do the job (and do it well). You’re very fortunate that your culture is different, and I commend your hiring strategy. :)

    1. Tracy: I figured you would relate to what I was saying about the difference between what someone says they’re good at and what they’re actually good at. :) I guess the closest comparison in your field is what Daniel mentioned above (internships), but even they seem a little different than someone actively seeking you out, saying they love what you do, and offering a little bit of time and talent now and then. That’s one of the few ways to really see how someone will operate in real life.

  6. Hi Jamey,

    Tracy above is absolutely right that we are so fortunate to be in an industry where our fans, customers, friends, are as passionate as us and willing to help in any way they can. As a retailer, their input means I get to make my shop exactly what my customers are looking for. That type of information is invaluable! And not fairly repayable ever, despite how much I wish I could.

    As a new small business owner, I cannot afford to hire people yet. But there are plenty of people who offer help and are currently looking for employment, or trying to follow their dreams in this industry and just need a foot in the door. For me, this means that when I can afford to staff, I never have to cut corners. I will have a huge pool of enthusiastic people to choose from. In fact, since I am as fortunate as I am, I again, owe it to my patrons to give them the quality personality experience I find in all of the people who have helped me.

    Congratulations to Morten! Without people like him, we absolutely would not be here!

  7. Nice post Jamey. As one who used to hire people, passion and excitement for what you do is more valuable than what you know. As someone who is making a career change you hit the nail on the head in regards to treating each interaction as a job interview. With as connected as the world is today, you never know how a chance interaction could lead to something big.

  8. You bring up an interesting point. This sort of hiring process works well at small companies where you can repeatedly interact with the same people. In any interview process, I think showing passion is a great thing, and volunteering your time shows a ton of it.

  9. What a very heartwarming story! Congrats on your first hire as well. I will strongly second the notion that the KS community is amazing and extremely eager to help is many many ways. I have had about dozen backers volunteer to help package and ship with me during our fulfillment. I get a dozen or so backers showing up to playtest our games at local events, and many others that help with their input into mechanics and proofreading the rules.

    I have used KS for 8 projects now and I will continue to into the future. The reason I point to every time is the connection with the backers from day one. Building the game with their input, before manufacturing, is priceless and I think a lot of big publishers are missing out on this distinct community.

  10. Great post Jamey. I think that’s true as a game developer too – people pay attention to what you say and do throughout the community. You get noticed for that. It’s your job to get noticed actually. Not necessarily just talking about your game, but being helpful… in its way, a job interview on the way to the Kickstarter!

    1. Oliver: Absolutely. A publisher wants to find game designers who are a pleasure to work with, so if we get the impression from someone’s online interactions that they’re really stubborn, that can impact our desire to work with them.

  11. This is a very interesting post for me as well; I know what kind of help we need, and I even know some of the people I would want to tap for it. As you said, however, this is something that happens later in the company’s lifecycle. I am considering a similar approach with current college students; having volunteer positions which can turn into a fulltime job if they help grow the company!

    1. Eugene: Sure, you can definitely try that with college students. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that there is a difference between you actively seeking volunteers to do things that are integral to your company and someone just volunteering to do something of their own volition. The former requires some sort of compensation, as we shouldn’t expect people to work for us for free. The latter is completely up to the person–it’s on their terms, and compensation isn’t an expectation there.

  12. Is hiring someone who works in a different country difficult when it comes to forms and taxes. In my experience official agencies aren’t all that much up to date with current online job possibilities. The systems are made for ‘regular ‘ jobs.

  13. Is Morten mortenmdk on boardgamegeek?

    If so then bloody well done to both of you, I deeply doubt that you’ll regret this decision and I’m pleased to see him doing so well as to get brought on board like this.

  14. Argh! I wrote this out and poof the internet ate it. Here we go again.

    This article made me smile, it is good to see it happening other places as well. I have several friends who volunteered for video game companies or media groups for years that were picked up within the last year. As a volunteer myself with some of these groups, it is such a great experience to see someone get rewarded for their work in the highest possible way without even expecting it.

    I think that a company that is willing to hire through volunteering is going to have a noticeable profile with their volunteering. Volunteering should be a passion, as you said, but a company that attempts to actively recognize and thank the volunteers that help it out is both more likely to get quality volunteers as well as hire them.

    I am actually going to PAX Prime for the first time, and my years of volunteering has landed me an invite to come join the group I volunteered for to celebrate. I didn’t expect it, and the offer left me giddy. No, I wasn’t getting hired. But being recognized in such a personal way is beyond cool. I am actually going to get to meet people I have both volunteered with and for that I have never seen before!

    An important part of the idea that everything you do is a job interview is that you never know who is watching. I’ve been volunteering with several groups for a long time which has given me the opportunity to make connections I wouldn’t have otherwise. One of those people I actually volunteered with, not for, has taken notice of my passion and work along side him and has started talking about bringing me in on his project. You never know who is working on something that you can help on, and you never know if they are secretly interviewing you for that project.

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