As a start-up focused on capital efficiency, the idea of an assistant always seemed frivolous. After all, what self-respecting entrepreneurs can’t answer their own phones?

As we recently learned, that strategy is all well and good until the phones really start ringing. Or your staff grows large enough that you have to choose between keeping the kitchen stocked or doing code reviews. For us, it was finally time to hire some help– two weeks ago we posted a job opening for an Administrative Assistant.

As everyone knows, the job market is not great right now. The day we posted the Administrative Assistant job, we got close to 100 applicants. The number grew to 200 by the end of that week.

With our time more precious than ever and (obviously) no administrative support to manage the process, we were at risk of burning far too much time choosing an applicant. But that’s not our style. We hired the most outstanding candidate with under 8 hours of total work. Here’s how.

From 200 to 100: WMYU?

At the beginning of every job application, we make a simple request: “In 150 characters or less, tell us what makes you unique.” We got this idea from The Resumator, which is the awesome system we use to track applicants. The “WMYU” question is a great opportunity for the applicant to showcase their personality. It also turned out to be a great way to rapidly filter out unqualified candidates.

Don’t get the wrong idea — no one was rejected based on what they said. It was how they said it that caught our eye. As it turned out, half of our applicants could not provide a single-sentence answer without also including a grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistake. For a job where the top requirement was “excellent written communication skills,” this kind of mistake was a deal-breaker. (Note: we happily allowed Twitter-like abbreviations and other understandable/creative quirks.)

Some of the more ridiculous responses are shared below to give you a sense of what we were dealing with…

The triple threat: spelling mistake, capitalization mistake, incomplete sentence.

Furthermore, if you paste into a 150-character box it will cut off your answer.

Computer illiteracy wasn’t one of the job requirements.

Multiple people did this. If uniqueness is not applicable to you, you’re going to be looking for a job for a while.

From 100 to 50: Cover Letters

All applicants were required to submit a cover letter as part of their application. These letters gave us a good sense of the long-form writing skills possessed by the remaining applicants. Again, writing letters and e-mails is a major piece of this job, so any glaring mistakes were grounds for elimination.

Here again, it was much more about the quality of the writing than the actual content of the message.

From 50 to 25: Resumes

At this point, the experience and other qualifications of the applicant started coming into play. This is where we stopped looking for reasons to reject and started looking for good applicants to move forward. Ambition, education, experience, and an interest in technology made 25 applicants stand out from the rest.

From 25 to 12: Project Completion

At this point, every single applicant was perfect on paper: outstanding qualifications, impeccable writing skills, and a genuine interest in the job. So, now what? Interviewing all 25 of them would have been overwhelming. We needed to get creative.

So, we decided to test who was really willing to go the extra mile. I sent a bulk bcc e-mail to the 25 remaining applicants.

The e-mail began with key information about the job: salary, benefits, working hours, vacation policy, etc.

Next, it asked them to complete a special project as soon as possible. Applicants were asked to reply to the e-mail and attach a ZIP file that contained two PDFs: a writing sample and a set of e-mail templates that we could use in response to specific situations. These situations ranged from simple (scheduling a call) to more complex (dealing with a dissatisfied customer).

My e-mail ended with this paragraph: “Once you have replied to this e-mail with the ZIP file attached, please call my cell phone and leave me a short voicemail to let me know that the e-mail has been sent and explaining why you feel RJMetrics is a good fit for you. I have intentionally not included my cell phone number here. Someone as resourceful as you should be able to track it down easily (hint: it starts with 856).”

This e-mail accomplished many things at once:

  • It ensured that any applicant choosing to move forward was comfortable with the exact compensation and expectations of the job. This would save us from negotiations, confusion, or other time-consuming hiring issues later.
  • It served as a further test of the applicant’s writing skills.
  • It tested the basic technical competency of the applicant (creating PDFs, creating ZIP files).
  • It provided us with a voice recording of each applicant to test their verbal communication skills.
  • It assessed their willingness to be creative and conduct online research to track down information (in case you’re wondering how hard that was, googling “robert moore rjmetrics 856” reveals my phone number in about a dozen places).

Only about half of the applicants completed the project.

From 12 to 6: Project Results

The results of the project were extremely telling. We could immediately identify the applicants who knew how to follow instructions, had good insights and written tact, and were excited about this specific job for reasons that made them likely to thrive here.

Half of the responses stood out as both flawless and indicative of a good fit.

From 6 to 2: Phone Interviews

At this point, conducting 30-minute phone interviews was a practical thing to do. We spoke to each of the remaining applicants about their specific experience, their interest in our company and the space in which we operate, and their interest in the job.

To be honest, all of these applicants were outstandingly qualified and any one of them would have done a great job. At this point, it was about their ability to contribute to our specific company’s unique needs and their likelihood to come in every day and enjoy the work they were doing and the people they were doing it with.

Jake and I each spoke with 3 applicants and selected one each to make it to the next round.

From 2 to 1: In-Person Interviews

We brought the two top applicants into our office to meet us face-to-face. They were obviously both exceptionally well qualified, which left us with a very difficult decision to make. After some thoughtful analysis, we made our final decision and our applicant accepted the offer on the spot.


For anyone out there applying for a job in this environment, please keep in mind that every little detail of your application may be scrutinized, and employers may be on the lookout for reasons to reject you before they start looking for reasons to hire you.

For those out there looking to make a hire in this environment, you are in the fortunate position of having many options. Don’t get intimidated by them– if you employ a disciplined approach to narrowing the field, you will end up feeling good about having made the right hire.