Beware of the Purple Unicorn (with Wings)

Beware of the Purple Unicorn (with Wings)

Recently, there has been a back and forth on how to properly interview job candidates. While I won’t wade into this debate, most companies doom their chances of a successful hire before their interviewers even get into the room with a candidate. This is because most hiring companies suffer from the ‘purple unicorn with wings’ syndrome.

The problem

Many companies don’t understand their hiring needs, and, as a result, have only a vague idea of what defines a great job candidate. This may especially be true for early stage companies run by first-time or technical CEO’s, who may have never hired finance, sales, or marketing people before, for example.

In this situation, a reasonable and common approach is to seek advice and gather input from various sources including recruiters, former colleagues, peers, board members, and mentors. Everyone with an opinion will happily weigh in on your needs.

With contradictory input which may include personal biases and experiences not relevant to you, companies will end up posting job descriptions for which no ideal candidate actually exists. Here’s an example.

Wanted: Head of Marketing to help take our hot start-up to the next level. Ideal candidate:

  • Hands on and willing to roll up sleeves
  • Previous experience managing 20+ person team
  • Strategic thinker
  • Expert with Marketo, lead nurturing, and content marketing
  • Great public speaker
  • Intimate knowledge of SEO and A/B testing
  • Comfortable executing guerrilla marketing campaigns
  • Able to manage multi-million dollar marketing budget
  • B2C and B2B experience
  • Previous work experience at Salesforce, Google, Dropbox, Airbnb, Splunk, Workday (or name the hot company of your choice)

This may sound like an exaggeration, but not by much actually from what I hear.

With this type of job description, the following tends to happen:

  1. Company interviews lots of candidates but position remains open for extended time because no one is the ideal fit
  2. Company either gives up and never fills the role or ‘settles’ for someone
  3. In case of the latter, remorse and frustration soon set in for the company, the new employee, or both
  4. The employee leaves the company soon after and hiring process starts anew
  5. Company hires someone who is the antithesis of the previous hire
  6. This hire is unsuccessful as well (for different reasons) and soon parts ways with the company
  7. Company develops (possibly unfair) reputation of being hard place to work impacting their ability to attract top candidates for role going forward
  8. Previous hires get dinged for short stints making it difficult for them to apply for future positions for which they may be ideally suited.

The solution

Avoid chasing a mythological creature. Here’s how:

1. Work backwards

Develop specific job requirements by starting with the desired results and outcomes.

  • Are you planning to double revenue next year?
  • Will you be launching a new offering?
  • Does the company plan to expand internationally?
  • Are you trying to attract customers in new segments?
  • How are engineering, sales, finance, marketing, operations expected to contribute to these overall goals?
  • What skills and prior experiences are most relevant in each of these areas to help contribute to these objectives?

Start with the desired business results, translate and break those down by department, and then identify the missing skills required to meet those objectives. Not only will this focus your job specifications, it will also enable you to clearly identify and measure success metrics for the role.

2. Focus on what’s core

Even after you have honed the job requirements, it may still be difficult to find candidates that meet all of the criteria. The next step is determining the skills you want to retain internally vs those that can be contracted.

There are a number of individual contractors and consulting agencies that specialize in areas such as demand generation, quality assurance, web design, public relations, and finance. Once you have established some basic assumptions and understanding around your company and its offerings, it should be easier to contract for necessary but non-essential skills and optimize hiring for experience and skills you deem critical to your business.

3. Hire for today and not the perfect future 

Keep in mind that your needs will change over time. For example, in a company’s early stages, you‘ll spend significant time trying to determine product-market fit. In this phase, it doesn’t make sense to hire a demand generation rock star, since you’re far from having a repeatable sales and marketing model.

Be realistic regarding immediate needs and ruthlessly eliminate incidental job qualifications that may be relevant in the future only if all the stars perfectly align.


It is very easy to over-specify job qualifications, especially for unfamiliar roles. This will most likely lead to frustration and failed hiring.

After all, it’s hard to find a unicorn. Finding a purple one is even more difficult. Finding a purple unicorn with wings? Rest assured: no such creature even exists.

What are some of the traps and best practices you’ve seen around hiring?

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