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Startup Secret No. 27: Brains over Background

It's harder to hire for intelligence than experience, but for startups, what you want in a new employee is a flexible mind.

"If you have to choose between intelligence and experience, choose intelligence."

--Rich Redelfs, General Partner, Foundation Capital

The majority of the time, when I ask people for Startup Secrets, I get advice about hiring. Which makes good sense. Companies are made from people, after all. How you staff makes more of a difference to your company than anything else.

But this advice from Rich Redelfs I found unique, because it raises a really big question: How do you tell the difference between experience and smarts?

Rich says, "Experience is easier to see than intelligence." Experience can be picked out of a resume. Experience can be explored in an interview by asking factual questions: What did you do? When? With whom?

Intelligence is a different issue. Hiring based on smarts requires you pay much more attention during a job interview. In large part, it's not about the questions they answer, it's about the questions they ask. Rich says, "I will error towards someone with less experience or less domain-specific experience who impresses me more with their insights."

But he also adds a warning: "Make sure you have some domain experience on your team or you won't know what you don't know."

I'll add another warning from my own experience as an editor: The ability to think is not the same as ability to do. But it is, at least, easier to teach someone how to act than how to be smart.

Startup Secrets is based on personal interviews with people building companies and from their blog posts and news stories. Subscribe to Startup Secrets on Twitter or come back to Rafe's Radar every day for a new one. See all the Startup Secrets.