Tyler Cowen hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Conversations with Tyler. He is an older guy (b. 1962) in academia hosting an economics podcast, and with that resume comes a particular archetype. He shatters that archetype. He was an early adopter of blogging and is training an AI to use his voice for the release of this audiobook. Cowen seeks and absorbs information at an alarming rate, and uses that to ask provocative questions in an uncomfortably direct manner to his guests. Whether the guest is an expert on blockchain technology, a behavioral economist, a religion historian, or an ultramarathon organizer, Cowen comes prepared and leaves his guests with an unforgettable and challenging interview. No softballs here. 

Talent is a book about identifying talent in founder or CEO roles – specifically “project drivers” that have a creative spark. Both authors have extensive experience interviewing candidates for access to funding. Gross comes from a venture capital background, and Cowen has a fellowship and grant program called Emergent Ventures. They found common and recurring traits in the founders that went on to be successful, despite the vastly different application pool. 

I have a few takeaways from this book: 

  1. Identifying talent is still something that comes with repetition. This book has useful interview questions and techniques to use, but it’s not like reading this book is going to help you compete with Y Combinator. 
  2. A good interview is one that is impossible to prepare for. This puts the candidate in a position to showcase their active mind, think on the spot, and ability to interchange concepts between disciplines. For example, Talent promotes questions like:
    1. What is your favorite conspiracy theory?
    2. Would you prefer an alternate ending to {movie} and what would it be? 
    3. What did you like to do as a child?
    4. If you weren’t with us in 3 or 6 months, why would that be? 
    5. How ambitious are you? – one of Cowen’s favorites. 
  3. In a digital world, the skills required for the same job might be different than they were 5 years ago. For instance, a traditional salesperson would be charming, gracious, and commanding. Are those traits still relevant when deals are closed over Zoom? Interview in the setting they are expected to perform in. 

I’ve highlighted the broadly applicable takeaways. One critique I have of the book is that the interview techniques are for a very specific audience. Most of the examples provided in the book are centered around tech talent and finding the next Unicorn founder. Unfortunately, outside insights are only one or two connections away from the authors. The authors’ reflections on individual contributor interview strategies are qualitative and lacking insight. 

I’ve interviewed a few people (for clients) after reading this book and have sprinkled in a few of these interview questions. It’s been fun to mix it up and put the candidate back on their heels a little bit. 

Ultimately, I found this a useful read to prepare myself for conversations with our clients who are seeking money. This book was written for investors. These are the techniques investors will use to assess worthiness. If I can help my client prepare for a modern approach to talent identification, my client has a better chance of getting that check!