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How to Hire Game-Changing Employees For Your Startup
This post is most aimed at unfunded (or minimally funded) startups; hustlers that are getting their idea off the ground and are looking to hire their very first staff members. The difference is we aren’t talking about how to handle that level of funds in this post. However, a lot of this advice applies equally well to ultra-funded unicorns as to bootstrappers, since we’re looking at the psychology and approach to hiring that’s necessary to grow a business.
We will not be exploring the legal aspect of hiring—like dealing with the IRS, or employee ID numbers, or labor laws—because that’s all cut-and-dried information you can find anywhere. The goal of this article is to show you how to hire employees that will improve and impact your startup; employees that are the best possible fit for taking your company to the next level, and making sure you get your hiring right first time.
You could argue that laying substantial groundwork for your first hires is unnecessary—better to be fast and take a risk, than slow down. And it’s true that “at will” labor laws mean you can always fire someone if it doesn’t work out—but can your startup afford that? Can your mental health?
You’re going to need to put a lot of energy into every new hire, so making sure they’re the best possible fit will save you a lot of time, energy and pain in the long run. Let’s get into it.
How to Get Started
As a startup founder, your priority should be plugging the biggest gaps in the business’s skill set. If you’ve already got version 1.0 of your product or service ready to sell, it’s tempting to immediately leap to marketing or advertising. Hire a marketing pro to get as many customers through the door as possible!
But if your products aren’t 100% meeting customer expectations every time? Then now isn’t the time to focus on marketing, but product improvement! That leads to two outcomes:
- You bring in someone with the skills to take over product improvement (or that you can quickly train), or
- You invest more of your time in products, and hire someone to handle administrative or other jobs that you’ll be neglecting
But maybe your products are fantastic already. If so, what’s your production capacity like? If it’s easy to create large quantities of your product, or if it’s an easily scalable service, then increasing the advertising spend might be the way to go.
When you’re thinking about hiring, you need to focus on the areas where additional hands will have the biggest impact straight out the gate. In other words, what are your highest-risk weaknesses right now?
Your job is to find, within reason, the best possible candidate for that role. They’re going to be responsible for a huge stake of your business, and so putting time and effort into recruitment will be highly rewarded. (Or, if you prefer the pessimistic outlook, cutting corners on recruitment could devastate your company).
Unfortunately this isn’t always as straightforward as we’d like.
Hire the person, not just the skills
Working for a fresh-faced startup is extremely different to joining an established business. Small, medium, large, enterprise—what established businesses all have in common is that they offer safe, predictable environments. As a rule, most employees can stay in their niche areas, go home at 5 o’clock and take home a competitive salary.
As you probably know, the world of startups is very different. In the early stages (and that can span several years or, unfortunately, the entire short lifetime of the company) you just can’t afford siloed job roles. Every employee needs to wear a multitude of hats: the sales guy needs to do customer support; the founder needs to pack boxes; the marketing exec needs to give product demos.
Hazy boundaries are inevitable, and that makes them important. The actual jobs need to be reflected in the candidate’s expectations: if you hire a marketing all-rounder with a remit of getting more leads, and then expect them to do a bunch of other jobs they weren’t expecting…that’s a recipe for tension. Some people will love that multi-purpose dynamic. Others will hate it and want to do the thing they’re actually good at (and were hired for) 100% of the time. Which is of course completely reasonable.
Not everyone knows what startup life is really like, and most don’t want to find out. But the reality is that your fledgling business needs dynamic, multi-purpose employees. It can’t support staff that are unwilling to work hard, learn and apply new skills, give up weekends, and go the extra mile on a regular basis. (Unless you engage contractors—which we will cover!)
Common “startup traits” to look for
There is no one-size-fits-all “type” of employee to look for. And just because roles blend somewhat doesn’t make technical skill sets anything less than extremely important. However, there are still a few traits that we’ve consistently found in the most successful startup employees:
- Ambition — Most jobs are simply about doing “enough”; to work in a startup environment, you have to be pushing for something, always trying to get somewhere further. There is absolutely a place for workers that are content where they are, but it’s not in your young company.
- Work ethic — There’s no room for passing the buck or shirking tasks in a startup. There will be long hours, myriad different tasks and heaps of pressure. New employees don’t need to be superman, but they do need to understand the long-term payoffs of consistent effort. You need to hire people that are happy to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in; that generate value and self-worth from working this way.
- Sense of responsibility — The best startup employees have a natural bias towards action. They can run with incomplete knowledge and consider time doing nothing to be time wasted. Your best employees will take ownership of tasks beyond those you’ve specifically assigned; if they notice a problem, they’ll use their brain to fix it. Not for praise, but because that’s just how they work.
- Adaptability — Startup life means thinking on your feet. Look for candidates that have evidence of adjusting to tumultuous times, moving with changeable briefs, adapting to uncomfortable circumstances. If your candidates have only ever worked stable, predictable jobs, make sure they prove that they can handle a more mercurial role.
- Acceptance of failure — This is a hard one to screen for, so simply talk to prospective candidates about failure. It is the most fundamental “hack” for growth: trying, failing, learning, and trying again. The more painful the failure, the bigger the lesson—you need employees who not only understand, but live this attitude.
Create a hiring strategy for long-term
If things go well with your startup, eventually you’re either going to go for funding or grow organically. Either way, you need to have a plan for where you’re taking the business. Of course this is subject to change, but your initial hires should be part of a bigger scheme; you should have a 12 to 60 month vision that you’re building towards.
This means considering what your team(s) is going to look like down the line. You’re hiring for today’s problems, but also for the future you’re building towards. For every role you put together, make sure to consider how that role might evolve with time, to serve a purpose beyond the initial “startup” stage.
Should you work with recruiters on these hires? Honestly, at the early stages, it’s not usually a worthwhile investment: recruiters are expensive and the type you can actually afford are probably going to throw candidates at you indiscriminately. A better option would be to explore your existing network: try to find eager, energetic employees through people you more-or-less trust.
At the same time, realistic job adverts are a good move. They’re cheap to post, and because most job posts are absolutely chronic, you have a real opportunity to stand out from the crowd, catch people’s attention, and light their imagination on fire.
In addition to thinking about this high-level strategy, it can pay to form a specific, play-by-play action plan to keep you on course.
Example 6-step hiring plan
Part of your strategy is what we just discussed: strategy. Long-term vision for the company and what your team is going to look like. The other part is a literal plan: how will we go about recruiting people?
Well here’s one approach:
- Identify the need — You’ve already done this part by finding the highest-priority skill gaps in your startup.
Create & share the job description — This should include a job title (don’t fixate on this) and actual responsibilities, but also details about boundaries, extra responsibilities, growth potential, and character traits. Always include a salary range (or minimum) to avoid deterring good candidates.
Spread the job around your network and on job boards/recruitment sites. Leverage social media.
- Review applicants — Allow a few weeks (if you have time) for applications to come in and set aggressive filtering criteria. Screen candidates and take notes as to why you like them and what you want to see demonstrated at the interview. Invite as few candidates as possible to interview.
- Interview candidates — Have a single round of interviews, unless completely torn between candidates. Focus largely on their personality, mindset and attitude, and make any skills tests or interviews concise and relevant.
- Check references — If an applicant has relevant references and you feel the need to check them, do so now. This shouldn’t be considered compulsory—you’re your own judge of character and references are very rarely 100% candid.
- Make an offer — Don’t hang around here. Make the offer and make it clear you’re keen to start as soon as possible!
There are multiple steps you could “skip” here, but the end result is likely to worsen and the medium-long term effects on your business are not worth it. Invest time in this process and you’ll be rewarded heavily in their performance and your company’s success.
How to frame your company benefits
When hiring employees for a startup, you won’t usually have the luxury of offering “competitive” salaries and benefits. Since this is one of the key tools for securing top talent at established businesses, we need to consider what you can do to compensate.
So how does a company that’s offering sub-competitive wages, long hours, and multi-faceted job requirements compete with big salaries, healthcare, and paid time off?
You start with the culture. The lifestyle of the startup world. Your main focus should be on selling the glory and passion of living in this world. Few skilled and ambitious workers join startups for the blockbuster day zero salary; they do it for the cause, the potential they could reach and the tangible difference they can make during the journey. Even if you have exceptional funding, always aim to ignite that fire in each applicant’s belly, that desire to be part of something great. It will help you lure out the best people.
The other option is to talk openly about the potential future benefits:
- If you stay here then…
- If we reach X goal then…
- Your career progression could be…
Paint a realistic picture of a bright future and offer to back these up in the contract, tied to overall business success. It may not be concrete, but it could help lure in some overqualified candidates.
Should you invest in contractors?
The vast majority of this post is about full-time employees. However, sometimes you’ll come across skill gaps that you just can’t bridge with your team’s skill set—or that you could bridge, but not to a high enough standard.
For example, say you’re applying for funding that’ll transform your business’s future—amazing! That application is now almost certainly the most important thing in your entire business. Hiring a pitching expert to get you over the line (contractor of course, not employee) might be a life-changing investment.
Or you’re launching your first paid ads campaign. Giving a veteran copywriter 2 hours to review + fix problems on your landing page, or a backend ads pro 2 hours to fix your allocations and algorithms…this occasional spending on freelancers and contractors is a necessary part of running a startup.
Why? Because unfortunately your business needs a diverse range of skills and you just can’t hire them all at a world-class level. Certainly not early on. Spending high hourly rates to get genuinely expert contributions, in small doses, can massively boost your business.
Now having said all that, there are plenty of “specialist” tasks which are not urgent or life-threatening—tasks that you can deliver to a less-than-pro standard with a marginal effect on the business:
- It’s better to have an average website than spend $5,000 getting the copy done
- It’s better to make your own silly, low-budget TikToks than pay an expensive influencer
- It’s better to fudge your way through Quickbooks than pay for a virtual CFO
In an ideal world, these tasks would all be allocated to experts and that would produce better results—but if they’re not mission critical right now, then you can hold off on that spending. You can paint over a lot of cracks early doors. It’s your job as founder, however, to identify the areas where true professional help is needed and always bite the bullet in those cases.
This was a fairly deep exploration into identifying and hiring the best employees for your startup, but you’ll notice that the physical “hiring steps” (like posting job ads and running interviews) isn’t the main focus. Our real goal was to share advice for understanding exactly what candidates you needed, and how to appeal to them.
Recruitment into startups is rarely easy. You have virtually nothing to offer in terms of cash or benefits, and yet you actually need significantly more driven and quick-thinking employees than most established companies call for. Knowing which traits to look for, having a long-term vision for your staff and knowing how to plug the gaps with contractors will all contribute to good hiring decisions.
Now you just have to cross your fingers that the right prospects see your ads and get in touch!