Making Your First Hires: 7 Steps Every Startup Should Follow

November 14, 2018

Starting anything from scratch is challenging. It requires planning, strategy and a whole lot of hustle. Heck – writing a blog post is no walk in the park ;). But if you’re reading this, it means you’re likely thinking about starting a company – or are part of a young company. And, building a company is a little more complicated than a blog post. 

For a new company, the product or service is the starting point, but from there the challenges only keep mounting. And one of the biggest challenges any start up company faces right from the “giddy up” is hiring.

Typically, a company at its earliest stages doesn’t have lots of financing and probably very little revenue coming in, so making the key hires at the outset can be incredibly impactful to the growth, direction and culture of what the company will eventually become – and ultimately its success or failure. In other words – you better get it right.

To help, I’ve put together a list of how you can plan for, interview, and hire your first recruits based on my experience starting my own company–and helping many others grow their own.

1. Get clear on who you want to be – and the culture you want to build

Think about your company culture, products and business model and where you want to be “when you grow up” – then figure out what people you need to hire to get there.

For example, If you are building a product company, think about how the product will need to be built and the types of talent you will need to build it successfully. Understanding the business needs will help you identify the skills and experiences you may need as “non-negotiables” from you earliest hires.

From a cultural perspective, a good exercise is to have a discussion with the existing team (or yourself) on what you are as a culture currently, what you aspire to be, and how you hope to achieve this. This starts with building a set of core values or cultural pillars as your framework. Once you have this framework in place, you can focus your hiring efforts to map to the culture you are looking to build.

2. Think about hiring holistically

It’s extremely important that critical early hires possess the aptitude to learn and grow because they will wear many hats at first, and also need to be able to scale as the company grows.

Christina Luconi, a veteran of many start ups in her career and currently the Chief People Officer at Rapid7 explains it best: “Whether you are a products company or selling a service, the most critical few hires aren't necessarily a specific role. They are ultimately the people who bring a balance of skill, attitude, aptitude and culture fit.”

These hires need to be vetted for far more than just coding skills or great salesperson-ship too – there needs to be much more that oftentimes can’t be screened by just a resume. “Each person should bring complementary skills so you balance each other's strengths and weaknesses,” says Christina. “They must have a can-do attitude, and believe anything is possible...and be willing to grab a shovel and dig in to make it happen.”

It’s also essential that these first few key members of the team share a values set. “This will set the tone for the rest of the company as you add people, and is critical to alignment and understanding who you are as an organization,” says Christina. Amen. The early team you build is literally the foundation your future is built on.

3. Don’t get caught up on skills and experience

I have been in many startups throughout my career and when the subject of hiring comes up, because there are so many urgent needs to be met at first, the job descriptions for these first few hires ends up reading something like a description of Superman or Wonder Woman. While I love the characters in comics and movies, the reality is they don’t exist in real life. The key is to find the “multi-tool” employees who not only bring versatility, but the right attitude too.

So, don’t be laser focused on certain backgrounds, skills or technologies or you might be missing out on some of these versatile players you need – and also could be making the talent pool incredibly shallow from the outset. Come to a basic understanding of the “non-negotiable” skills that you need and then put everything else aside.

For example, if you are looking for developers, don’t be married to specific years of experience with specific languages. Rather, look for those who appear by their experiences to be intellectually curious and have studied or learned several languages or have worked in similar startup environments so that this will already feel familiar and less daunting to them. These types of candidates, rather than the “specialists” who focus on one language (for example) will most likely bring that versatility and intellectual curiosity you are seeking.

4. Think outside the box when it comes to interviewing – and involve the whole team

When you start interviewing, throw the “standard” format aside and treat this more as an exploratory effort on both sides. Why? Because these first few hires are so key to your success or failure you need to get to know them holistically.

So take these interviews both inside and outside the office. Have lunch or dinner together – give yourself (and them) a chance to really know each other beyond just reporting structures and work expectations.

Also, have the candidates meet the whole team, and give them the “vision” of what you want to be and how they can help. Because the team will be small at first, involving everyone at an early stage will not only allow for different conversations to happen (and thus more insight into a candidate) but will also allow the candidate to see if he or she will feel they can work in your environment and with your core team too.

5. Push your interview questions beyond just skills assessment

In order to really get to know a candidate and how they approach work, use behavioral- based questions to get the answers you need. “Tell me about a situation where you had a work goal or deliverable that seemed unachievable. How did you get it to the finish line and who did you work with to make that happen?” and other questions like these will help you uncover some of the ways these candidates think and act in situations that will come up in your company.

Here are a few more of my favorite questions to ask:

  • “Have you ever been on a team where someone wasn’t pulling their own weight? How did you handle it?"
  • “What irritates you about other people and how do you deal with it?”
  • “Tell me about a difficult work decision you had to make in the past year. What was it and what was the result?”
  • “Describe how you would handle a situation where you were required to finish multiple tasks by the end of the day when there was no conceivable way you could finish them”
  • “If I were to ask your current teammates to describe you - what would they say?”
  • “Marvel or DC”? (just kidding - I don’t ask that in interviews - but always wanted to!)

6. Set realistic expectations about the role

Especially with a startup, it’s important to set the proper expectations and what the “reality” of the work and culture will be. The last thing you want is someone signing up for something they weren’t expecting when joining.

Yael Kahana Ben-Tovim, VP Global Human Resources at Checkmarx (headquartered in Israel) is also someone who has been through these early stages and emphasizes this point in particular. “In all of my hires it was important for me to see that the candidates are aware of the challenges; that they are aware that they are working for a startup where it is all very dynamic and often unclear, and sometimes they will have to wear a couple of hats or will need to do things that are new for them or that they don’t have any experience in.”

Yes – these are things sometimes assumed by candidates when interviewing with early stage companies, but in these early key hires there can be no room for assumption – it needs to be spelled out clearly.

7. But also highlight the good stuff that comes with joining a young company

While it’s important to warn candidates that it won’t be easy, it’s also important to emphasize the many positives that come with joining an early stage company. “They need to know that things can change from day to day, hour to hour, but that it’s very challenging and the payoff can be very rewarding,” Yael explains.

This is a great point that needs to be made. Part of the interview process also needs to be focused on the sell. These candidates are talking to you for a reason. Maybe they came from a large company where their impact wasn’t as big as they wanted it to be. Maybe they are looking at the upside potential of equity, or perhaps they want a faster track in their experiences or career progression. These are all things an early stage startup can potentially address, but unless you learn WHY the candidate is looking or talking to you then you will never know how to sell to these points.

There are a ton of attractive qualities about being employee number 20 at a company, but do not assume that all the people you meet with will know it. Have your pitch ready and make sure you use it as part of the recruitment process.

Ultimately, these first hires you make will help not only to build your offerings but also be the foundation upon which your culture is built and future hires will be made from. Looking beyond just skills, understanding the sell and that versatility is key will help you find the right people at this critical early stage that will help you grow and build. Remember – Superman and Wonder Woman don’t exist, but candidates who are intellectually curious and willing to wear multiple hats do.

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