People & Human Resources, Startup Advice

Four things Aussie entrepreneurs wish they’d known before hiring their first employee

Emma Koehn /

Karen Justice from Just for Pets holding her dog

Just for Pets chief executive Karen Justice would like to see the government shift focus to support more traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses.

“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

Those words are attributed to Bill Gates, and while Microsoft doesn’t seem to have encountered too many issues attracting top talent over the years, earlier stage businesses may well be more sceptical of his idea.

Hiring staff, especially for the first time, can be a daunting and emotional process: you typically want to avoid lazy workers and instead find the people you can trust with putting your hard work and ideas into action.

Then there’s the less exciting aspects of the process, from establishing workplace policies to creating a bulletproof recruitment process. If you’ve discovered you actually needed to hire someone yesterday, how do you make sure you’re ready to select the best candidate?

We asked startup and company founders to weigh in on what they wished they’d known before hiring their first employees.

You can’t train natural talent 

The idea of other people wanting to join your venture is exciting, says founder of Bedhead Hats Richelle Ellis, but that shouldn’t cloud your judgment when deciding whether someone is truly a suitable fit.

Initially, I was so happy anyone would want to work for me that I settled for less-than-perfect mix of skills or experience for the role offered,” she explains.

Ellis says over the years she has found a worker can be trained in specific skills, but as a business owner, you won’t be able to grow natural talent if a candidate was never the right fit in the first place.

“The question I now ask myself when hiring is, ‘Will they do the task/s better than I currently can?’. The answer has to be yes,” she says.

When Ellis now fills a role at her baby and child sun hat business, the top questions are about what that person will add to the team, and how they will pull their own weight.

“If a hire proves not to have the natural talent for the role, it’s best for all parties to part ways and move forward,” she says.

Ask the right questions

Blisscare Health co-founder Igor Statkevitch says he has interviewed hundreds of candidates while building the aged care business. Over time, he’s has learned it’s important to go beyond the job description if you want to find people who will serve you long term.

If I were to do it again, I would create a different set of questions to the candidates,” he says of his early days of searching for candidates.

Rather than asking interview questions that focused on hard skills, Statkevitch says it’s also important to talk to people so you can find out whether staff will be “ready for a battle to watch each others’ backs, people for a journey with integrity and humility, and people who are not afraid to go extra mile”.

Founder of online beauty retailer Adore Beauty Kate Morris agrees that finding staff to fit your values is the most important thing.

I wish I’d known the importance of hiring for cultural fit, rather than skills or experience,” she tells SmartCompany

“Once we got to about 25 employees, we realised it was going to be difficult to continue to be the sort of company we wanted to be without identifying and reinforcing the cultural values that were important to us.”

You should be taking the time to decide what values your staff should adhere to before you start building your team, Morris says.

Read more: Why it’s time to look beyond university degrees when recruiting for your business

Set the parameters first

When I employed my first employee as a company owner, it was nothing like my past experiences, because I had nothing set in place,” says Karen Justice, chief executive of pet care buying group Just for Pets. 

There’s a temptation to hit the ground running when you hire your first employees, but the problem with not setting up staff policies and limits first is there will be plenty of work to do later on, says Justice. 

“The problem with creating rules and regulations as you go is that you identify an issue with a staff member — for example, using their mobile phone in work hours — then you have to create a policy to deal with the issue,” she says. 

“Then you try and enforce it after the problem has existed for some time, and that is so hard.”

If she had her time again, Justice says when hiring for the first time at Just for Pets she would have been armed with a policy for “everything you can think of” before she started to see candidates.

If you know what the rules are before people have a chance to start establishing new behaviours, then it’s only a matter of enforcing the rules when problems come up, which is “so much easier”, Justice says.

You’re hiring your staff’s problems and perspectives, too

Tash Tan, co-founder of virtual reality agency S1T2, hired staff for the first time having only just graduated university himself.

Reflecting on his hiring processes, he believes businesses should remember there will be times that personal issues will come into the workplace, no matter who you’ve hired or how.

Your staff and colleagues are humans, and the problems they bring to the workplace are part of being a person,” he says.

“What we perceive as a lack of productivity or disruption is more often than not a manifestation of a personal problem or state of mind.”

Chief executive of Girl Geek Academy, Sarah Moran, says startup founders also need to be prepared that their staff will bring “baggage” with them from their former roles.

You need to retrain people from their last workplace; everyone brings cultural baggage. You need to be clear about the tone and culture you want to establish in your new operation,” she says.

Building an early stage business is “tough for founders and employees”, Moran says. She recommends founders focus on seeing their staff’s past experience and perspectives as valuable, even if your end game is creating a new and innovative environment.

“You also need to recognise that the past experience and perspective of your team members is highly valuable in offering you a fresh angle and a diverse perspective,” she says.

Tan says ultimately, a great employer will also help their staff find solutions to their problems too. 

“Empathy is in a lot of ways the key to success,” he says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

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