How to hire for your startup, and the ‘fatal mistakes’ to avoid

startup hiring

M8 Ventures founder Alan Jones. Source: Supplied.

Hiring team members for a startup is not like hiring employees for a normal company, and very little of your experience will carry over. I don’t know everything, but this is what I think I’ve learned along the way.

You can’t build a great team if you can’t recruit a team

Think about what you have to offer a potential co-founder or team member, and what that must look like to them vs not working in a startup. No wonder persuading people to join a startup is hard:

Why would anybody in their right mind want to take a job at a startup?

For every 100 job candidates with similar skills, there might be only a few in a personal, financial, legal and emotional state that allows them to consider joining a startup. And it’s very likely that many of those people are the founders of a startup of their own.

If you don’t know how to find these people, start to learn now

It’s a common but potentially fatal mistake to wait until you have a job before you start learning how to recruit a candidate.

Since we’re hiring a very difficult-to-find sort of candidate, for a very different kind of business, we need to think outside the box.

You will need to experiment with different messaging, different distribution channels, and different interview processes to maximize your chances of finding the right candidates for your startup team.

Keep the following in mind, and raise them with the founders of other startups you get to know:

  • What small, underground, secret job boards do experienced founders and team members use find each other?
  • Are there things other than job boards people use to find this kind of role at a startup?
  • If you can’t offer a lot of money, great working conditions, job security or a trusted brand, what can you offer instead?

Test some of your own ideas; design experiments that let you establish whether your ideas are validated or not. It might take some time to get your team member acquisition strategies to work effectively — maybe a year, or more. Do you want to do that year of experimentation before you need to hire someone, or after you need them to start work?

You don’t get to call all the shots

Another very common mistake founders make is to think startup jobs are a one-way, linear process, where the employer or hiring manager writes a job description and a job advertisement, collects a bunch of candidates, interviews them, and employees the best candidate to do the job, as specified by the job description.

You don’t have the time to see enough candidates to find the perfect person to perform the duties in the job description.

What you need to do instead is allow for some collaboration and negotiation with some of the talented, motivated and/or experienced people who are interested enough to consider taking a huge risk in joining your startup.

They’ve got their own set of skills, experience, aspirations, and motivations, and one thing you can offer them in lieu of job security, great pay and regular hours is the opportunity to collaborate on what their job description should be.

In six months, the job will have changed beyond recognition. So hire for attitude, hire for potential, and hire for raw talent.

Don’t:

  • Specify minimum years of experience.
  • Specify stack or tools closely.
  • Specify particular academic qualifications.

Do:

  • Assess for history of (or interest in) self-directed learning to develop new skills — what have they taught themselves to do recently, and why?
  • Look beyond qualifications and years of experience — what future potential does this person have? Remember in many startups the role changes so much it’s a completely different job every six months.
  • Consider drive, determination, self-reliance, and chutzpah.

Don’t jump in with both feet

If possible, don’t hire full-time employees, because if you can’t afford the time to hire one person for a role, you certainly can’t afford the time to hire their replacement if they don’t work out.

Hire each team member for a short project associated with the kind of work you would like them to perform first and evaluate the results; then hire them as a part-time contractor, then as a full-time contractor, and in time, eventually, make them a full-time employee.

Some tips on startup teams

Having a shared purpose is the first prerequisite of building a great team. You sharing your vision with the team is not having a shared vision. Collaborating on what the vision should be, might be a shared vision.

The shared purpose isn’t a mission statement at the beginning of a business plan, it’s something you and the team should revise, test with customers, learn, and change over time.

I learned training my dog that I get more of the behavior I reward, and the same is true of working with people. You don’t get what you hope for, ask for, or demand — you get what you reward. And negative rewards are as powerful as positive rewards — sometimes people will repeat a behaviour they’ve been disciplined for in the past because that attention is valuable to them, even when it’s negative attention.

Diversity is the key to a high performing team. If everyone comes from a similar background, they will think similarly, so how will the team think differently to find new, better solutions to customer problems?

Micromanagement doesn’t scale down to the small size and low staff budget of a startup. Collaborate on setting the destination and the timeframe, and then let the team members plan and then commit to how they’re going to get there.

Author Dan Pink says people need autonomy (control over their work). They want to pursue mastery (work that helps them become better). They need a strong purpose (working on what matters). They also need to feel like you trust them to get it done.

Rituals are powerful. Establishing rituals (daily stand-ups, weekly meetings, one-on-ones, retrospectives or ‘retros’) helps ensure that the team stays on track. However, rituals often become a goal unto themselves instead of a mechanism for achieving a goal. Don’t let the importance of the ritual of having a stand-up be greater than the importance of making the rapid process and being flexible to individual needs.

Finally, if there’s one founder superpower more powerful than any other, it is the ability to have uncomfortable conversations right now, rather than putting them off. Feedback validates the direction and helps you with a course correction. The sooner you correct course, the shorter time it will take to get there.

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