Updated: Feb 24
What separates hiring in a startup from “regular” hiring is pressure. You already know about that, right. As a startup founder, your priority is to mind your cash-flow runway and to get the best people for the job as soon as possible. Or else you’re risking running out of runway.
In this post, I’ll focus on actionable tips you can use to make the most of your early hiring. People who join you in this phase will be the ones creating your (company’s) future, so it’s crucial to do it right.
I won’t talk about stuff like building your employer brand, specific sourcing strategies, or software tools you can use. All of these are important but can be expensive for early startups. Following these tips will get you on the right path to do all those things properly later on.
1. Create enough time for sourcing and hiring
It takes a lot of time to find, recruit and motivate the best people for your startup. Early startup founders often think their time is best spent doing more important tasks - there’s always urgent product stuff or clients to tend to, right? One of the most common founders’ regrets is not spending enough time hiring early on. Both successful and failed startup founders agree on this. Building a great team early on enables you to do more, faster. So, whatever time you’re planning to spend hiring, double it. You won’t go wrong.
You'll often feel like this as a startup founder
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of cultural fit
You’ve probably heard that "culture eats strategy for breakfast". Ain’t that the truth. I can’t stress the importance of this one enough. The reasons are more simple than you think. Working in a startup, you’re going to spend a lot of time with the people in your team. I won’t preach about work-life balance, you know how much you actually work. Your team doesn't have to be “a family”, but you have to at least like and respect each other. It will make all your lives easier. Also, sometimes, it’s better to choose the person with less experience if they share your passion. It’s something that can’t be taught, and the more passionate they are, the faster they learn along the way. For example, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were Montessori kids. They shared similar values, and they built their early product and team in a way that reflects that.
3. Work on your startup vision
Business plans and strategies are a must, but a vision is what separates truly successful startups from side projects. Think about it, write about it, tell people about it and test it. Early hiring is a great way to do that. If you manage to convince your employees and/or co-founders to risk everything and join you, you’ll be able to land more clients later on. Make sure that the story you tell your (future) employees is based on reality and not wishful thinking, though. Whatever the plan for your company is, it will fail if your team is not on board. Teams whose members share the same/similar values go a long way.
Early startup hiring is a great way to work on your vision
4. Hire from your personal network, but know that it has its limits
Best candidates are people you trust, so hire people from your personal network as often as possible. This is especially true in your startup’s early phases when money’s tight. Also, when people bring their people to the team, it makes it easier to onboard new members and to build a trusting and cohesive environment.
But, be aware of the fact that your network can’t handle all your hiring needs, especially if you’re growing fast. Be ready to get more proactive sooner rather than later.
"Your network can’t handle all your hiring needs..."
5. Don’t expect miracles from people you poach from competitors
And I’m not even talking about the ethical aspect of snatching candidates. The real problem lies in the fact that your competitors are most likely in later phases of their growth. Their operations are probably drastically different from yours, and their experience may not be what your early startup needs. Sometimes, they might be a perfect fit for your product and team, but there’s always a possibility that they're a bad apple that’s going to cost you more than you can afford in the long run.
Beware of bad apples. Both real, and metaphorical ones.
6. Diversify your team
By this, I’m referring to a mistake that many early tech startups make - thinking that hiring more devs will solve ALL their problems. So they do exactly that, and they end up with a house full of very capable people with the same mindset. Which ultimately makes them all shortsighted.
To truly realize all your creative potentials, you’ll need people who don't think like you. Full disclosure, I’m a psychologist, so I may be a little biased, but people from the humanities can bring a much-needed perspective to the tech sector. Also, you’ll have to pay them less (at least initially), and they are often more motivated due to their career context switch. It's worth thinking about.
"To truly realize all your creative potentials, you’ll need people who don't think like you."
7. “Don’t settle - search for the exceptional”
I’m getting a bit poetic towards the end, but hear me out. Just before writing this, I talked to Farseer co-founder and CTO Luka Mijatović, about the one, most important advice he’d give to other growing startup founders and this is what he told me. Budgets and deadlines sometimes cloud your judgment, so you may chicken out, make a safe choice, and hire a person that’s not necessarily the best but simply - available. You should be bold, which in this case means that you should wait it out. If you did everything I wrote about here correctly, exceptional people will be drawn to you by themselves.
Don't settle for less. You'll get used to the pressure eventually.
In the end, let me remind you that this here is not a solution to all your hiring problems. These are tips you need to have in mind while creating your own hiring strategy. As you’re probably already aware, building a company is A LOT of work. This is just what we learned while building ours.