Finally, Your Essential Overview of Hiring for Startups

Apr 23, 2013

q5_logoThe cost of hiring someone bad is so much greater than missing out on someone good. — Joe Kraus, partner, Google Ventures

Each company for which we recruit has a special set of circumstances and a unique story to tell. Large organizations like Raytheon sit and sell differently then giant fast-food places like McDonald’s. Google had its own special place and unique environment in terms of hiring, and hot Cambridge-based SasS startups like Quant5 also have their own set of challenges that require thoughtful navigation if hiring is to be successful. (Define successful as hiring the people you need, when you need them, and they do the job for which they have been hired.)

Like myself, those of you out there who have hired for startups know that even though a candidate might fit the bill in terms of qualifications, they still might not be the right DNA to be the right fit.

With this in mind, lets look at 12 factors that will address the people part of the equation in terms of the recruiting:

  1. Look for startup experience. Understand how a startup really works. Nothing gives a candidate a better understanding of this then having been there before. Startups involve long days and impossible tasks combined with highs and lows that often require nerves of steel. The garage startup that turns into Apple is lovely but atypical. Beware the candidate who romanticizes the startup.
  2. Seek out risk takers. Startups are far more risky then larger and more established organizations. Candidates who are open to intelligent risk are often times better candidates to hire. Look for this belief in the person you interview. Has the candidate taken risks? How have those risks turned out and how did the candidate deal with the ones that did not turn out well. Dig to get answers to these questions because it is better to find out sooner then to find out later.
  3. Hire no “yes” people. The common knowledge in American business is that when you start a new job, you be quiet and keep your opinions to yourself. Get along to go along. This is not the case in a startup. We need to hire people who are willing to tell you what they think. What they like, what they do not like, and their suggestions with which the great and might could disagree. Strong silent types might be good in other organizations, but they are not a fit for a startup. Hire folks who will tell you what they think about all things related to the path forward.
  4. Hire doers. Doug Levin, co-founder of Quant5, has told me on more then one occasion that he seeks people “who will go through walls to get things done and will simply not take no for an answer.” As an industry veteran with a Microsoft/Black Duck Software track record, I can assure you that he gets it. The bottom line is that in many organizations, if it is not done on time, no big deal. In a startup, if it is not done on time (and done well I might add) it can be a catastrophe. Hire those who possess a strong sense of urgency.
  5. Avoid Prima donnas. Those who are in love with themselves, their ideas, and/or their perceived importance will probably be a drag on the progress a startup needs to achieve. Startup folks spend a lot of time together dealing with unexpected problems, a shortage of resources, and overwhelming obstacles. Those with an attitude might not be the best hires unless they can check their ego at the door.
  6. Seek out passion. It is not easy to get the type of effort, commitment, or drive to succeed in the absence of passion. Kenny Moore, coauthor of “The CEO and the Monk,” says that “commitment is not something that can be coerced or conscribed, it can only be invited. It comes as much from the heart as from the head.” Seek out those with a passion for the things that your startup does. Example: Are you in the business of tracking recipes for multi-unit restaurants? Seek out a foodie. Is this required? No, but the passion to make it happen most certainly is. Look for those with at least a tangential interest in your business.
  7. Look for creativity. If you are in a startup, you are charting your own course. This will take creative thinking if you are to make it work. Beware the individual who has done it all and knows best practices. Best practices are nice to know, but at times they are yesterday’s news, as creative and daring solutions will be often be required. How it was done last year will often fall short. Pursue individuals who see the value of innovating with a fresh set of eyes.
  8. Hire people who are engaged. The idea for this article came from something I read yesterday. My tendency is to tell you to hire people who read, because if nothing new is going into the brain, I am not sure how anything new will be coming out. Hire those who are truly engaged because those individuals are constantly meeting and talking, reading, presenting, and writing. A good employment history is wonderful, but that is the past. Do this and your reward will be employees who are multidimensional thinkers who will add to the collective conversation big time.
  9. Seek out the evangelists. People have to do more then simply work at a startup. They have to champion it. They have to be on the hunt for opportunities to further the mission. Regardless of your title, a primary responsibility of a startup is to spread the word while identifying opportunities. Consider this: the world is made up of guests and hosts. Hosts go to a party to just eat and drink. Hosts make introductions, imagine possibilities, and enrich all who are involved. Hire hosts.
  10. Got drivers? Have you ever worked with a driver? A person who pushes through the pain and the stress to get it done? If so, you understand they are simply different from most of the usual rank and file. Spotting the drivers is not terribly difficult. They are usually unreasonable and impatient. They expect a lot of themselves, and not coincidentally, of the rest of the team as well. Bottom line? Drivers required!
  11. Look for the opportunity seeker. The type of person who joins a startup needs to be far more then just a match on experience, a friendly interview, and some good references. A person joining a start up needs to convince you that they want more than just a job. They must convince you that they seek the opportunity to influence and shape a venture that will achieve greatness. A startup person needs this vision to be successful. Look for it.
  12. Hire minimalists. A startup is usually bare bones. Tight space and tee shirts and unshaven faces. Look for folks that can not only survive but also thrive in this environment. Seek out people who know they will make big decisions and make the coffee as well. Hire folks who are OK with small workspaces and understand the importance of being frugal with whatever money/resources are available. Beware of those who came from large companies and are seeking the niceties.

One last thought. We have all worked in companies with rules that made little sense and leaders who simply got in the way. If you are going to hire for a startup, hire the right people and let them do their job.

  • Do not micromanage
  • Do not set up a bureaucracy
  • Do not get in the way

Aristotle spoke of the balance of rights and responsibilities. Simply stated, if you assign responsibility, you also must assign the concordant rights associated with that responsibility. One cannot exist in the absence of the other. Do these things and you just might be lucky enough to be a part of something that is not just successful but truly great.

This article is dedicated to all of the wonderful people in Boston who have demonstrated compassion, love, and strength of spirit.

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