How to Hire for Your Growing Startup
Founding a startup is a lot like conducting an experiment. You’re combining a concoction of people without knowing beforehand how they’ll mix or what they’ll create. And then, hopefully, building your team starts to involve less guesswork and more informed, strategic choices. That’s how it was at Roomi. I made some mistakes in the beginning, but as we’ve grown from one to 22, I’ve gotten better at hiring a balanced, productive, diverse, and synergistic team. Here are some tips I’d give other startup founders struggling with those tough early hiring decisions.
1. In the beginning, focus on the product.
A marketing person was my third hire, but that should’ve come way later. I had nothing to market! Companies are like people: They don’t need an online presence until they’re grown up. Creating a Twitter handle for a three-person company is like creating one for a baby. They’ve got nothing to tweet about. Hire people who can make your product. Only once it exists should you even think about marketing or selling it.
2. Hire to solve problems.
Along those same lines, don’t hire someone who will just create new work for your company to do. Hire someone who will fill holes that currently exist in the organization. Build a solid foundation before adding new stuff on top of it.
3. Don’t hire just for street cred.
It might sound impressive to have someone who’s served as a manager at a well-known company, but the skills that job took are going to be different from the skills it takes to work with just a handful of people. Managing a group is nothing like working on your own. Determine what work style is necessary for your early employees, and hire people who work well that way.
4. Ask candidates where they see themselves in five years — and where they saw themselves five years ago.
I know. It’s a trick question. But that’s why I ask it. I’m not looking for any particular answer. I’m just looking for someone confident enough to be honest. Someone who can say, for example, “I have no idea, and I’m cool with that” or “the past five years have not been what I expected, but damn, have they been interesting.” “I planned to be here, and I know exactly where I’m going next” is fine, too. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s real. Startups require a transparent environment, so you need honest, open, down-to-earth people, not people who revert to pretentious corporate talk and scripted responses.
5. Maintain an even gender and racial balance.
Filling a team with diverse perspectives makes it better, so talk to every type of applicant. Some might say to just find the best person for the job instead of hiring for diversity, but that’s nonsense. Those goals go hand in hand. It’s totally feasible to find someone who adds diversity and is better than any other candidate. If that means spending more time searching, it’s worth it.
6. Hire people you enjoy spending time with.
It seems obvious, but too often, managers hire people they don’t even like solely based on their professional skills. This creates the kind of atmosphere where people are miserable going to work every day. Startup employees often have to pull long hours, and the only thing that gets you through that is liking the people you’re working with.
7. Start with a trial period.
You can get to know someone a bit during an interview, but you just can’t predict how they’ll interact with all their coworkers. That’s why I first hire people as contractors for a month, and then if everything goes well, I bring them on long-term.
8. Devote time to team-building.
Hiring the right people is just the first step toward creating a positive company culture. You also need to help them bond. I do this by pairing people up for coffee breaks, holding team dinners, and organizing annual retreats. These things might seem secondary to the work itself, but people won’t put as much of themselves into their work if they’re not enjoying it. And they won’t enjoy it if they’re not around people they like.