The first person you hire will have a vast amount of power and influence in your organisation – no matter what their job title – because they will be the first “outsider” to shape your day-to-day culture. So how can you ensure that you make the right choice when it comes to hiring employee number one?
Is the time right?
“Needing to employ someone” is not the same as “needing some things doing” and you confuse the two at your peril. When you hire someone to be part of your organisation you’re making a big investment: in salary, in benefits, in employment rights and in training and development. In return you’re growing your organisation’s size and capacity, and developing its culture. If that’s the stage you’re at then fine, but if you just need another pair of hands around the place, consider hiring contractors or freelancers so you don’t shoulder the burden of these extra commitments. Interns can also be a great resource and a good way for you to figure out what kind of an employer you are and want to be. Many students from great universities want startup experience on their CVs or as first-hand exposure before starting up on their own, so make sure you offer them that in exchange.
Do not wait to hire until you are inundated with work. Making the first hire is almost as important as finding a co-founder, so you want to be able to pay full attention to the process and not be pressured to pick among the first available candidates unless they fit the bill. Anticipate and start the process already before you absolutely need another pair of hands on deck.
Try before you buy
Consider employing your first hire on a short-term contract basis, at least initially, or have an explicit 90-day probationary period with a minimal notice period. If things aren’t working out with your first employee then it’s important to have the flexibility to make a quick change – remember that they are having a huge impact on your culture so every day they spend with you is important.
Find out if you can take advantage of creative guerilla practices in this. One startup we know of is able to offer a one week paid trial period that the candidate can take while taking a week of vacation from their current employer. This may not work with all legislations and cultures (and possibly only works in countries with lots of vacation time by default) but it is an example of how you can hack a part of the recruiting process. Even a couple of days could work in some cases. This also makes it possible to do the interviewing more casually, as a part of working together on something.
Think about your CV and the way it relates to your day-to-day role in your startup. You’ll probably have realised that there is little direct correspondence between the skills and qualifications that you have on paper, and the gamut of roles that you play for your organisation. Your first hire is going to have to be a bit of a generalist too, so CV sifting isn’t necessarily the best way to find a perfect fit. Instead you want to find particular personality types. Your first hire will need to be:
- Passion for doing – you want someone who follows their passion in their work. If there is one single indicator of potential success, it’s an individual who will do anything to achieve their passions - talk to them about it and make sure their passions run deep.
- Tenacious – the going will get tough at times and you need someone who won’t quit on you at the first sign of difficulty.
- Flexible – your startup is going to evolve a lot over the coming months and years. You need someone who isn’t wedded to one particular way of working.
- Smart – there are different kinds of smart, but your first hire needs to be smart on as many fronts as possible. Can they programme and talk to investors? Can they do great PR and give good tech support? Find someone who is strongest where you’re weakest, and respect their edge!
- Productive – you don’t want a person who delights in long hours. You want a person who delights in getting things done. Listen carefully to their interview answers. Does this person stress effort in or results out? Take the latter over the former any time. Greg Jakacki in this video from Build 0.9 puts this as only hiring people who are smart and get things done. Elad Gil urges you to Hire For The Ability To Get Shit Done.
Many successful leaders point out that they have managed to surround themselves with people smarter than they are. You usually hire people to do a specific thing with a specific skillset. This is another reason why waiting until you are overworked before you hire is not a good idea. If you really are bringing on board people who are smarter than you, maybe you’ll find out that the things you have been packing your schedule with haven’t been the right ones after all, and the person with a specific skillset is able to help your startup on the right path sooner rather than later.
It can be had to find high-quality candidates for your startup. Recruitment consultants aren’t necessarily than answer, as they have an incentive to get you to accept a candidate quickly, whereas you really need to take your time. Try crowdsourcing your recruitment; hiring on university campuses, hackathons and tech fairs; and using your networks. Consider interviewing that user who keeps sending you bug reports (especially if they also send you ideas for fixes). Get out there and network – you have to be doing this for your startup anyway, so all along the way you should be keeping track of anyone who might be a potential hire.
Place your personal ad with care. Inside Startups carried out a survey of responses to startup job adverts and learned the following:
- Job listings that mention positive press coverage are over half as likely again to generate interest as job listings that mention the names of investors. Blue Chip VCs have little pull but mentioning that you’ve been featured in an article on Tech Crunch can lead to a 51% upturn in clickthroughs.
- Focus on benefits rather than sector. Supposed “cool” sectors like fashion, entertainment or sports had no more pull than B2B or finance. However, details of specific benefits, like training for example, lead to a 27% increase in clickthroughs.
- 24% of startup job ads use the term “Ninja” and 31% use the term “Rockstar” – enough already. Write an ad that reflects the unique culture of your startup and look out for those potential hires who reply in kind.
Differentiate your startup. What do you have that is different – from technology to location to customers to perks, highlight the special things about your startup. Transparency creates trust, and trust is important for attracting potential hires. For more, watch one of the most liked talks from our Build events, Tine Thygesen on Building Great Teams.
Remember that Employee Number One will be working with you, your clients and your investors so you need to find someone who really fits the bill. As the old saying (almost) goes: hire in haste, repent at leisure.
A few more recommended articles on the topic:
Use the Pygmallion Effect for building a high-performing team - high expectations are the key to high performance; read here how to turn that into an asset for your team.
Steve Jobs, Superhero - how one of the greatest CEOs motivated his team.