I strongly believe in the power of the right people in the right place. For a startup, this makes the difference between life and death. While there aren’t two startups alike, the things I will talk about in this article apply to all of them.
I was fortunate enough to learn a lot of things the hard way and I want to share them with both early entrepreneurs and people who are wasting their potential instead of joining a startup.
What’s a startup?
I guess that my definition of a startup is not in line with Wikipedia. I believe that any company that struggles to build something – be that a product, business or even a market, without following a clear recipe or process is a startup.
Startups are not necessarily born innovative, in fact they discover a lot of things by accident. It’s the market that will eventually label them as innovative. Startup teams don’t really have much time to think about it.
So basically, if you are following a commonly accepted process or a proven recipe to build the new venture, you’re definitely not building a startup. It’s very important to understand this difference, as it will dramatically influence your success.
Most startups are built by groups of friends, former colleagues, relatives, people who trust each other.
The first lesson I’ve learned is that only in very few cases the original founders stay together all the way. If the startup is not successful, co-founders most often blame one another for the failure. Naturally, at least one party is right, simply because it’s very unlikely for all these people to be startup-like (I’ll explain later what this means). Interestingly enough, things are not necessarily getting better even if the startup is successful. Basically, it’s the same story – one party feels like she/he’s doing most of the job and wants to take full control. Fights, in this case, are definitely more interesting. 🙂
If you have just started building your startup or you plan to do it in the near future, pay great attention! No matter what you do, there are big chances to ruin your relationship with those friends, colleagues or family members. Are you willing to take the risk?
The core people
Founders are responsible for building the first things on their own. This greatly depends on budgeting, but money should not influence the way you get people onboard. In most cases, it does – that’s a huge mistake. For example, if you have a lot of money (maybe due to an investment), you’re very tempted to grow the organization quite early. You’ll make sacrifices on the people you’re hiring – mostly because finding great people takes a lot of time and money cannot buy you that time.
My advice is to focus on people no matter how much money you have. The first people you are going to hire are vital for the success of the business you’re building. And they will become even more important in the long run.
Worst people to hire
The worst people you can get are by a very large margin highly specialized professionals. Only on very rare occasions, you’ll be needing experts among your first employees.
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field” – Niels Bohr
Many founders dream of winning over great programmers from whatever large, highly acknowledged company. Or the experienced chief of marketing known for those great campaigns everyone is talking about. Such people might indeed be very competent, but it’s unlikely that they will be able to help you, simply because they need a different structure in order to work efficiently and produce results.
When you are highly specialized, you rely on others to do some things you cannot afford to. You are used to very precise recipes and processes. But a startup does not have these in place, remember the definition?
The worst thing about these people is that they become frustrated pretty fast. There are multiple reasons for this: the problems you’re dealing with are most likely outside their core expertise, your organization lacks many different resources and why not say it, the experience your startup is offering is far from what they’ve imagined.
You will be tempted to try to satisfy their wishes and demands, but it is not really worth it. Firstly, it will take a lot of your resources. Secondly, they will get you off track. And finally, the gain will be virtually very close to zero.
In spite of their best intentions, such people will also destroy team morale and self-confidence by explaining everyone that things are not in line with their previous experiences.
Looking for stars?
I think that everyone does. My strongest advice is: you shouldn’t be aiming at somebody else’s stars. Acquiring them doesn’t guarantee your success. They might be shining, alright, but this doesn’t mean they will shine just as bright on your side.
So, who are the best people to hire?
Before anything else, I have a confession to make. I just lied to you. You are not looking for people to hire. You are looking for people to partner with. That’s the mindset you should have when building your team. You’re looking for people who don’t work for money, even when you pay them well. You are looking for people to join the founder’s dream and make it their own. Such people are not your average Janes and Joes.
Stars are where least expected
The great thing is that the future stars of your organization are not stars as we speak. So, looking for stars is a huge mistake. Your best partners are still in school searching for their first job or they already have one, but they are constantly aspiring to bigger challenges.
The best people are generalists. They look at problems with courage and they want to find solutions. They are more interested in the solution; the problem is just the way to start. They are not scared of doing things they have not encountered in the past. They have a huge appetite for new challenges; they’re eager to literally try anything to solve the problem.
You will find a lot of problems that do not have a solution on the internet. Or they have a solution, but it’s not good enough. Your stars are not the best programmers, marketers or sales people. But they have great confidence in what they do and they are committed to taking up any challenge.
Where do you find such people? Look outside the professional life. A lot of them don’t get enough out of their current position, so you’ll find them constantly trying to fix or build things on their own. Look for people with hobbies.
Don’t shoot the sheriff
Does this mean that, for example, I do not recommend hiring a seasoned salesman? I’ve never said that! In fact, she/he would be a great asset to the team provided that they fully commit to your mission.
Dealing with sales people is a bit tricky at first because they know how to sell themselves. Fortunately, it’s also very easy to test them fast. Even before any sales, put their faith in the team and product to the test. If they don’t believe in them, the best thing you can do is fire them. You may try to reinforce trust, but this is usually for your own peace of mind. Assuming that you are doing things right, such discussions are useless. If you are not doing things right, you have much bigger problems anyway.
How do you recognize the stars?
Being a good generalist – problem solver, enthusiast, does not guarantee success. Extremes can be easily detected during the hiring process. But what to do when you cannot detect anything out of ordinary? The fact is that many stars do not impress recruiters during interviews – they don’t know how to sell themselves, they don’t seem prepared for the job etc. However, they should be able to impress you.
Some people ask for many recommendations and try to come up with a conclusion after analyzing all the feedback. This might help you filter some candidates, but it comes with a very high rate of false negatives. This is how you might end up rejecting many good people, which is an issue because there are not many great people out there for your startup.
The people you are looking for most likely stir up powerful emotions like love or hate. If you are looking for people that everybody loves, you are wrong. Usually, people with adverse feelings are not objective. I’ve met many people who hated their boss simply because he insisted that they performed at the best of their capabilities. Or bosses who didn’t like their junior engineer because he discovered important bugs close to the release date. 😀
In my opinion, the most valuable people for a startup possess the following attributes.
They do what they say
In order to grow and accomplish several things at the same time, you should be able to rely on your partners. Your startup is like an army fighting to win the battle with each and every milestone. The sad truth is that very few people do what they say. I am not talking about medium to long term stuff that might be affected by unexpected events. I am referring to the today’s agenda. 🙂 There is nothing more damaging than having to check everything and putting people on track.
It’s OK and it’s even recommended for people to object to tasks, ideas, and solutions, but once they reach an agreement, they should stick to what they agreed upon.
They are self-organized
In the early stages of your startup, you want very little management overhead. The best way to deal with this is to surround yourself by people who are able to organize themselves.
Self-organizing is difficult because it requires prioritization. Very few people are brave enough to do the important things first no matter what. Unfortunately, self-organization has a bad reputation because it’s a term overused by the recruitment industry.
However, your understanding of “self-organized” is different. You are looking for people capable of finding a trail and keeping their eyes open. Many times, the trail is not even there, so they should be able to discover it by themselves. This skill is very important for the future of your organization too, because these people will most likely be the ones to manage and grow the newcomers later on.
I’ve noticed that self-taught people are usually very capable in this perspective. This is somehow funny because they usually get rejected during HR screenings for not having a top formal education.
They are consistent
A startup is not a sprint – it’s a long race. Many founders believe that they will sell the company fast and that’s it. But this is quite rare. While a lot of people would be able to run along your side in the race, very few are consistent.
You should always partner with people who may not be able to run very fast, but who are capable of sustaining a constant pace. As a founder, you will have to constantly make estimations and plans. How will you do that when you don’t know what to expect?! Some like pleasant surprises. I like them too, but experience taught me that pleasant surprises usually come packed with a lot of unpleasant ones, so I try to avoid surprises altogether. 😉
The not so obvious quality of consistent people is that they are able to complete races. This doesn’t happen often – many line up enthusiastically at the start, but only a few are able to finish.
Is this really all?
Of course there is more. However, these are the most important qualities you should look for. You might say that a lot of people have the above-mentioned skills, but are still unfit for a startup job. It may be so. If you are looking for good programmers and they don’t know computer basics, it’s very unlikely that the mandatory skills I mentioned will make them a good fit.
The good news is that all the programmers I know who possess such skills are also decent engineers.
You are the key
Remember that your stars are everywhere, waiting to do more. Most of the time, they do not even know how good they would be in a startup. They are wasting the best time of their life.
Change your mindset. Get these partners. They will be your partners. Give them the best you can, expect the best, and do not compromise on quality. This also means that you will have to be ruthless towards your team; more about this in a future article.
And remember: do the best, expect the best, and the best people will start building with you.