I'm the founder of Encore, which alerts executives to top opportunities and threats via machine learning (500 Startups company, acquired by Meltwater). I'm sharing tactical lessons I've learned about building companies, products, and teams.

006 Six Things Startups Look for When Hiring

006 Six Things Startups Look for When Hiring

One of my favorite things to do as a startup founder is to recruit: after all, people are truly the most important building blocks for a great startup, and it's a thrill to be able to convince great people to join your budding company.

The exciting part is getting to sit on the other side of the table, interviewing a candidate, with a million and one doubts racing through my mind: 

  • Is this person actually going to provide me enough value for what I'm paying them?
  • What if I hire the wrong person and it totally screws up our culture?
  • What if I say no to this person and miss out on someone who could've been the difference maker? 

Imagine all the doubts that normally run through a employer's mind, but amplified: you've got less money and fewer resources, so you have far less margin to mess up. No pressure. 

I feel you.

I feel you.

Therefore, the standards are higher and the criteria are different. Here's a guide to what I look for in an early startup employee; if you're not a founder and are just looking to work at a startup, I hope it's a helpful guide for how to position yourself as well. 


6 Things I Look For

1. Skills fit

Does this person have the skills to immediately contribute in a revenue or product-creation role?

All employers look for right skills, but startups need to be pickier than anyone else because of their limited resources.

If you're a early-stage company, chances are you can only afford to hire two kinds of people: 1) direct revenue-generators, such as sales people or marketers who can generate massive amounts of leads for your pipeline and/or close them as customers, 2) and direct product-creators, such as designers and engineers who are actually building. That's it. There's no room for product managers, business analysts, operations, partnership managers, accountants, or recruiters. It's not that I don't think those people would be helpful (they definitely would be), I just can't *afford* to hire them yet. 

Later on (after a Series A or with more profitability), a startup will have the luxury to hire some of these other team members and give everyone some extra breathing room. But for now, everyone needs to make money or make product. 


2. Passion for the problem

Does he/she personally care about the problem we're solving?

If the candidate is doing it for the money (and they aren't in pure sales), then they've wandered into the wrong room. Sure, some early employees might be rewarded nicely if the company experiences some kind of exit, but there are far better ways to make far more money if that's the objective. 

The best startup team members are in it for two things: 1) solving the problem, and 2) getting the hands-on startup experience. Notice I said *problem*,not *solution*--chances are high that your company will pivot once you meet some resistance, but your employees should be nonetheless passionate about the problem you're solving. Bottom line: you want folks who are mission-driven.

I've also found that the best early teammates are genuinely interested in the day-to-day startup experience--i.e. the school of hard knocks--to prepare them for either a career working in startups or perhaps starting something of their own one day.


3. Leadership potential

Can I see this person developing into a manager long-term?

You can't afford seasoned veterans or executives right now, so you need to find team members who could feasibly become your company's executives and directors as you grow.

This one is all about potential. We're looking for a trifecta: 1) the potential to be an effective leader, 2) the attitude to constantly provide value, and 3) the mentality to teach and mentor. FiscalNote's CEO Tim Hwang put it best: "we're looking for people who are givers, not takers." 


4. Ability to execute and problem solve

Can this person take initiative on their own and tackle problems in creative, relentless ways?

Let's face it--behind the scenes, your startup is not going to look pretty. At all. It's going to look like a leaking boat, with all hands on deck, constantly scooping out water with buckets. And even the damn buckets leak.

The best startup employees are those who, simply put, are not only totally okay with this, but are excited about it. They see a total hot mess and the first thought that comes to mind is, "what can I do to help?" They stay poised and positive. 

As Tony Robbins puts it, “The greatest resource is resourcefulness.” The most successful employees don't default to thinking they can solve a problem just by throwing money or people at it; they're constantly thinking about creative, resourceful solutions.

Facebook's early motto

Facebook's early motto


Finally, the best teammates take these ideas and actually do them. You want people who are relentlessly executing and shipping work day in and day out.


5. Culture fit

Would I be okay with spending 80 hours a week with this person without losing my mind?

As the startup guru Neil Patel wrote, "Skills can be taught, lessons can be learned, but personality is (more or less) set in stone." 

When your team is so small, each person you bring in literally re-shapes your culture. Personally, I love looking for teammates who are humble, have a strong work ethic, are optimistic/positive, and are willing to wear all hats.

If you like your culture so far and you want to maintain (or even strengthen) it, a good tactic to use is to involve your co-founders and other early team members and have them conduct separate interviews with the candidate. Ask them if this would be someone they'd feel excited and comfortable working with every day. You're probably going to be spending more time with them each week than your partner or spouse! 


6. Coachability

Can this person take feedback and implement it?

One of the signature interview tactics here at Meltwater involves asking the sales candidate to conduct a mock call. Most of the time, the call is a complete train wreck, but that's totally okay. The sales manager then gives the candidate a few points of constructive feedback, and asks them to immediately do the call again. Are they receptive to the feedback? Can they implement the learnings on the fly? 

Surprisingly, a lot of people can't. Sometimes it's because they're too set in their ways, or because they're too confident in their own skills. Either way, it's a bad sign because a person who isn't willing to listen and incorporate feedback from their manager or advisers likely won't improve and grow. 


2 Things I Don't Care For

1. Experience

This one's simple. With limited resources, you most likely can't afford to hire a senior executive right out of the gate. Instead, look for people with leadership potential (see above) and make sure they're ready to learn on the job. 


2. Grades

Be honest, you didn't know Chris Sacca went to Georgetown

Be honest, you didn't know Chris Sacca went to Georgetown

I used to believe grades mattered. When I was a sophomore at Georgetown, I had the chance to hear the legendary investor Chris Sacca (an alum) speak on campus: "since I've graduated, I've been asked for my shoe size more often than I have for my GPA." 

Huh? What the hell was I working so hard in class for? :)

The startup world is more meritocratic than most other professions. 

As an employer, I care way less about your grades (perhaps a better indicator of how well you can follow directions, memorize things, and complete things on time) and way more about what you've actually accomplished and produced. 

I care less about what fancy titles you held with your college fraternity/sorority or extracurricular, and more about what you actually did when you were there. 

I care less about what certifications and bootcamps you've done, and more about what projects you've actually completed and your thought process behind them. 

I care less about your family connections and more about the lessons you've learned from your past setbacks. 

That's the beauty of startups, and I hope that's why you're excited about them too. 

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007 Lessons from Encore Alert (Podcast Interview)

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