Who not to hire in your startup?

I am about to finish stint at my 2nd start up stint since graduating from Stanford GSB so this is a good time to reminisce :) At Stanford, working for/starting startups is in the air and that is where I caught the bug. My first stint of 3 years was at a GSB mentor backed Home Automation company and the second stint at a GSB friend’s Sequoia, Khosla ventures backed mobile search startup. I had a front row vantage point in both these companies, being one of the first few hires.

“The people you hire is the company you build” is one of the principles which Vinod Khosla (an investor in my last start up) tries to implant in every startup CEO. I could not agree with him more. I think the early members DEFINE the culture, product vision, work ethic and hence the eventual success of a team. So here is my list of what to AVOID in your startup hires based on some of the bruises I have earned :). The reason this is a negative list, is because, there could be a lot of positives in a candidate like relevant experience, high intellectual capability etc. but a bad character trait can kill the whole enterprise.

People whose motivations of joining a startup are misplaced. Positive motivations to look out for are a real desire to make a change in the world, serial entrepreneurs who are addicted to risk taking, people who are passionate about a certain problem space. Bad drivers to look out for: best chance to make money, stuck in career and looking for a title/role bump which current company does not provide, looking to explore “the startup thing”, no evidence in life choices so far of taking risk or dealing with ambiguity. John Morgridge, a critical player in building Cisco, has a useful tip in finding this out. In your initial discussions with a candidate ask the person a lot of “whys” around their career choices. The logic of eventual career decisions is one of the key areas where you could get an insight into the drivers of an individuals decision making mental model.

People who are problem spotters not problem fixers. In early stage startups there are so many things to fix and make better that having employees whose instincts are to role up their sleeves and fix things is KEY. I have been part of countless conversations, where people tell me, only if we had better QA, DevOps, Data Sources…..we would be a much better company/product etc. The problem is not with the list of broken things but with the attitude of making a list of what is broken and not making a list of things you have fixed. There is a relevant story which Eric Schmidt tells in his book about Google from the early days of building the company. In one of the initial days after the launch of their Ad products, Larry Page found an irrelevant ad with a Google search result, he took a print out of the bad result and put it on the fridge in the canteen, before leaving for home. Jeff Dean saw the post and fixed the bug over night. He did not go about calling a meeting next day to discuss it, filing a bug ticket rather just went ahead and fixed it overnight.

People who are in it to build fiefdoms. All startups should be set up for growth and expansion, which means building on the initial team with amazing people. If your early employees do not come with the mindset of getting peers who are better than them, the company cannot scale. Lookout for the sense of entitlement which some early employees could have on having been part of the early days and insecurity about functional leaders joining to scale the company. The best start up employees increase the size of the pie; i.e. launch new products, start new businesses, drive growth and hence should not be fighting over share of a fixed pie.

Cynical and boring. The cartoon below is closest to the life of a typical startup employee. The rough days; with lost deals, bad product launches and depressing user metrics are much more than successful ones. A sense of humor and intrinsic optimism are thus key for any leader/employee (everyone is a leader in a small company in what they do) in a startup.

Whom you can’t TRUST to put the “We” before the “I”. Finally, perhaps the hardest one to select for is this test of character. Employees seeking personal rewards over company interests are non-starters in an entrepreneurial setting. For a very young company every decision by an employee could make a big impact. You should be willing to TRUST the motivations behind the decisions of your early employees blindly. Otherwise you cannot scale such an organization or build a culture of trust.

Working with a fun, smart, trustworthy group of team mates on a meaningful problem is a great joy and if you are looking to start a new team make sure to spend some extra time to learn more about some of these character traits.

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