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Scaling a team from one to unicorn

Aurora Harshner
4 min readJan 11, 2019


Recruiting isn’t rocket science, so what makes it so difficult? If you ask startup founders about their number one challenge, it’s recruiting, without fail.

I’ve significantly scaled two teams over the past 8 years — from 50 to 900+ at Airbnb, and now from 8 to 600+ at Coinbase. It’s not easy to get that many exceptional people in the door that fast.

So how do you succeed at this seemingly insurmountable task? Here are five key traps to avoid:

1) Don’t wait too long to prioritize hiring.

What does it mean to prioritize something at a startup? Well, I was hired as the third recruiter at Airbnb — that means that on a team of fifty people, 6% of them were focused on hiring. Now compare this to Coinbase, where I came on as the second recruiter in a team of eight people — even with 25% of us dedicated to recruiting, we still hired a recruiting coordinator only three months later. Why? Because efficiency & great candidate experience are crucial. Investing in hiring resources allows you to get creative with your recruiting in a world where the competition is stiff.

2) Don’t just spray and pray.

No matter how big the pile is, irrelevant resumes aren’t going to help you; you have to take the time to build up a pipeline of qualified candidates from the beginning — and that may take some unconventional thinking. For example, where do you find early Airbnbers? Your hosts, your power-users, Couchsurfers…? Subreddits for people who want to travel the world on a shoestring? Might there be Coinbase hires hiding in those subreddits for Crypto enthusiasts? Your nascent user-base can be a treasure trove of untapped talent.

So figure out where to find people who believe in what you’re doing — and then go there to find them. Bonus: If you’re really finding the right people, you won’t have to worry about losing them to the Bay Area heavyweights (Facebook, Uber, Google etc.).

3) Don’t underestimate the power of hiring people who believe in your mission.

There’s a lot at stake to take a new job. And it’s hard to take the plunge — even once you find the believers. I come from a Chinese family — they thought I was nuts to leave Google for some startup that lets you sleep in a stranger’s house. But I did it anyway. As Airbnb was starting to become a common household name, I left to join a Bitcoin startup working out of a loft. Why? Because I believed in the mission and loved the people.

One of my earliest hires at Coinbase, Linda Xie (currently Co-Founder of Scalar Capital), was deeply passionate about Bitcoin and sharp as a whip. Despite lacking experience in Compliance specifically, I hired her as a Compliance Investigator. Why? She was a Risk Analyst at AIG so there were some transferable skills, but more importantly she was smart, curious, and extremely passionate about our mission.

You need missionaries over mercenaries and when the going gets tough, the passionate will stick around. So start with the people who’ve already taken the leap of faith with you.

4) Don’t make the wrong hire.

No, really. I know it seems so simple. But when you have too much work and not enough people, it’s hard to hold on to how important it is to get the hire right the first time. Having the wrong person in the role is actually so much worse than having no one at all — it rapidly erodes trust, making it that much harder for the next person to succeed. So then even if you do get the right person, they’re already starting from behind the line. Not to mention the effect on team morale once they move on. Better to err on the side of false negatives than false positives. A good rule of thumb I use at Coinbase: if you’re not a hell yes, you’re a no.

5) Don’t wait to address hiring for diversity.

Believe me when I say it only gets more challenging with time. Referrals are a great source of hires so build your core team with diversity in mind. People will refer people who are like them and this can either help, or hurt you.

Diversity is key for a successful product! If you want your product to appeal to a wide demographic, it must reflect that demographic. And throw out that assumption that one must lower the bar to hire under-represented talent. It will, however, require more work at the top of the funnel plus analysis to ensure an unbiased process. Another strong reason to hire a recruiter early on.

So I have some bad news and some good news: the bad is that there is no silver bullet to solve your recruiting challenges; no external agency is going to swoop in and solve all your problems. Sorry. But the good news is that prioritizing recruiting early will help to avoid the other major missteps outlined. Step one: Invest in smart, adaptable, and curious recruiting talent. Step two: partner with them to get creative on hiring. Step three: let me know how it goes.

Aurora Harshner


Credits: Thanks to Arianna Simpson for edits and for conversations with Barry Kwok, Brian Armstrong and Grant D’Arcy who inspired parts of this post.