Lessons for Founders from the perspective of the First Employee

Before diving into these lessons, I’ll give a quick recap of the background and how I got here.

I was finishing up Lambda School’s web dev program. I had been coding for a couple of years, but I did the program to round out my knowledge.

I was specifically looking to join an early stage startup where I could contribute my experience having worked in customer success, design, and product management.

The company I joined was a software company still in TechStars, but had a great value proposition, and I wanted to take the risk.

Lessons For Founders:

Your initial employees will feel like co-founders

The first employee’s are taking a decent sized risk to make your dream a reality. They’re not just betting on the idea or the market, so much as they’re betting on you, the founders.

The first employees will wear many hats just like you, and as such, they will feel an incredible amount of ownership.

You need to ensure that you don’t EVER diminish the value they contribute to the company.

Trust is your most important resource

Trust is earned through good decision making, treating others with respect, and doing the right thing.

You really only get so many f**k ups before your first employees will question your judgement and look for saner seas.

You’re smart. Your first employees will be smart.

You’re ambitious. Your first employees will be ambitious.

You’re in demand. Your first employees will be in demand.

As such, if you want to keep your first employees:

  1. Ensure they’re heard
  2. Ensure they’re taken seriously
  3. Ensure they’re included in critical decision making
  4. Ensure you can justify your decisions

Smart people will see through BS quickly.

Get wins early and often

This is essential to building trust.

Losing early and often is a recipe for people jumping ship.

Drop the ego trips. Skip the grand visions. Leave the magnificent speeches at home.

Do the hard thing and take the responsibility for getting early wins.

This includes:

  1. Sales
  2. User growth
  3. Hiring really great teammates
  4. Fundraising

Pretty much everything else is superficial progress and your first employees will see through it.

Thankfully, the more early wins you get the more trust you build and the more risks you get to take.

So get to winning.

Focus, Focus, Focus (you can’t get everything done)

Related to getting wins early and often; focusing is the primary mechanism through which you get them.

Your primary goal is to go from being default dead to default alive and ensuring you get to product / market fit.

I believe that a startup team can only truly solve 1 core customer problem at a time.

This means that a startup needs to focus on building, testing, validating, and solving that core customer problem and nothing else.

It’s okay to pivot, scrap the old, and work on solving a different core customer problem.

But be careful.

You can’t juggle chainsaws and play the piano at the same time. It’s hard enough to get 1 thing right.

Do more than 1 and I believe you guarantee that you’ll get all of them wrong.

Hire people that push everyone to be better

Your first employees are probably going to be working like crazy to make sure the business succeeds and stays alive.

Answering emails late at night. Building features on weekends. Making phone calls while driving with 1 hand.

You and your first employees will set the bar for quality, effort, and expectations.

If you hire people that don’t meet those expectations, you either need to fire them as quickly as possible, or risk building the wrong team.

In my opinion, the most dangerous players are B players. A players are what you want. C players are easy to identify and you remove quickly. B players are right on the edge.

They’ll waste the time of A players and make the C players look half decent.

B players either need to become A players quickly or need to be removed.

A players want to work with other A players. A players thrive working with other A players. A players desperately want you to hire other A players.

Take the time to train employees

You are responsible for training employees.

You are responsible for ensuring that every employee:

  • Knows the product
  • Knows the users & customers
  • Knows the stakeholders
  • Knows the market
  • Knows the current KPIs, goals, and objectives
  • Knows his / her team members

I recommend that you train them personally, but you can also use your first employees to help train the new employees.

You should put the regiment together and ensure that the critical pieces of the company are addressed, but your first employees would probably enjoy teaching the new employees and enjoy taking ownership while getting to share their expertise.

Final Notes

Your first employees will look up to you in ways that you don’t understand. Whether looking for guidance, correct decision making, or simply aspirationally as they too probably wish they could do what you’re doing.

Appendix of thoughts

  • Understand your product / market. If you’re enterprise, stay enterprise.
  • Engineering will take 2x longer than you think.
  • Every meeting needs a purpose that is defined at the beginning
  • Document profusely and ensure that documentation is updated, read, and shared. Unread documentation is worthless.
  • Ensure that the people you hire have the skills needed to do their job and the execution to do it.
  • Train people thoroughly. 2 days — 1 week is NOT enough time to train a new person. They can’t learn the product, users, market, history, etc… that quickly.
  • Train people consistently and have a legitimately planned training guide for the person for at least 30 days, preferably 60. This seems like overkill, but just like you want successful, retain, paying customers, you want contributing, energized, and impactful employees.

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