Lessons from a startup CEO: Hire workers, not founders

What I learned from hiring and firing senior employees.

Colette Nataf
Feb 25, 2019 · 5 min read
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Entrepreneurship is a rewarding, exhilarating and terrifying experience, all rolled into one.

It’s a ride I love to be on.

As a startup CEO with a business that is rapidly growing at a very scalable rate, I’ve come across many parts of building a business that I initially didn’t know much about or think much about. But that’s the great part about entrepreneurship — you truly do learn something new every day.

My background is in data science and marketing, not recruiting. So, when it came to growing my team, I knew finding the best candidates would be essential to my company’s long-term success.

All along, my co-founder and I had a clear idea of the types of candidates we wanted on our team.

We wanted problem solvers and people who could proactively create solutions, work independently, and consistently deliver results. But we also wanted them to be able to follow the vision we had set forth for our company, Lightning AI.

We looked for senior level employees who could be heads of departments. We anticipated that these employees would be self-sufficient. We wouldn’t need to closely manage them — they could use their own judgment to make the best decisions. We would be able to build and ship rapidly with few hiccups since these employees had so much experience.

Let’s illustrate this with an example…

When I worked at MileIQ, we had an amazing Android engineer who was a true problem solver. And when I began to build my team at Lightning AI, I had people like him in mind from the get-go.

I remember one situation at MileIQ so vividly that it always stuck in my mind. It was when we added US dollar calculations into the app to show users how much money they saved over the year. This incredible engineer had anticipated that we may need multiple currencies down the road, and before pushing the release, he made updates in the backend to the code so we could adjust the app to display multiple currencies with the push of a button. He didn’t just do what he was asked and stop there. He thought about the problem, where we were potentially headed, and proactively made the right choices for MileIQ.

That was the type of person we wanted to get on board. A real go-getter. A true problem-solver.

A tall order? Maybe. But with a remote company that could source top talent across the globe, we knew we would find them even if it took some time.

The truth about “experienced” employees

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We hired executives in all parts of our company — everything from product and engineering to customer success. These types of employees don’t always want to follow your vision, because they often want to create a new one of their own.

Visionaries don’t make good employees.

This is where we got in trouble early on. We were hiring too many of the wrong types of employees who were entrepreneurs and visionaries at heart. These kinds of people want to truly leave their mark on businesses, and usually aren’t satisfied being treated as a standard employee. They might stay for a little, but they’re always working on bringing their own ideas to reality on the side.

One year in, I realized that I had nine employees with nine different versions of Lightning AI.

So, who should you hire?

Building a business teaches you something new every single day. I have no doubt I will continue to learn new lessons that will help me grow personally and professionally. But, as I’ve gone through this process of hiring and firing employees in my start-up, there’s three key lessons I want to share with other founders and future founders out there.

  1. Hire workers, not visionaries

When you have a vision for your business you want to build a team of people that can do the work that needs to be done to move you closer to your goals. Go-getters aren’t always these people. Look for skilled workers, not visionaries.

2. Use consultants

I can’t stress this one enough. If you want someone that has done a project multiple times, and is going to be fast and thorough, use consultants. Consultants have specialized skills, are driven, self motivated and have a wide range of experience. After all, they wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t consistently deliver results.

If you have work needs that aren’t full-time, look for consultants or freelancers. People who can work independently are the best kinds of people to have on your team and most consultants and freelancers thrive in independent working environments.

3. Fire fast

Recognize when a hire isn’t working out and fire fast. It’s as simple as that, one bad apple can poison the rest. As a business owner, you have a lot at stake, and devoting resources and time to an employee that isn’t working out will only prolong your success.

Have questions about hiring and firing employees? Tweet @ColetteNataf with any comments on this topic 🎉

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By Colette Nataf, Founder at Lightning AI

Started in 2016, Lightning AI has grown from 3 to 300+ clients in just two years under Colette’s leadership. In addition to her role as CEO, you can also find her speaking on AI, and writing about her experience as a female founder in Silicon Valley.

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The Startup

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Colette Nataf

Written by

CEO @LightningAI, Demand Gen @Intercom, User Acquisition @MileIQ (acquired by Microsoft). Changing marketing through data science.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Colette Nataf

Written by

CEO @LightningAI, Demand Gen @Intercom, User Acquisition @MileIQ (acquired by Microsoft). Changing marketing through data science.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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