Making the First Hires in a Startup — The Hard Truth

“How will we be able to choose from so many talented candidates? 
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of such a great opportunity?”

Seriously, I swear, these were some of my initial thoughts before we started looking for our very first employees to join our team at Perceptive AI. Apparently, hiring the very first employees to an early stage startup is one of those things (out of many) that you picture in your head so much differently before you actually become a founder of your own startup.

I literally thought it would be just like building my fantasy NBA team where I’m going to have a really hard time deciding between LeBron James or Steph Curry. Unfortunately, building a dream team with accomplished superstars is way more complicated than I could have ever imagined. One can argue that the quality of the team will predetermine a company’s likelihood to succeed. After all, the people are the most crucial asset in a young startup — no doubt about it. The only problem is where in the world do we find these people?

Some may say that trying to convince someone from the Amazon’s and Google’s of the world is a bold move. I think it’s plain silly. Especially after reading this frustrating article in Haaretz a few days ago about how industry giants are crushing helpless startups in the race for savvy developers. And on the other end of the spectrum, hiring someone based on purely raw potential is just too risky at this point in the company’s lifetime.

The struggle is real. All the different startups are competing over the same human resource and let me tell you, the list of proficient talent isn’t as long as you might think. Or as someone once told me, the problem with going after the top 1% of talent, is that there is only 1% of top talent. In fact the only thing that’s harder than finding top talent employees, is finding top talent employees that are interested in working in your startup. Working at an early stage startup as uncertainty hovers like a cloud above your head is not a good fit for everyone. Most people would pick stability over uncertainty ten times out of ten, which by the way does not mean they are less talented in any way. But when you add this filter to your perfect contenders, you’re actually slashing the list of potential candidates dramatically.

Lessons Learned

Today, after making countless mistakes since beginning the process (yet the mission is still not completed), I feel like I’ve gained some practical insights that may turn out to be very valuable for others.

Don’t wait for it— “A” players are probably not going to be knocking on your door three times a day even though it would’ve been the coolest thing ever. So my suggestion is — don’t just pile up random CV’s or expect them to come from a status on Facebook/LinkedIn. Not to mention HR companies which in my opinion are during this stage, a complete waste of time and money. But mostly time. If you’re looking for a sparse amount of positions — go get them yourself, be proactive! Try to look for the most brilliant and most experienced professionals that fit your requirements and send them a message on LinkedIn. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Ultimately, you don’t need everyone to convert. Just one or maybe two aces for each position which is definitely doable. In our company we would have never managed to reach top level talent otherwise.

Who is the interviewer? — Believe it or not, if you’re doing everything right and reaching the right candidates, you are actually the one who is going to be interviewed and not the other way around. At first it was really hard for me to digest that I’m the one getting interviewed, but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. If you’re dealing with a big shot, you can safely assume he is getting a lot of interest/offers from other great companies and it is up to you to convince him that by choosing your company, the sky is the limit. To help him make this risky and unintuitive leap of faith you’re going to have to explain to him in a very detailed manner how your product got to this point in time, why customers are loving your product/service and even more importantly, why the future is brighter than the sun.

One happy family — I call it “the click” factor, but others may refer to it as having a cultural fit. As opposed to large enterprises where there are hundreds of employees, in a startup passing the beer test is an absolute must both for the company and the candidate himself.

From the candidate’s point of view, not having a good connection with the founders or other employees can be as deadly as terminating the process even if he’s willing to compromise on his high salary. In regards to your company, it’s going to be a very intimate setting and one hell of a ride, so settling for just “we could get along potentially” isn’t going to do the trick. Go and grab a beer together, eat lunch together or any other bonding activity you have in mind. You must have an outstanding chemistry to make sure you are forming a cohesive group of people who are going to fight together even when things get a little shaky. And they probably will.

Take your time and don’t force it — When you are a startup you lack a lot of resources, with time sitting at the top of the list — investors, burn rate, competition and market timing are all putting pressure to have your product ready by yesterday. The thing is, in order to ship a quality product fast, you need great people, and great people takes time to hire. So you find yourself facing the classic dilemma of time vs quality. Should I hire mediocre people fast or have great people on the expense of the planned schedule?

It’s easier said than done but let’s assume for a moment that you’ve reached a talented candidate who is also a great human being and you’ve already agreed on the terms (wage/equity).The final goal is to make sure she is 100% confident with the decision she is making. The last thing you want is for the candidate to join your company just because you were very persuasive or because she hasn’t received any offers during this specific point in time. You want her to join you because she believes in your vision and because she wants to be a part of your team! It may be tempting even if you’re not absolutely sure, but if the candidate ends up leaving four months later because she got a better offer or because she didn’t understand the business when you initially agreed to terms, then you end up doing more harm than good.

The one thing your competition can’t copy is your human capital, it’s your biggest differentiation and number one advantage. As an early stage startup there are quite a few risks to handle and mitigate to make sure the company will have a chance of succeeding. I can’t think of one single risk that is more deadly than hiring the wrong people. You can change algorithms, fix bugs, pivot the business and still succeed, given you hired the right people of course. But hire the wrong ones, and all of it won’t matter. Take proactive measures, make sure they are professionally and culturally right for you, and may the odds be forever in your favor.

Oh yeah and by the way, did I mention we’re hiring?

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