What Stops Startups Hiring A+ Players

What do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and David Ogilvy have in common? They all share a philosophy that people are your most important asset.

“A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.” — Steve Jobs.
“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.” — Mark Zuckerberg.
“If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.” — David Ogilvy.

Startups and investors pay a lot of lip service to great people and ‘world-class teams’. An alarming number of companies have more interns and low-cost offshore contractors than experienced employees. So why do so many founders ignore this sage advice?

The truth behind my greatest hire

Russ Trow was a senior programmer at a development agency we hired to help us manage a difficult technical situation with offshore programmers. Russ was frigging awesome and we quickly built a great working relationship. Naturally, I extended his project to keep him onboard.

At first, I thought it would be bad form to poach the agency’s best programmer — especially when they took the job as a favour to one of my angel investors. Moreover, there was no way I could match his current salary.

Ultimately, it took me three months before I finally asked Russ to join my team as a late co-founder. To my surprise, he said ‘yes’!

I was left with the following question: why didn’t I just ask sooner?

Limiting beliefs

What stopped me asking Russ sooner was the belief that he’d probably say ‘no’. Fear of rejection prevented me from even trying. And if you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

Here’s a thought experiment. Think of your favourite tech company. Now ask yourself: how would you feel asking their CTO leave to join your startup? Are you willing to ask, even if the odds are against you?

If you’re serious about building a truly great company, that’s essentially what you need to do. It’s your responsibility to hire the best people from the start — especially the ones that seem impossible on paper.

How to hire A+ players

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a better interviewing process. I’m suggesting you proactively find the best people in the world that can make your vision a reality and get them onboard. People that you never dreamt would say yes. If you have the courage to ask, here are a few tips going in.

1. Raise your standards

Once you lower the bar, it sends the message that ‘anyone can get in’. When people join your company, do you want it to feel like getting into Stanford University or your local YMCA?

2. Pitch the mission

Great people want to work on great projects. Selling the vision to talent is just as critical as selling to investors. Treat it with the same care and respect.

3. Ask them what they’re looking for

The first rule of sales is to listen. To influence great people, seek to understand what drives them first. What are their needs? And what are you willing to do to address those needs?

4. Admit your weaknesses

Acknowledging weaknesses with confidence is key to the seductive process. If they aren’t fiercely strong where you are mediocre, then you’re destined to micro-manage them.

5. Present your strengths

The best people are never satisfied and always want to learn more. What genuine learning opportunities and personal development can you offer them?

6. Make it easy to say ‘yes’

A short consulting arrangement may sound like an expensive interview but it’s a great ploy to get them emotionally involved. You can also test them out before making a full offer.

7. Offer something impossible to refuse

A+ players don’t come cheap — especially in a fiercely competitive market like tech. If money is an issue, just hire fewer people. Quality always trumps quantity.

8. Show them you can hustle

Let the candidate know that’s hiring them is your top priority. The ‘let’s wait and see’ approach comes off as weak (and clueless). Sometimes you can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

9. If all else fails, get feedback

Every failure is a learning opportunity. Ask for 20 minutes of their time to get specific feedback on why they said no. What needs do they have that you can’t meet?

What if no one says yes?

It’s really important you figure what is driving the best people away from your business — and fix it fast. Don’t keep telling yourself it’s the money. If money is the only thing of value that you can offer, you have a poor company.

When I see a startup full of interns, I’m extra cautious about placing a bet. To coin David Ogilvy, I’m saving my chip stack for the companies of giants.


This article was originally published on Inc.com. If you liked it, please tap the 👏 a few times so other people can see it too.


About Dave Bailey:
I coach CEOs of funded, early-stage tech companies on execution. I’m a Venture Partner at
Downing Ventures in London, Mentor at Google Launchpad and a serial startup founder. Previously, I built and sold tech businesses in the UK, US and Brazil. I studied at Oxford University, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Singularity University. For more info, check out Dave-Bailey.com.

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