This series explores the role of the “Early Business Hire,” an employee responsible for helping a startup find traction. Part 1 looks at the need in the market. Parts 2 is for founders deciding if they should make this hire. Part 3 talks about the skills needed to be successful in the role.
At Tradecraft we help smart, motivated individuals transition into tech. This means we work closely with both individuals and startups.
The goal of an early stage startup is to create a product that meets the needs of their target market. To do this, a startup needs people to build the product and people to get the product in front of customers. At first, the founders must do these jobs. At some point though, they will need to hire people to help.
While the job of an early engineering hire is well-understood, the role of an “early business hire” (EBH) is not. For lack of a better word, founders often resort to calling this role “hustler.” This confusing term does a disservice to everyone in the hiring process by defining the role on attitude rather than skills.
Smart generalists miss out on a the chance to get entrepreneurial experience and build critical skills. Founders get employees with skill gaps, putting their company’s traction efforts at risk.
Lingering questions hold both founders and employees from turning the early business hire into a well defined role.
For seed stage founders: how can you scope the skills you need? How do you find this talent once you’ve defined the role?
For individuals: what skills do you need? Is there a career path if you pursue a more generalist sales/marketing skill set?
We explore the answers to these questions in the following posts.
To get help we talked with ~20 practitioners who were instrumental in the success of a company as either early hires or on the founding team.
Among others, we talked with: Andrew Dumont (Bitly, Moz), Becca Lindquist (Heap, Optimizely), Cristina Cordova (Stripe, Pulse), David Rogier (MasterClass, Harrison Metal), Erik Torenberg (Product Hunt, rapt.fm), evan charles moore (Doordash, Vevo), Jared Fliesler (Square, Slide), Justin Mares (Traction Book, Exceptional Cloud Services), Noah Sidman-Gale (Gigster, UseBento), Ryan Delk (Omni, Gumroad), Ruben Harris (Honor, AltSchool), Scott Britton (Troops.ai, SinglePlatform) and Tim Hsia (MediaMobilize, Pocket).
They helped us answer some common questions individuals have when considering early-stage roles. Questions like: Will I develop concrete skills, or just “hustle?” Where will this role take my career? Will I continue to be a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none?
Two themes emerged from our conversations:
- Broad Skill-sets– When we asked these practitioners what skills were necessary to succeeding as an EBH, we got a wide-ranging answer set. They named abilities like customer development, prospecting, selling, positioning and copywriting. Critical knowledge areas included product, engineering, growth and finance. This stands in sharp contrast to the narrower, deeper skill requirements roles at later-stage companies.
- Career Progression — While many of these individuals started out in early business roles, most are now VPs or founders. This implies specialization in one of two directions: either a functional specialty like sales or marketing, or the “zero-to-one” stage specialty required for founders.
Next we surveyed 30+ CEOs to understand how they thought of hiring in the early days of their business. We talked to founders seed-stage founders as well as founders who have rasied signifigant capital from investors like a16z, Benchmark, Founders Fund, and Social Capital.
A few things stood out:
- Informal Job Recs . While more than 60% of founders hired for this role, only 30% ever created a formal job posting.
- Broad Skillsets — Like the practitioners we talked to, founders were typically looking for a broad aray of skills in these early hires. Among the most popular skills named were customer development, prospecting, sales, positioning, copy, and content marketing.
- Varied Backgrounds — The backgrounds of these hires were all over the map. Some came from larger tech companies, some had been founders, while others came from other industries including consulting, banking or teaching.
We also got consistent responses to the question of what they were looking for in the hire:
scrappiness, drive, determination, comfort with ambiguity // flexibility and adaptability // athlete with ability to wear multiple hats // direct experience in the field, analytical, self-sufficient, highly competent // hustle & work ethic // leadership, proactivity, hustle // ability to get things done // a mini CEO :)
Hustling is just the beginning
It’s beneficial for startups and individuals to standardize expectations for this critical role.
Individuals will know what skills to build and what success looks like. They’ll understand how they can expect to grow in the role and what options might open up for their career path.
Founders will gain a larger pool of talented individuals to choose from for this critical role resulting in better hires. They’ll also know how to better assess and train employees to ensure meaningful contributions from day one. This is critical as 70+% of seed companies don’t achieve enough traction to make it to Series A.
As for naming, “hustler” is a great description of attitude but a poor descriptor of expected knowledge & skills. Instead, we are using “early business hire,” which, while generic, captures both the stage (early) and the skillset (business, broadly defined) necessary for success.
The one-sentence description of an early business hire? The employee who brings customers to the product and shares insights to shape the direction of the product.
Is Early Business Hire Right for You?
In our next post, we’ll explore whether an early business hire is a good fit for you as a founder and for you as an individual.
Tradecraft has helped 300+ people join the startup world. We’ve worked with people from companies like JP Morgan Chase, McKinsey, the U.S. Air Force, The World Bank, Google, Yahoo. Our members work at companies like Clever, Doordash, Dropbox, Facebook, Medium, Optimizely, Segment, Uber, Udemy, and many up-and-coming startups. If you are interested in building your career, drop us a line.