Team Building for Early Stage Startup Companies

I have interviewed a lot of early stage startup company founders and one thing that they all have in common is a frustration with recruiting.  It isn’t just with recruiters although for some the recruiters rank highly on their list of complaints.  The biggest challenge for founders is to identify who to hire, how to convince them to work for a promise of something great that the founder has envisioned, and how to keep a team that is usually getting paid little or nothing save for sweat equity and the obligatory free coffee, sodas and food that comes with work sessions at the founder’s dining room table where work also happens to take place.  Over the last few weeks I have heard from a lot of startup founders who are looking to add people to their teams this spring.  Some are looking for co-founders while others are looking to hire employees 1, 2, 3, and so on.  In light of this I have rounded up a series of articles on the subject for them.  If there are any that I missed please let me know.

The first article, titled ‘Who Should You Hire at a Startup?, gets to one of the most important considerations: do you hire people who are cheap and available or do you shoot for the stars.  You may get a star, but you are more likely to get a star as an occasional advisor than as a sweat equity or even early stage paid employee so don’t waste too much of your time chasing them.  A better idea is to find someone who is really good at what they do but who isn’t quite to the peak of their career yet.  A good example of this is with the head of your engineering team.  I spoke with someone who was looking to start a startup – they had the vision and “needed a CTO” to execute it.  In their case what they really needed was someone who could help them get a proof of concept for their vision started.  This isn’t a job for a CTO, it is a job for a really productive programmer who knows how to build what they are trying to build.  Again, a CTO would be a great advisor but is not the right person for a proof of concept – UNLESS that CTO is still programming productively.  Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures provides some very good advice on this subject in his article titled ‘Hiring a VP of Engineering or CTO for Non-Techie (First Time) Founders’.  Much of his advice could be applied to hiring an outside team or person to do work for your startup.

The next article, titled ‘Hiring Employee #1’, talks about another major consideration: are you building a lifestyle business or a company that you want to take to the next level.  I have this conversation with “founders” all the time who are building a cool app.  Today they are doing it on the iPhone.  A year ago they were still doing it on Facebook.  There is no business model behind it, just a cool app.  These app founders occasionally find the inspiration to pursue something bigger and better but most of them never quit their day jobs.  I have seen a few really take off and turn into big hits that in turn lead to startup venture capital deals and much more.  The point here, and one that this article talks about, is that you need to hire people who are on board with the direction that you want the company or product to go in.  You definitely want to over communicate this to the people before and after you hire them.  Another article, titled ‘Hiring the First 5 Engineers: What Sort of People Do You Want on Your Team?’ provides some really good thoughts on the attributes startup founders may want to look for when interviewing people.  This article is right on the money and was very well thought out.

The next article talks about the importance of hiring product management first.  This is a really important point too.  Yesterday, over lunch, I was talking with another founder about a friend we both have in common.  That friend is one of the best developers we know, but someone who is in desperate need of a product manager.  Why?  The answer is simple: this founder is building all sorts of different products and features hoping that one will be a hit and simultaneously looking for investors.  While this shotgun approach to product management may work with iPhone and Facebook apps, it can cost you valuable time and leave you in a position that requires that you spend a ton of time supporting apps that didn’t make it.  A better idea is to do your homework in advance, plan your execution, and make sure that you know where you are headed and why.  Don’t get me wrong – you need to listen to your customers and adapt to the market, but you don’t need to be an app factory (unless your startup is competing with the iTunes store).

The next article, ‘5 Myths That Can Kill a Startup’, talks about the realities of being a startup founder.  If there is one thing that I hear over and over again when talking to startup founders it is the So and So, who happens to be a big deal, said they did Such and Such, so I’m going to do it.  It is really important to figure out the best way to get the job done, but it is even more important to think for yourself.  Don’t get lost along the way because you are too busy following the herd.

The next article, ‘Ninja Hiring Techniques for Early Stage Startups: How to Get Your First 3 Employees’ talks about techniques for finding the people you want to hire.  I talk to a lot of people who tell me that they want to find the people they hire on the Internet.  That translates into Craigslist and Linkedin.  Some will even blow a wad of cash posting their job on an expensive jobs list.   The reality is that there is a lot more to it than posting an ad someplace.  If that was the answer then there would not be 50,000+ job boards and a $1 billion plus dollar staffing industry out there.  Recruiting is a numbers game as much as it is a strategy game.  You need to work a lot of different angles in order to find what you are looking for.   Another article I found talks about how “More candidate flow solves a lot of problems” and I tend to agree.  You need to figure out how to get enough people in front of you so that you start to see patterns emerge.  Once you start to see and recognize patterns emerge you can more easily differentiate and make good choices.  It may not be the first person in 50 that you interview that is the right person, it might but the 51st in 100 either, but no matter how many people you talk to you need to follow one simple rule: trust your gut.  The trust your gut rule applies as soon as you know what you are looking for and find the person who has it.  Don’t spend too much time rationalizing things.  I can’t tell you how many people look at things like where someone went to school or where they worked and allow that to override things like – this candidate can program in Ruby on Rails which is what we need someone to do (vs. the one with the degree from Duke can program in C#.NET and Java so they can learn Ruby on Rails).

The next article,Startup sales talent: the good, the bad, and the costly'(link to article removed due to article being taken down ) covereds another important subject for startup founders: don’t settle for the wrong sales people.  An article that I found in Venture Beat titled ’14 tips for building a startup sales team’ provides some good additional insight into this subject.

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