Real hiring advice for early stage startup founders

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@mittalAlex Mittal

I recently wrote an email to one of our startup founders with a collection of hiring lessons learned by me and by some of our other founders.

I have violated each and every one of these maxims at some point, and have regretted it each and every time.

Sharing this in the hopes they’re helpful to you too:

  • Hire slow, fire fast, don’t compromise
  • Look for evidence of: being a fast riser in one’s career, going the extra mile, punching above one’s weight
  • Strong mission alignment and good culture fit = long term retention
  • Compensate competitively (as soon as you can). Do not lowball good people. However, understand how they prioritize cash vs. equity. [1]
  • You may need to explain the value of their equity in different possible scenarios (e.g. downside, mid-sized outcome, and the dream) [2]
  • Don’t use an offer letter as a starting point in a negotiation, it’s just for sealing the deal [3]
  • Be 100% certain you and the candidate are on the same page about near term roles & responsibilities [4]
  • Do reference checks. No exceptions.
  • If something seems off in your gut, don’t make the hire, or at least investigate & resolve first [5]
  • Follow the identical hiring process with identical hiring team for each candidate for a given role
  • Test work, e.g. pair programming for engineers, will correlate with work success or failure more than any interview or resume [6]
  • Management is a skill. Expecting a non-manager to manage people and resources for the first time is throwing them in the deep end. [7]
  • If you’re hiring for a role in which you’re not an expert (common for early startup founders), enlist outside help in the hiring process.
  • When you’re <20 people, each new hire will highly impact your culture, level of diversity, and what it feels like to work at your company. [8]

Disclaimer: All of the above are with respect to hiring only and are not exhaustive. These points do not address key practices to implement or mistakes to avoid once you’ve welcomed a new team member aboard, which is a topic unto itself.

Notes

[1] Different people trade off equity for cash or vice versa at different levels, sometimes quite differently from how you do yourself as a founder. Family, health, and life situations can explain this.

[2] The value of equity is not obvious to many non-founders, and option count will otherwise remain an abstract concept.

[3] By the time you send the paper offer, you should know they’re going to accept it. Have the difficult conversation on finer points like compensation, location, and responsibilities in person or on the phone. Then send the offer.

[4] Avoid people who are talented but who have a leaning that is other than what the company actually needs. Especially early on, candidates wishing to take on whatever work it takes to win will be most aligned with the company and will themselves flourish.

[5] A concern raised during the hiring process usually does not resolve itself, and frequently does not resolve even when an action plan is created to proactively address it. See 1st bullet above.

[6] In fact, we invested in a company called Interviewed, led by Darren Nix & team, that has seen immense success solely focused on helping its clients exploit this maxim.

[7] Throwing them in the deep end can sometimes work, but do not assume someone is capable of managing just because they’re talented in their individual contributor work.

[8] This is true at >20 people too, but you are fighting against inertia at that point.

Thanks to Ryan Chan for encouraging me to post this. Post image photographed by James Sutton and only marginally relates to this post, but I needed something about picking people and this is the state of today’s image search algorithms.

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