As entrepreneurs, we obsess over winning — and one of the essentials to achieving this is by creating a winning team. In the early stages of a startup, its team is one of the most important differentiators between success and failure. The reason it’s so critical is because the initial team (i.e. the first five to eight folks), along with the founders, shape the culture of the startup for years to come. They are also instrumental in recruiting the next 20-40 members. One of my advisors gave me a good analogy: Startup teams grow like crystals – the outer layer composition is determined by the underlying layer.
I am a serial entrepreneur. Over the past several years, I have built and scaled teams for my startups. I have also advised several other startups with their team-building. So, how do you build a winning team? Here are some recruiting strategies that have worked for us.
Get references from your trusted network.
I refer to this as the “R.A.N.T. model” – get references and advice from your network built over time. This seems to be the only model that works in the initial stages. Tap into everyone in your network, whether they’re a friend, colleague, advisor, mentor or professor. I am more interested in candidate references with prior startup experience (unless we are recruiting recent graduates).
Don’t wait until you post your job listing to look for the right candidates. As they say, “Hire slow and fire fast,” so start early, plan ahead and invest time in building relationships with prospective candidates. As a founder, I’m always meeting interesting candidates, even if I don’t have an opening yet.
Meetups, happy hours, conferences and events are all great places to meet qualified individuals. I serve as an active advisor to startups at a Stanford incubator, where I meet great founders all the time. Building relationships and networking go a long way in getting the right person to take the job when the need arises.
Get PR coverage to attract good candidates.
We release news about our company (covering fundraising, product releases etc.) from time to time. This lends credibility to our brand and helps us attract good candidates.
Make the interview interactive.
I don’t believe in the “traditional” interview process, other than using coding tests for tech roles. What we’ve done in the past is give an actual problem we were facing to the candidate in advance and ask them to come in for half a day. We’ve also asked them to share their ideas on how we can improve our product. During their visit, we placed candidates in an actual team setting (make sure you sign non-disclosure agreements, and don’t share anything sensitive) and allowed them to brainstorm with the team on their ideas and suggestions. This worked out well in most cases, as we evaluated fit in a more natural setting. Not only do we see a candidate’s approach, logical thinking and passion (i.e. amount of homework they did) come into play, but it’s also more fun and the team benefits from a fresh perspective.
Sell the vision and story to the candidates you want to hire.
Good candidates always have multiple options (if they don’t, that’s a red flag). This means it’s your turn to pitch once you’re convinced of the candidate’s qualifications. Practice your pitch and get feedback, as it makes a big difference to the success of your recruiting efforts. A lot of people lose great candidates at this stage. Understand the candidate’s motivation, concerns, and why they’re interested in your startup. Sometimes they will raise a genuine concern (company stage, relatability to the product, etc.), and it’s fine to let go of those candidates rather than entering a bad commitment.
For others, tailor the pitch based on their feedback. This does not mean you have a custom pitch for every candidate. Instead, make sure you emphasize the portions that address their motivations and concerns. I personally pitched our story and vision to our team’s initial hires: One hire laid out company growth trajectory as his primary concern, and I highlighted our plans for the same. For candidates coming from mid- to large-sized companies, highlight the higher responsibility they’ll get by being a key person on the team and the opportunities to solve challenges and grow in the process. A lot of them are bored in their current roles (they might not tell you so, but trust me on that) and are looking for something interesting and challenging. Also, make sure you highlight your work culture and any other benefits you may have (e.g. equity compensation, pet-friendly environment, etc.)
Close the deal quickly.
Once both sides show interest, move fast with the offer. We typically came out with the initial offer within 24 hours of the last interview and have tried to close the deal within seven days.
Fire fast if you recruit a lemon.
Remember that you are entering a long-term commitment with your co-founder and initial team members, and “divorces” are messy. Any entrepreneur will tell you that a bad initial hire who stays for more than six months is a death knell. We made a wrong hire early on but were proactive to let the person go within three months. It sapped a lot of time and energy and put us back by several months on our plans, but we avoided long-term damage and lowering of employee morale.
Recruiting is time-consuming, but the above tips can definitely increase the odds of you building a winning team. (Forbes)