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Collaboration & Team Management

A guide to hiring the right people for your startup or small business

Your start-up is made up of your team. They are your biggest asset. The work you do together and the decisions you make together will make or break your startup. That’s why building the right team should be your top priority. Hiring the right people, motivating them, mentoring them, training them, and collaborating well are all necessary things you need to do to build the right team. I’ve built a team I’m very proud of. It wasn’t from my first try, but through experience I have gathered vital knowledge on how to do it. In this post, I’m going to share with you some tips on how to hire the right people.

hiring the right person vitruvian man

The only reason you would hire someone in a startup is if you thought they will increase your chances of success. Period. There is no other reason. So, you should be thinking of that at every step of the hiring process, from defining the position, to interviewing candidates. The most important measure is “Will this person increase my company’s chances of success?”

Defining the position

No matter how good your hires are, if you defined the wrong position, you will end up hiring people who can’t add value to your company and can’t increase your chances of success. Their skill set will simply not match your needs regardless of how strong they are. This makes defining the positions you need to fill, with the right responsibilities and the right skill set, extremely important. Take this step very seriously.

What kind of person does your company need the most? What exactly will they be doing? And, what are the expected results? Once you have these questions answered, validate whether your assumptions are reasonable. Ask for advice from others who have hired people in similar positions. This is particularly important if it’s your first time hiring someone in a domain that is not your own expertise (e.g. you’re a technical founder hiring a marketer or vice versa). Hiring people who complement the skill set of your team is a great way to ensure your company has no blind spots.

Once you decide what the responsibilities of the person are and the results you expect, figure out the qualities and skills that you’re looking for. Rank them. No one is perfect. Know which qualities are more important to you than others. Regardless of what the role is, here are a few tips to keep in mind while doing this exercise:

  1. Each hire has to have a core competency that your business desperately needs. Do not hire generalists who do not have a core competency. A much needed core competency often results in more action. Also, hire people with a bias for action. People who get stuff done. People who build and ship often. You need to move fast.
  2. Every hire needs to be a generalist to some extent. In a startup everyone needs to be able to see the big picture, even while they’re working on the small building blocks. In addition to hiring those who are capable of that, try to foster it in your environment. At Sandglaz, our developers handle support because it helps them stay in touch with the customer’s point of view on the product.
  3. Every hire in a startup needs leadership potential. If you are an entrepreneur, you are used to assessing what needs to be done and then doing it, so you might take this quality for granted. Actually most people don’t work that way, and you can only afford to hire the people who do. Here’s why: there are plenty of web developers who are happy to sit at a desk waiting for the next bug/feature to be assigned and then doing it. But what you want is a web developer who is interactive, who will raise concerns when she sees them, and acts when things break. You want to rely on her to be there when you’re not.

leadership potential standing out

Creativity goes hand in hand with leadership potential. When faced with a problem, is the person creative enough to come up with their own solution? Be wary of those who will simply google a solution. You want people who combine creativity with knowledge, not those who will simply copy others. Copying by definition will make you a follower, not a leader.

Interviewing

First off, don’t interview if you’re not willing to put in a tremendous amount of time designing the interview, meeting with the candidates and analyzing the results. It takes a lot of hard work to pick the best people.

The goal now is to get as much understanding as possible on the candidate’s skills. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you are designing your questions.

Hard skills

Verify what exactly did they do at previous jobs. Try not to assume things from their resume. If their resume says “Implemented an email marketing strategy that increased traffic by x%”, you should probe into this by asking who implemented it, whose idea it was, who was the team comprised of, what was their contribution, how did they calculate the x%, etc. You want to get as good an idea as you can about what is it they actually did. The best predictor of what someone will be like in the future is to look at their past.

hiring young talent

This might beg the question of how to interview young talent. Recent grads will at best show a good school, a GPA and an internship position (where they probably didn’t really do much). Personally, I love hiring young talent, and I’ve been quite successful at it in the past. But I also failed at it. As a rule of thumb, always look for a very strong foundation. You can mentor and train on top of it, but you should never compromise on foundation. Some things can be taught in a short period of time, a strong foundation is not one of them.

This point ties with identifying the core competency you are looking for in the ideal candidate. For example, if you identified writing as the core competency you need for your marketing position, then you are looking for someone who already writes exceptionally well. They need to have a strong foundation in writing and the capacity to learn the other skills needed for the job. For developers, the key is a strong problem solving mindset. You also need to assess whether the skills they are missing are easily teachable and learnable in the environment that you will be providing your new hire with.

Test their skills. You are hiring people who build and create. Whether it’s a developer, a designer or a marketer, you must test them on it. As a general guideline, chose something that is relevant to your company, something that could be their first or second task if they were to actually join your company. For advice specific to hiring developers check out how to interview and hire developers.

Soft skills

One of the best ways to judge soft skills is to watch how they carry themselves through the interview process. For example, if you want to know whether they’re attentive to detail, watch what they notice and what they don’t notice in your job posting, office, questions, things you talked about, etc. Communication is another key area you should be screening for. You are ‘marrying’ your first hires. You will be spending time with them everyday. You can’t mentor, motivate, or delegate if you can’t communicate with your new employees. I once read a piece of advice targeted to managers: ‘if you don’t sound like a broken record, you haven’t said it enough’. Good communication skills will make it so much easier.

Besides simply watching them be as you interview them, there are few questions that I found can be quite insightful. My favourite is ‘Think of a person you worked with and respect their opinion, what are three adjectives they would use to describe you?’ Obviously they’ll be looking for good qualities they can brag about, ones that they think you’d want to hear. But what makes this question really effective is that you are implicitly asking what do they think is an important quality for the job they’re applying for.

Another tip to keep in mind as you are designing your questions: since you are likely to have many open-ended questions, make sure you always know what is a good answer and what is a bad answer to your question. Otherwise, you might end up with questions that will allow the interviewee to find a way around the answer without providing you with any useful insight.

Last but not least: willingness. No matter what skills people bring to the table, if they don’t have a strong desire to apply them, they’ll go to waste. You want passion, people who want to live, breathe and enjoy their career. They should really want the job. If you really are looking for people who will fill a big gap in your small team and own a big chunk of responsibility, then the job should be an attractive one and quite easy for you to sell. You are looking for people who can see the opportunity being offered, and who want it badly.

Hire Slowly. Fire Fast.

I hope this article gives you a good place to get started. Think carefully, move slowly. You might find that spending too much time on hiring ends up very expensive with respect to your time, but I can assure you that hiring the wrong people is exponentially more expensive in the long run. You spend time, energy, money on every new hire, so make it count.

Hiring is not easy. Firing is a lot harder. If you are ever in a situation were you feel an employee is not adding value to your company, you must take action as fast as you can. If it’s your first time, you’ll start deceiving yourself that it will somehow work out, but odds are if you’re in doubt it’s because you don’t want to see it happen. The best thing you can do is be honest with yourself, acknowledge your mistake in the hiring decision, and take action to correct it. It will sting, but it will be for the best.

Final notes

People learn and improve, but they do not change. Hiring people and expecting them to change is as bad (and impossible) as trying to change your spouse! Know very well what you are looking for in your new hire, and design an interview process that will give you a crystal-clear knowledge of where the interviewee stands.

Want to read more hiring advice for startups and small businesses? Check out How to hire for cultural fit, How to interview and hire junior developers and How to check for references.

What was your experience hiring? What advice would you add to this article? We want to hear from you in the comments below.

 

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