Who you shouldn’t hire first

As a founder of an early stage startup you just feel lucky when someone says they want to work with you on your idea. In those early days you really can’t afford to pay anyone well so a combination of the challenge, great storytelling and probably a flaw in their DNA have convinced them to join.

First hires need to be low to the ground. They cannot be anyone with expectations of anything other than hard work. They often can’t be anyone who wants to get “paid what they are worth” either.

This is the duality of startups. You need exceptionally agile and talented people to build something innovative, functional and stable enough that, further down the line, more qualified people will want to work on.

Early employees build the roads that the next employees will drive on to take the company further than they often times ever could. They are the most important hires, doing the most important work at the most crucial time in a startup’s life.

There are employees and then there are startup employees. They may look the same on the outside but their DNA is completely different.

In one of my first startups I was interviewing for a sales leadership role. I interviewed a lot of people until I found something that I thought would be incredible. All the interviews were fantastic, they said all the right words in the right places, they were a little expensive and a little further along than we needed but I felt worth it — so I hired them. They would pull us forward…or so I thought.

It was a complete disaster.

It was obvious they were out of their element. It had been so long since they were in the weeds that they couldn’t even get off the ground. They struggled for weeks. It wasn’t that they weren’t accomplished, it was clearly that they didn’t have the DNA for startups.

The next person that came into the role was the perfect sales leader at that time. They were capable of being on the ground selling and then able to lift themselves out of the muck to mentor and coach the rest of the team. The work was fun for them. The growth of the capabilities of the team was a reward and we flourished as a result.

The difference between the two experiences was dramatic. The first person was my hoping we could get to the long-term vision faster. The second person was the reality of where we were. I learned that you cannot hire too far ahead in a startup.

Every startup operates in real time and the hiring process is no different. You will need people that make an impact now, not people that will be great when the company reaches their level. You won’t last long enough to get there.