Most of the founders at our incubator Ben Franklin TechVentures have not interviewed, selected or onboarded new employees prior to launching their startups. Having incubated more than 150 companies in 30-plus years, we’ve seen hundreds of successes and failures in hiring. It’s an essential step towards success.
As you may remember from reading my last couple of posts, all startups have their own idiosyncrasies and don’t lend themselves to rigid rules. So, instead of another “how to hire your first employee” piece, I’ll instead offer some higher-level advice that might lead to better decision-making.
If you stood side-by-side with your great-great-great grandfather, an observer could probably see a resemblance. That’s because some of his genetic makeup has become a part of you. This is how it is inside a growing company. If you’re the founder, you hire the first person. Then you and that person hire the third person. In fact, you’re probably involved in hiring each new person through about employee number 30.
But as your company grows, you will become less involved in the hiring process. Employee number two might choose employee number 31. But because you hired employee number two, that person hopefully resembles you in important ways: temperament, communication style, etc. Meanwhile, that employee number 31 probably resembles number two, and so on throughout a company’s evolution. Even after the founder is retired, there is a genetic culture that creates the core DNA of the company.
Below are a few practices we’ve seen that help companies go through a more successful hiring process and build a great lineage.
1. You should even codify it in a company culture document that changes as you grow. A great example is the 2009 Reed Hastings PowerPoint deck on Netflix culture.
2. Write professional job descriptions. If you’re not sure how to do this, use this Monster Jobs link to help. While informal networking and reliance on your relationships will expose you to good candidates, using formal search processes will identify excellent, unexpected candidates. It will also build discipline, helping your company hire people in the future when you’re no longer directly involved.
3. Don’t wait for a job opening to meet candidates. Keep a link on your website that talks about your company and how you’re always looking for candidates in broad fields (programming, for instance). Forcing yourself to take interviews — even when you haven’t decided if you’re going to hire — helps you learn what you’re looking for, keeps you current on who’s available, and will make you better educated when you do have a decision to make.
4. Don’t hire a manager when what you want is a doer. Over the years, many startups in our incubator have hired former senior corporate people, especially for sales positions, because the person has a strong set of contacts. “Former EVP of Marketing at IBM” sounds pretty impressive as your Chief Marketing Officer. But that probably means they spent their day managing 100 people and not actually engaging with customers. Within a month or two, they will have approached every one of their contacts…twice. Results will probably be mixed because your startup is not IBM. If you’re trying to ramp up your business from its first five customers to its next 50, this senior management person probably doesn’t have the skill set nor inclination to do what really needs to be done. They won’t be happy or good at banging away at email responses, running product demos or making phone calls. It’s OK to hire a less-pedigreed person if the job and culture is a better fit.
It’s hard to build a successful tech company. It’s virtually impossible to do so with an undisciplined and poorly thought through description of what you want your company culture to be. Think of your business as a living thing and realize that each person who gets hired may become a critical chromosome in your company DNA.