When initially sourcing, you don’t need to spend a ton of time reviewing people’s profiles, analyzing resumes, etc. You just find interesting people and connect.
But as you dig deeper, or when someone applies and you want to evaluate that application, you do need to key in on a few things. Many of these points are skewed towards hiring developers, but they can certainly be broadened to other roles.
- Previous Startup Experience. This is pretty obvious, but generally you want to stay away from people who have worked exclusively (or almost exclusively) at large corporations. They’re just not likely to have the right mindset or interest in working at a startup.
- Previous Small Business Experience. A lot of startup recruits come out of small businesses. A small business is different than a startup, but if someone’s worked at a small business it’s a fairly good indicator that they’re interested in working in small teams and having more responsibility. Not always, but it’s a good sign. Even so, they might not have the stomach for working at a real startup, so be careful not to confuse, “I like working at a small company” with “I want to work at a startup”. But occasionally (and I think more often than you’d realize) you can find people languishing in small businesses without any real sense of how to get out.
- Personal Projects. Side projects are a good thing. Look for things like open source work, or personal projects of relevance to your company and/or industry. If someone has a ton of personal projects that never went anywhere that’s a red flag, because they may have difficulty focusing and finishing things. But you’re not really focused on judging the success of those projects (although if there’s been big success that’s an interesting point of discussion). What you’re looking for is people who are dedicated to trying new things, learning, getting out of their comfort zone and working hard.
- Foreign Experience. People’s experience in foreign countries and different cultures is always interesting. It adds a different dimension to people’s worldview that can be very valuable for a startup. Startups that focus their market too narrowly will get themselves into trouble very quickly. And startups that focus too much on the echo chamber can also get caught unaware. Broader, international experience is an interesting, potentially valuable component to a startup hire.
- Social Media Presence. If you’re hiring people for a Web startup then it makes sense to bring people in that understand the Web, regardless of the role you’re recruiting for. Developers and programmers should have a social media presence. Hopefully they’re blogging because that’s a great source of information. You can also learn a lot about someone from Twitter. You might have to read their last 100 tweets, but it’s worth the effort. LinkedIn is a good source of intelligence on people, although it works less well for programmers (because they don’t use it as actively.) Still, you can often find links to people’s projects, blogs, etc. on LinkedIn. And if they’re using the apps available there, even better, because you’ll learn more about them. A complete lack of a social media presence or a completely inactive one is a red flag.
- 2-Years Experience. It’s not uncommon to find great people who jump from job to job. There are lots of reasons for this. If someone has jumped too often it’s a red flag. But what you’re really looking for are people who have been with their current employer for 2-3 years. It’s around that timeframe when a lot of people start looking elsewhere, or at least are ready to be approached. If they’ve only been with a company for a few months it might be too early. If they’ve been with a company (especially a startup) for too long (5+ years or so) it might be too late, and they may no longer be interested in taking on a new challenge. So you’re looking for that sweet spot where people are most receptive to change.
- Founder Aspirations. It might be difficult to discern this from someone’s online profile or a resume, but I’ve always found that the best startup employees are those that want to take your job. Maybe not your specific job, but ultimately they want to be Founders themselves. They just might not be ready yet. Of course, as an employer losing kick ass employees to their own new startups is a huge drag, but it’s the reality of being in the startup world. You want people with lofty ambitions that genuinely want to run their own startups; they’re going to appreciate the experience of working at one a lot more.
- Creativity in Applications. Nothing says “hire me!” like a boring 2-page resume. Yawn. Creativity is a huge asset in all employees, including developers. You should ask people to demonstrate their creativity when they apply. It’s a great filtering tool. If you ask people to do something out of the ordinary and creative with their job application and they don’t, you can scrap them immediately. And if you don’t ask them and they do something interesting and creative, even better!
There’s no magic bullet for startup recruiting. You’re most likely going to make quite a few mistakes. But those first few employees are so critical you owe it to yourself to recruit the absolute best you can find, take your time (even though it might be killing you), and have a rigorous process in place for sourcing, attracting, recruiting and hiring.