8 Things to Look for When Hiring Startup Talent

Once you have an aggressive system in place for building a recruiting magnet and sourcing talent you need to have a clear sense of what to look for in each potential candidate.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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  • morlevine

    You are the man!
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  • garydpdx

    I will file my objections on #1. In my field (electronics, electronic design automation (EDA)), working in a corporate environment is the ONLY way (unless you're part of an academic technology transfer) to gain experience, in an area which has high capital requirements. And then there are intangibles, like having a roster of contacts from key players in the industry (for some cases) that can take the startup somewhere. Plus, many people face issues in advancement (too many layers, legal or visa issues, etc.) that combined with the environment, making corporate life intolerable. For me, I have frequently asked myself, “if I'm working 80 hours a week, why can't I do it for myself?”

    A lot of people who found or work for successful start-ups did time in corporate.

  • http://www.knyshov.com Leonid S. Knyshov

    I am not so sure I agree with the #7 point.

    In my exec team, sure. In my sales team, yes. In my regular employees? Not really. The real hard part is hiring your first salesperson, especially a senior salesperson who can outnegotiate you in her sleep. :)

    I'll tell you what I am looking for (recruiting a tech team now, so I am putting my money on it).

    1. Communication skills. Both written and verbal, familiar with making presentations. Being an active Toastmasters member would be a big bonus.
    2. Ability to learn my product very quickly and to get trained on the relevant technologies fast. We advertise ability to support a customer's internal business applications. Thus, what I ideally want is someone who understands _why_ applications work and not just _how_ to make them work.
    3. Genuine desire to be doing this kind of work
    4. Pass my “how fast can you find a solution armed with unrestricted web search” test. Throw a problem at someone (perhaps a rootkitted laptop?) and give her a web browser. A preferred candidate will be able to articulate the solution to me within 30 minutes.

    I specifically am not interested in small business experience. Whoever is doing this stuff at a small business level is basically stuck there and unable to advance. Why would I want that person? If anything, I am specifically looking for someone with Fortune 1000 background who is bored out of her mind.

    Definitely couldn't care less about foreign experience at this point.

    2-3 years on the job? Too long. A startup often fails or hit another inflection point that necessitates an employment change before reaching the 2yr mark. Why penalize the employee for managing his career better through multiple transitions without staying aboard a failing ship?

    Then again, the nature of my business would greatly benefit from having someone with background in Fortune 1000 companies. That may well be an anomaly in the startup world. :)

  • timtasker

    My formula to hiring good employees are: experience (if still working even better), skilled enough and attitude towards making what it has to be made. Maybe self determination is the perfect term for the last one. I recommend readers to join startups.com for more business related conversations!

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  • http://vegeabc.blogspot.com wege

    not really sure if hiring just one person, no matter how talented he would be is going to do the trick! :) I'd be rather inclined to getting a team! of specialists in their areas

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    I think author covered almost all required topics before hiring anyone.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Gary – Thanks for the comment and counterpoints. I'll admit to a bias that's focused on web-related startups. However, I don't have a problem with “some” corporate time, what I do question is “corporate lifers”. If someone has never shown any interest in working at a startup through past experience that has me worried. But certain industries / fields may be significantly different.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Leonid – Thank you for the extensive comments.

    I like that you have very specific things you're looking for when hiring. That's going to help a lot when assessing people.

    Certainly as a company grows, each employee won't have founder aspirations. The first handful though … they should.

    Fortune 1000 or big company experience can definitely be helpful, but if the person's expectations are set at that level – big hierarchies, expense accounts, etc. – you're in for a culture shock.

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  • garydpdx

    Ben – sometimes, I have seen 'corporate lifers' not think about possibilities outside that environment until a crisis or opportunity forces them to think in broader terms (or an enlightenment, if you will!). Many areas have much higher barriers to entry than Web-based enterprises. One example is a green printed circuit board manufacturing technology by a Chicago-area start-up called Printovate. It's not a company that you can start in a garage … in fact, millions were invested by Motorola as well as research grants (NIST, U of Michigan, etc.) to create that technology but Motorola decided, in the end, not to incorporate it in the few factories that it still runs. Rather than axe the team outright (six of the eight team members have doctorates, btw), they were offered licensing rights to take it into their own firm with some seed capital from a new ventures fund; they have to raise the rest. A lot of entrepreneurs discovered themselves in the Great Recession in a similar manner, especially when high capital endeavours are involved (I have heard similar stories in other areas, such as biotech). Entrepreneurs by necessity!

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    8 Things to Look for When Looking for Talent for your Startu

  • http://gadget-help.blogspot.com/ Prem Sabarwal

    nice post..the 7th point being the most important one..

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Gary – I completely understand your point of view. And I agree that entrepreneurs are sometimes “born” or “emerge” out of crisis. People often say that tough times are the BEST time to start businesses.

    My bias, not surprisingly, when I provide this kind of blog post is to the Web world where lifers = bad. In other industries that's clearly not the case.

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  • C0ldf1re

    “Creativity is a huge asset in all employees…”

    Respectfully disagree in spades. Not all! Every firm has some boring work that will drive creative people <color=#F2F2F2>crazy</color>. You need some unimaginative plodders to do the grunt work.

  • http://www.wbsonline.com/resources/generation-y-the-new-workforce/ Aaron

    “big hierarchies, expense accounts, etc.”

    Not to mention a system that allows people to have less personal responsibility (pass the blame up or down the ladder). This is one reason why startups are stressful A lot folks used to big company culture have a hard time adjusting to the weight that they alone have to shoulder.

  • http://www.writers.ph freelance writing

    I am not so sure I agree with the #5 point.

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    I didn't even know there was a difference between a start up and a small business. Totally agree with having a social media presence. You cannot be a web developer if you aren't in the know about the social aspect of it. By actively participating online you are showing your passion for your work, and that shows you are up to date even outside of work.

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