“How to Hire the Right People”

Show Notes

If there’s one thing all startups have in common during the midstage is they have a need to hire new employees as they scale. For most founders, this is the first time hiring people outside of their immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. But how do founders know that they’re hiring the right people for their startup? After all, hiring the wrong people can bring a startup down, making it difficult to continue growing and find long-term success.

In Chapter 1 of his book Midstage Momentum, startup coach Roland Siebelink shares insight from successful founders about their methods for hiring the right people who can help take a startup to the next level.

  • Is it a good idea to hire people with experience at a big corporation?
  • How important is it for potential candidates to fit the values of a startup?
  • How to spot the X-factor that doesn’t show up on someone’s CV.
  • When is the right time to hire generalists and when should you hire specialists?
  • The role that passion plays in finding an employee who is a good fit.
  • Should startups be striving to find the perfect person to fill a position?

Transcript

Has your fast growing startup ever wondered what to focus on in hiring the right people? Here are key insights from 40 amazing founders around the world.

My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m a coach and the CEO and founder of the Midstage Institute. We work exclusively with startups between 25 and 250 people, $5 million to $50 million in revenue to help them scale the midstage faster. And we’ve just published this book that is based on interviews with 40 of the most amazing new founders from startups, fast-growing startups around the world.

The first chapter is about hiring the right people. What do these founders focus on in actually making sure that they get the right people on board and the wrong people off board? Here are some key insights that you will find back in the book.

First of all, it is actually a key concern after receiving funding. This is something that came up time and time again in the interviews we did for the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast, that after they received the first round of funding, they can now go beyond that circle of friends and actually start hiring in the open market. There’s a lot of concern about, am I making the right decisions? Am I actually getting the right people on board?

Keep in mind hiring is all about scaling the number of decisions that you can make in the company. It’s not just getting more people on board. If they together do not allow you to make more decisions, then what’s the point?

A few points that came up time and time again. Startup energy over corporate entitlement. Really focus on the people that are self-starters, that are buying into the vision, that have a drive to succeed. And people that have that hunger, as Dennis Kayser of Forecast was saying, that is something you really look for in the interview.

The second is the right values over the right experience. Interview for the values of the company, to make sure they fit your company. It does require explicit values that you have written down and that you can share with them, not just hiring by gut-feel because that can often lead to a lack of diverse hiring.

And finally, people that show a lot of energy and excitement over the experience. Experience in startups is actually undervalued in most cases because you are reinventing a business model, so what experience really is valuable and valid toward the company unless you’re already at the later stage of that midstage?

The third thing that comes up a lot is curious problem solvers. People who want to learn the industry, that do have a strong technical side, that are not afraid of technology, even when they’re outside of engineering, and that find a way to solve problems. The people that have hacked together many solutions in their previous lives just to fix something that they feel is broken.

And another quote I really loved from Dennis Kayser at Forecast was to sense the “Oomph” when you’re interviewing people. Make sure that it’s a good fit over anything else they bring. It’s not just a CV but your gut really has to say, “These people are a good fit.” They have to have something that’s standing out, the oomph, the X factor, as some people call it. Something that really attracts you to them as a potential employee. It’s really hard to put your finger on, but it was surprising how often founders said that is actually the one thing that they’re looking for.

The corollary of that is that generally they prefer to hire generalists before specialists. The right time to start hiring specialists is when you are already about 100, 150 people, where a specialist can start playing a bigger role. But until then, so many things are still undefined or open for a lot of change, so generalists do a better job at being able to fit with whatever the company needs.

You’re looking for people that are relying on dogfooding. As Subhi Beidas of CodeCov was saying, it is important that people are happy to also use the product itself and to learn from that, not just having to do everything with user research. And then, as Melanie Meador at Redeam was saying,w e can help mold the experience but we cannot help mold the passion. You really have to find the people that show passion first, and then the experience will actually come as they work more with the business model of the company.

Three more points. One was to really select people that are looking for that startup grind and not just any job. People that are just looking for a nine to five - or a 10 to six in the Bay Area - are not really the people that you want, especially when you’re hiring early on. It is really tough to take on somebody who’s only got experience from a big corporation, as Larry Talley at Everyware was saying. People have to specifically look for that startup grind. They have to be looking for something more than just a job and have to feel happy about making their hands dirty and helping out with other things than your job.

This is a little bit related to the pattern of generalists before specialists that I was talking about before. If you hire specialists too early, those are often people that are only comfortable in helping out in their particular specialization. But what the company really needs is people that just make their hands dirty with whatever is needed at a specific point in time. And generalists are generally better at that.

That’s many criteria. Startup energy over corporate entitlement. Values over the right experience. Curious, problem-solver. Sensing that oomph. Generalists before specialists. And looking for a grind, not just a job. But there’s something that really came out of the interview with Sebastiano Bertani at Tanaza in Milan. How long do you wait for perfection? Sometimes there are so many criteria that you can apply and always find something about a specific candidate. Everybody does have issues, of course. It’s not a matter of just filtering out so many that you never get to hire someone. In the end, you need more people, you need to make more decisions, and you need to scale.

How do you do that? Brightly, Pat Larsen at ZenLedger recommends writing a very long job description up front. Make sure that people that come in are the ones that have read it because that already filters out a lot of the issues that you could otherwise uncover during an interview.

And then another point that Kevin Yoo at WearWorks made is even if you can hire certain people on your team, your team is always much bigger than just your hires. Think of building that extended family, not just the people that will report to you and that work for you full time. Not everyone can actually commit to you full-time or commit to a startup salary with a lot of options for future rewards. Sometimes people will just be happier in a role as an advisor. Kevin was saying that at WearWorks they have relied tremendously on very powerful advisors and think of them as an extended family. That’s the one tip I want to leave you with.

In subsequent videos, we will talk about the other chapters in this book, such as setting the right culture, illuminating your vision, picking the real priorities, finding your ideal customers and understanding their key needs, building the go-to market team, innovating only where it matters, whether and when to raise funds, how to stay on good terms, and balancing confidence and openness.

Looking forward to seeing you with one of these other videos. The book is available on Amazon and it’s called Midstage Momentum, under my name.


Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.

Our coach constantly pushes us to look further into the future, shift focus away from distractions and make big decisions we stick to.

Clark Downum, VP Engineering, Redox, Seattle, WA