Making your First Hire: Advice for Startups

By June 21, 2016For Companies

While the lyrics “the first cut is the deepest” might refer to heartbreak, it could very well be applied to hiring too. The first hire, many startups will find, is the hardest. This is the moment when you’re handing over the reigns, opening your idea up to others, and relinquishing control in some ways. Scary as this sounds, it is a good thing.

Being able to hire means that your company is ready to grow. And you can’t ever be fully responsible for everything; at some point, you have to delegate and find someone who can do some aspect of the business better than you can. That being said, we understand the nerves. When it comes to hiring your first employee there can be a lot of pitfalls. With the recruitment cycle taking weeks, even months, mistakes can be very expensive. So, to help you out, we spoke to entrepreneurs who’ve been through the process and come out the other side with some great insights. These are some of the most important criteria and characteristics to consider when hiring your first employee.

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How to Make your First Hire

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Able to adapt and persevere

The startup world is challenging and unpredictable. After all, 90% of them fail. When you’re in the very early stages of your company and are looking to take someone on, you need to make sure that they fully understand this – especially if they haven’t worked in a startup before.

“There are so many ups and downs, everyone has to be incredibly flexible in their roles and their emotional states!” – Simon Riley (MakerClub)

It’s likely that you’ll require your team to work outside their usual remits and for long hours, without the compensation and security that corporates can afford. So, prioritise people who are not just committed but are comfortable with ambiguity and able to adapt under trying circumstances. As an employer, it is your responsibility to look out for the wellbeing of your first hire. However, you won’t have time to spoonfeed and comfort those who will struggle at every bump in the road.

“Things are so changeable in the start-up world that it is important to have people that are adaptable” – Luke McCormick (Founder, Edge Retreats)

So, how do you determine the people who fit the bill? Make sure to ask behavioural questions that focus on the ability to adapt such as “Tell me about a time you were under a lot of pressure. How did you manage it?” or “What is your biggest failure? How did you deal with it?”

This will help you suss out whether someone can persevere through the pressure and unpredictability of startups, or whether they’re better suited to somewhere with more structure.

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Attitude vs. skills

This is a dilemma that you might be familiar with or will end up facing: here’s someone with three years of experience in the exact function you need, and here’s someone who has just only graduated yet displays the exact attitude and working style that you desire from someone you’ll be working closely with. Who do you hire?

Bad news: there isn’t a secret formula to this and there is no correct answer. Instead, what we can give you are two different viewpoints to help you weigh your options.

For Sorabh Dhir (Founder, docuvo), the saying “hire for attitude and train for skill” rings true. In his experience, he quickly realised that “it was more important to have the right attitude as skills can be learnt”.

On the other hand, Laurence Sangarde-Brown (Country Manager, Jobbio) considers balance to be more important: “A new team member needs to be ready to hit the ground running, as early stage startups simply don’t have the resources to offer a comprehensive training programme. That said, the passion of your team is priceless. Startups aren’t 9-5”.

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Cultural fit

“Culture” is one of those buzzwords that has now become deeply ingrained within startups. HubSpot might have got a bit of a rollicking for their “over-the-top” company culture (complete with their “HubSpot Culture Code” and team outings to dodgeball, go-karting, and laser tag), but hey, they’re proud of it.

It’s a similar story at SUP. Growth Lead Danny Lowney told us, “We’ve made a special effort to hire with culture in mind. This has given us a very aligned team with a very strong culture, which we take with us as we grow”.

But why is it so important to hire for culture? And how can you actually achieve this?

In Ben Gateley’s words (Co-founder, The Eleven), culture can “motivate above and beyond anything else. It’s the difference between staying behind to ship that final piece of code and clocking off at 6pm to hit the pub”. Read his full opinion on hiring for culture here.

To hire for cultural fit, look for someone who has:

  • Values that align with the company’s
  • A similar work ethic or can make up where you lack

However, hiring for cultural fit should not mean losing out on diversity. Diversity in a company is when people with “different ideas, perspectives, and attitudes can work positively together“. So, while you want people that can work well towards a common goal, don’t fall into the trap of favouring those with a similar education, background, or who always agree with you. If, for example, you want to strive towards being an innovative company, you’ll want to find a first hire who can challenge you and think of new opportunities. Culture is also something that is developed over time – be willing to embrance change.

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Empathy

For most people, empathy is almost always an afterthought… until you’re dealing with someone who is difficult and obnoxious. As your first hire will be with you through some of the toughest parts of your entrepreneurial journey, find someone who is willing and able to support you as you do them.

“You need to be able to laugh a lot, sometimes it’s the only thing that gets you through the day!” – Simon Riley

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Understands your long-term vision

At an early stage startup, you’re unlikely to be able to offer your first hire high pay packages or insane benefits. If you’re interviewing someone and they’re asking for things that you can’t afford or can only do so at a stretch, this screams the wrong mindset. Instead, look for someone who is equally passionate about your product and firmly believes that the hard work now will pay off in the future.

“It’s important to find people that are bought into the vision from day one” – Luke McCormick

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Thanks to our experts for their tips!

docuvo Simon Riley Luke McCormick Danny Lowney Laurence Sanagrde-Brown (Making your First Hire)


Need help finding top applicants? Ask your next interviewees these killer interview questions.

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