The first decisions made in an early stage startup are the most critical and could either drive the business into success or stagnation. Amongst all the crucial decisions you are faced with, building the right team for your startup will be the key to your success. One hire can be your ‘make or break’ and first few people you hire will fundamentally set a companies DNA and determine the cultural tone.

You may be faced with difficulties at this phase for two reasons:

  1. You’re not well known yet and may not have developed the reputation or brand that talent usually are looking to be part of.
  2. Risk of failure is high, with 3 out of 4 startups failing, according to The Wall Street Journal.

So, how can you tackle that and build confidence within your hiring process?

There are 3 main pillars that, if done in the best way possible, will ensure you're on your way to building a successful, winning team that will encourage your business to flourish.

Pink and purple flower #3
Photo by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

It all starts with employee branding.

You may not have employees behind you at this stage or a well established brand that people are talking about, yet you can start building and communicating your brand. Building a strong and positive brand will not only draw in customers, but it will influence employee acquisition. If you can effectively do this, you’ll be able to build a team who not only understands your mission, vision and values but is motivated to be a part of them. So how can you create noise and awareness?

  • Storytelling - it’s like falling in love.

Everyone loves a compelling story and this is your opportunity to influence and persuade people that your idea and product is meaningful. Creating a backstory can be the path that will introduce your company to the outside world.

Your story should state who you are, not just what you do. Humans still crave real connection. 'Humanising’ your brand will enable you to create the impression that your company is a person and consequently stimulate curiosity amongst prospective employees. Not everyone will be interested, just like we all have our film and book preferences, but those who are, are far more likely to be engaged and share your story - and there you have it, you’re on your way to being the talk of the town.

We're better when we're united
Photo by Clay Banks / Unsplash
  • Build a company profile and show off!

Have a company profile or a talent page on your website and/or LinkedIn company page. Highlight what it would be like to work for your company and then list the reasons why people should want to work for your startup. Fire them up with the same excitement you have about being part of something new and exciting that is growing - this will help you attract people who are up for the challenge. Talk about your mission, vision and values here and highlight any benefits and flexible working conditions that you are offering.

  • Build a Founder bio

You’ll most likely be managing your first hires and working with them very closely so it’s important you give as much detail about yourself, be it on your LinkedIn profile or website. It’s good to be a user of social media and follow as many entrepreneurs and people in the similar space as you. Be vocal and make yourself heard.

  • Hone in your content strategy

Building more trust and credibility can be achieved through a good content strategy. This will encourage people to visit your website. It is also a good opportunity to report on what you are up to, share related industry news and then disseminate it far and wide on social media.

Sharing things you’re up to behind the scenes or revealing some of your secrets and tips could draw attention and increase curiosity. What innovative tech are you using? What’s the first thing on the product roadmap that really made a difference? Have you launched your website yet? Don’t release new products or features without shouting about it!

Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

~Top tip: Take employee branding seriously! This will help you shape candidates' decisions, just like marketing helps get your product or service in front of the right audience.

Write a killer job specification

Writing a job spec will make a huge difference in attracting the right kind of candidates needed for your business and the advertised role. This is the time to really flaunt your company's mission, vision and values.

  • Don’t be another man in the street

This is a great opportunity to show what makes your startup unique and different from the competition. Make sure you inject some of your personality into the job description and set the tone. It’s good to highlight that you’re not expecting them to be a cog in the machine, after all, they wouldn’t be applying to a startup if that’s what they wanted.

Stand Out. 
Inspired by Charles Isidi
Photo by David Rotimi / Unsplash

Make it clear that they won’t be constrained by what’s in the job description and that you encourage new ideas and expect them to bring things in from their own experience.

  • Set the right language tone

It’s good to avoid certain buzzwords and jargon when looking beyond the skills required and focusing on the cultural fit and attitude which you expect from your employees. Try to avoid words such as:

Work-hard play-hard, fast-paced environment, best of the best, competitive salary, driven, competitive, must have, ninja, growth hacker, guru.

It’s often not so clear what these actually mean and can send out the wrong message, namely you’re building yet another white, male dominated startup, resulting in exclusion and unconscious bias - “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness”.

Assess the words you are using to ensure inclusivity, diversity and gender neutrality. Consider ‘softer’ and less aggressive words such as;

Motivate, collaborate, support, nice/good to have, committed. Stick to traditional job titles: Product Manager, Data Analyst, Marketeer, UX designer etc.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash
  • Skills > years of experience

Experience won’t necessarily equal quality and will only limit your talent pool. Putting in the requirement that candidates should have e.g. ‘5 years experience in digital marketing’ will not result in an accurate representation of the actual quality of their performance as it is not asking whether they have the ability to make measurable contributions.

Asking for skills that are needed to perform well in the job will result in you being presented with candidates who will be more qualified to do the role. Not focusing on years of experience as part of the job requirement will mean you attract candidates who don’t have a long work history and who are likely to offer fresher perspectives, be less risk averse and bring about the opportunity for unique or alternative thought processes.

Photo by Goutham Krishna / Unsplash

Examples of some of the most successful people who did not start their journey with 5 years experience at a tech firm include Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Nail your interview process

As obvious as it may seem, you don’t want to underestimate the importance of the interview process. In an early stage startup, you may be hiring for a specific role, but, with few heads in the company, this person will realistically be wearing many hats. Their duties may range from marketing to sales to product development so be considering this when looking and asking questions!

  • Soft skills are just as important!

You’ll most likely already be interviewing them due to the skills they have noted on their CV as relevant for the position e.g. data collection and analysis skills (hard skills). Yet, no matter the context or job role, there are a few soft skills your first few hires really should have.

Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash

If your candidates have the right hard skills, you believe they would be a good cultural fit AND they have the following soft skills, you’ve pretty much bagged yourself the perfect match:


Example question: Can you tell me a time when things didn’t go according to plan? How did you cope?


Example question: Can you tell me a time where a project you were working on dramatically changed direction at the last minute? What steps did you take?


Example question: Can you tell me a time when you identified and fixed a problem before it became a matter of urgency?


Example question: Tell me about a time you had to develop a creative solution to get the job done in the most efficient way?

  • Look for future potential

Having employees with the desire and ability to grow within your company and continuously give you better results is more important than previous experience. Each new hire should have the determination to drive both your company and themselves!

In the very early stages you will (hopefully) be growing pretty quickly and will need your team to evolve and keep up with the fast pace. During the interview, you’ll need to think about whether that person could be capable of a potential leadership position. Do you feel as if they could take on more responsibility quickly?

2010 was a boon year for these butterflies in my garden. I had a dozen chrysalis in all manner of morphs at any one time. In this image you can see the new green chrysalis coloration, one that’s about ready to emerge (the clear one), and a butterfly that’s already come out. They will hang for hours and dry their wings and are, in fact, quite fragile.
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams / Unsplash

~Top tip: Remember, you’ll be working very closely with the first 10 or so hires. Make sure you both can collaborate and bounce off each other. Can you see yourself working well with this person for many hours every day?

Final thoughts…

Create your team culture and stick with it! Your first few employees will not only bring their skills but their interests, personalities and perspectives on life. This will inevitably impact how they work within the company and as part of a team. It’s important that you serve as the best example for how you envision the culture to be. Do this and your working environment should naturally shape correspondingly.

About the author

Vicky Vitkay ( is General Manager of Work in Startups - the leading job-board in the UK for startups looking to hire tech and creative talent. As a subsidiary of Adzuna, WorkinStartups’ mission is to help match startups and talent together and transform the hiring space for the industry by being the best place to look for a startup job.

You can find out more about Adzuna and WorkinStartups here and here respectively.

If you would like to reach out to Vicky you can do so here or through LinkedIn.