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 a key one in ensuring success. One hire can ‘make or break’ your company and the first few hires will fundamentally determine the companies DNA and set the cultural tone moving forward.
At this phase of your startup, you may be faced with difficulties for two reasons:
- You’re not yet well known and may not have developed the reputation or brand that talent are usually looking to be part of,
- Risk of failure is high, with 3 out of 4 startups failing, according to The Wall Street Journal.
So, how can you tackle these difficulties and build confidence within your hiring process?
There are 3 main pillars that if done correctly, will help set you on your way to building a successful, winning team that increases the chances of your business flourishing.
It all starts with employee branding
You may not have employees at this stage or a well established brand that people are talking about.
However, you can start building and communicating your brand. Building a strong and positive brand not only draws in customers but influences employee acquisition. If you can effectively do this, you’ll be able to build a team who understands your mission, vision and values and are motivated to be 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 your audience that your idea and product is meaningful. Creating a backstory is the path that best introduces your company to the outside world.
Your story should state who you are, not just what you do. Humans crave real connection so ‘humanising’ your brand will allow you to create the impression that your company is a person with an identity, therefore feeding the curiosity of 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 engage with and share your story - and there you have it, you’re on your way to being the talk of the town.
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. Emphasise the opportunity they will have to be part of something new and exciting that is growing - this will help you attract people who are up for the challenge. This is the place where you should focus on talking about your mission, vision and values and any benefits and flexible working conditions that you offer.
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 space you’re in. Be vocal and make yourself heard.
Hone in your content strategy
Building more trust and credibility can be achieved through a good content strategy and having more content will encourage people to visit your website. This is a good opportunity to report on what you are up to, share related industry news and then spreading it far and wide on social media.
Sharing things you’re up to behind the scenes or sharing 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!
~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 stand out 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.
Make it clear that they won’t be constrained by what’s in the job description and that you welcome and encourage new ideas, expecting them to pull things in from their own experience.
Set the right language tone
It’s good to avoid using certain buzzwords and jargon when going beyond skills needed and focusing on the cultural fit and attitude of what you expect from your employees. Try to avoid words jargon 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 - that of which you’re building yet another white, male-dominated startup which results in exclusion and the creation of an unconscious bias - “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness”.
Assess the wording you are using to ensure inclusivity, diversity and gender neutrality. Consider ‘softer’ and less aggressive words including;
Motivate, collaborate, support, nice/good to have, committed. Stick to traditional job titles: Product Manager, Data Analyst, Marketeer, UX designer etc.
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’ is not representative of the quality in their performance nor is it asking whether they actually have the ability to make a measurable contribution.
Asking for skills that are needed to perform the job well will present you with candidates who will be more qualified for the role. An advantage of not focusing on years of experience is that you may well attract candidates who don’t have a long work history and may therefore have fresher perspectives, be less risk averse and have a more unique or different thought process.
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 ensure you are taking this into consideration when looking for someone and asking questions!
Soft skills are just as important!
You’ll most likely already be interviewing them due to the relevant skills they have noted on their CV e.g. data collection and analysis skills (hard skills). However, no matter the context, or job role, there are a few soft skills that your first few hires really should have.
If your candidates have the right hard skills, you believe they would be a good cultural fit and they also 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 who will have the ability to grow within your company and continuously give you better results is more important than previous experience. Each new hire should be determined 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?
~Top tip: Remember, you’ll be working very closely with the first 10 or so hires. Make sure you can collaborate and bounce off of one another. Can you see yourself working well with this person for many hours every day?
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. These will all impact how they work within the company and in your team. It’s important you serve as the best example of how you envision your company’s culture. Do this and your working environment should naturally shape correspondingly.
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.
She can be contacted here.