The top 4 ways to hire A-players for your initial startup team

Zach DeWitt
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Steve Jobs said something that stuck with me: “When you’re in a startup, the first 10 people will determine whether the company succeeds or not.”

If your initial team of 10 people consists of A players, those people will hire more A players as the company scales.

If you’ve got mostly B and C players on your initial team, those folks will inevitably hire more B and C performers.

Mediocrity compounds — which is why it’s so important to establish your startup on a foundation of excellence.

Let’s talk about why early hiring is so critical, and how you can build a team of talented and dedicated team members who can turn your startup idea into a reality.

Why hiring gets rushed

At my former startup, we built our team to 9 people before we were acquired by Snapchat. On that team, I was fortunate to work with some exceptional builders — but I wouldn’t have said we had the best possible people laying the groundwork for our company’s long-term success 

As a first-time founder, I didn’t have sufficient patience when we were building our team. I felt pressure to scale fast, and I rushed a few hires.

I understand that in the last 10+ years of the bull market, many founders have experienced the same kind of hiring pressure. They were under fire to grow as quickly as possible, and felt like the solution was to throw warm bodies at the problem.

Many startup founders skip over waiting for the perfect candidates. Instead, they find “good enough” people so they can get going immediately. Now this strategy is catching up to many scaling startups that not only over-hired, but hired sufficient people instead of top performers.

But if you’re not careful about building the best possible team, starting from day one, it can have major consequences.

Data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that approximately 45% of businesses fail during the first five years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.

We can only imagine that with smarter hiring practices in the early days of building a foundation, more of these businesses would have survived and thrived.

Let’s talk about some strategies for hiring smarter instead of just bringing in people to warm seats and get a “good enough” job done.

1. Hire for passion

To build a team of top performers, prioritize hiring for passion and commitment to your company’s vision. Passionate employees are more likely to be invested in the success of the company. They’ll be more willing to go above and beyond to achieve your most important goals.

Throughout the hiring process — including in job postings and interviews — communicate your company’s mission and values, and provide opportunities for candidates to learn more about how they can help drive growth and innovation.

Of course, passion and commitment alone aren’t enough to ensure success. Every hire needs relevant skills and experience for their role. But skills paired with deep commitment can be a powerful driver of success.

2. Know your weak spots

Your startup can gain a big advantage in the hiring game by understanding your weak spots and hiring to fill those gaps. 

Before posting jobs and actively recruiting candidates, do a thorough assessment of your team. Where does your company lack experience or expertise? What skills and traits would be required for success in those positions?

Use your job descriptions and competency models to clearly define the skills you need, and use that information to guide your entire hiring process. 

Don’t be threatened by someone with expertise in your weakest areas. Embrace the idea of hiring complementary team members. Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, publicly advocates hiring for your blind spots. She once told Richard Branson, “The smartest thing I ever did in the early going was to hire my weaknesses.”

3. Look for the right fit for your culture

Hiring for the right culture fit is always important for building a successful startup — but it’s even more important in your first few hires. Potential candidates need the technical chops to do the job, but they also need to contribute to your culture in positive and meaningful ways.

In the pressure-cooker environment of a typical startup, a bad cultural fit can be disastrous — especially when your team is small.

To assess cultural fit, ask behavioral questions in your interviews. Check references. See how candidates interact with current employees.

And remember that getting the right cultural fit for your team doesn’t just benefit you and your company, it also helps your employees. Being part of a strong team that really gels leads to higher employee satisfaction and engagement — which means you’ll be able to retain your best team members.

4. Embrace referrals

Referrals can be one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal for finding A players for your initial team. Reach out to your existing network and tap your connections to find proven talent.

After all, your friends, family and colleagues probably know a lot more about your mission and vision than a typical staffing agency or recruitment firm. They get what you’re trying to do — which means they’re more likely to refer candidates who will be a great fit.

Also, remember that the existing top performers most likely know other talented people. Consider incentivizing your existing employees to refer candidates they know and trust.

Don’t settle for mediocrity

If you’re going to succeed, you need A players who are not only skilled and experienced, but also have the drive and determination needed to thrive at an early-stage startup.

Every hire is critical and will have a significant impact on your success (or failure). I know it’s not always easy, but I encourage you to take a hard look at your team and make sure you only have A players on board.

Leaders of many growth-stage (Series B and beyond) companies are already cutting employees and reorganizing their teams. But doing some serious soul-searching about the quality of your team is equally important for seed and Series A startups, so they can retain their best and jettison drag.

What you want is efficient growth, not reckless growth at all costs. Efficient growth requires creativity, hard work and collaboration — and in many ways, it’s more difficult than going headfirst into the fray and hiring as fast as possible.

Follow Steve’s advice to give your company the best chance to thrive.

To get more information on how you can build a successful startup — plus updates on recent PLG financing and performance – be sure to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter.

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