What makes a good startup hire?


Your earliest startup hires will help set the culture of your startup, especially in its critical early stages and they will influence future team members.
Your early employees are some of the most important and crucial decisions you as a founder have to make. As some of your earliest startup hires, they help set the culture of your startup in its critical early stages and influence future team members. 

So how do you go about building your startup team the right way? First, let’s get grounded in what exactly makes a good startup hire and what you’re looking to hire them for.

What makes a good startup hire?

In the same way that not everyone is cut out to be a startup founder, not everyone who is a talented and skilled employee makes a great startup hire, especially in the volatile and risky world of very early stage businesses. But the people who are attracted to working at a startup are trading security and certainty (which is often false anyway) for the chance to be a part of something that could be something bigger or to make a greater impact in a more flexible role.

Here are some things to be mindful of to be on the lookout for when starting to hire for employees. Knowing these things in advance will ground you in what you’re looking for before you start the screening and interview process .

Ability to thrive in ambiguity 

This isn’t about the ability to work in “fast-paced environments”, which is so common on both job postings and resumes that it’s hard to place any real weight on this. The pace of a startup isn’t always necessarily fast. In many cases, it can more accurately be described as unpredictable and inconsistent. And with a lack of a traditional management structure in place, those used to and favoring hierarchical and clear performance management systems may struggle—though not always. You’re more likely looking for signals of adaptability, grit, and flexibility, someone who has a track record of taking initiative, who doesn’t freeze up when they don’t have all the answers because in a startup, they won’t have many.

Potential and drive

Do they exhibit a desire to learn? Can you grasp that they are thoughtful, smart, and capable outside of what their resume can tell you? Potential isn’t necessarily applied just to new graduates who are starting their careers. It can come from experienced people too, like a mid-career candidate who has a track record of making an impact in whatever roles they’ve been in, and wants to try something new. It’s about having a mindset of growth and the eagerness to build and learn along the way. Startups, by the way, have been known for catapulting the careers of people who came in without a lot of experience, their drive and potential counting for a lot more. For example, newly graduated Brittany Forsyth was hired as an office manager when Shopify was just 20 employees, then went on to hold the title of Chief Talent Officer, leading the company’s talent function through an IPO, global expansion, and multiple acquisitions for what was eventually a 10,000+ employee company. 

“Find ballplayers, not those who look good in baseball caps.” —Tom Monahan

A strong connection to the mission or values of your startup 

Having a strong employer brand from the very beginning will help you attract talent who are strongly committed to your company’s mission and values. And this is important because your early employees set the tone and culture of your company. If all goes well, they may even become leaders within your startup later (or quite early) on, and that comes with a lot of influence on both your product and team. You want this early team to feel connected to what you’re doing. This doesn’t mean that they have to be your customer but that they ultimately should believe in the values and mission of your company. Aim to hire people who genuinely seem engaged in the work that you’re doing, and look for it early on: signs of this appear all the way from the first stages in the recruiting process .

Diversification in skills and perspectives

A lot of emphasis is placed on “culture fit” in hiring but there are benefits to looking beyond fit and hiring for “culture add” instead. What does that mean? Studies show that people tend to like people who are similar to them, and that’s an inherent and mostly unconscious bias that tends to play out in startups where we end up with teams of people that look, act, and think alike. This is often referred to as “culture fit”. But diverse teams have been found to perform better, providing a business case for diversity, which is where culture add comes in. How can we rethink culture in terms of people being able to add value through their differences? Instead of thinking about your hires solely in terms of the skills and expertise you’re looking for, how might they bring value through their unique background, perspective, or experiences?

Learn more about building diversity and inclusion into your recruiting process here .

How to build out your team

Developing a recruitment strategy and deciding which roles to prioritize can feel like a big challenge when you want to hire for all the things. The following isn’t a missive on which roles are more important than others. It’s more of a gentle observation of which roles benefit most from being very close to the business and product from the very beginning, where other roles are most beneficial when the team is scaled to help amplify and support the company at a larger scale. 

Key startup hires 

What you might consider a key hire varies depending on your industry, your product, and what stage of business you’re in. 

Consider your business’s competitive advantage . If you’re not sure, go back to assessing your business idea and get clear on that. This can inform your hiring strategy to index for the skills and perspectives that best leverage and amplify that competitive advantage. For example, for software products, engineering is typically part of the competitive advantage so most often an engineer is part of the early team. In other industries, such as eCommerce, a key hire may be someone with supply chain and operational experience or branding expertise. Your competitive advantage could also leverage something that other companies in your industry typically don’t. 

What stage of business are you in? Do you need a certain skillset to build pre-product or pre-revenue? Or are you focused on scaling? That might influence what roles you want to prioritize. Mainly, the question you should be asking is: Will this role directly contribute to the immediate next stage of the product? If there’s any ambiguity, you can always test the waters by hiring contractors or freelancers to fill gaps in your business until it’s clear that this role is necessary.

All that said, here are some roles typical of early stage employees in software startups as they tend to be critical to this stage of business and on an ongoing basis:
  • Operations
  • Product
  • Engineering
  • Growth (Marketing and/or Sales)

Roles that can be outsourced

Similar to the roles above, there isn’t one right answer of which roles should always be outsourced versus roles that you should always hire for. However, these roles can typically be outsourced either to individual contractors or freelancers or agencies until your business is at a stage where it has a demonstrated ongoing need that fits into your startup’s overall strategic roadmap and has the revenue to support these roles as full-time hires:

  • Finance
  • Content writing
  • Marketing support such as SEO, lead generation, copywriting services
  • Design
  • Legal
  • Customer support

It’s worth noting that there are many examples of businesses that hired for these roles, sometimes even in founding team roles, and used them as part of their business’s competitive advantage as mentioned above. Go back to what makes your product different [LINK NEEDED] from every other solution currently on the market. Is there a strategic need for a full-time content hire, as an example, to provide ongoing oversight?

Roles you probably don’t need until later on

Beyond your first 10-25+ employees, let the growth of your company and your roadmap help you determine your next hires. You may find that certain teams grow faster than others because of a business need, while others may need just a single person running the entire “team” until much later. Some roles may even be filled by you, the founder, until your business can sustain otherwise.

Last but not least, you typically won’t need to hire Talent/HR until your startup is past the very early stages. Before that, you as the founder/CEO should be taking on the duties of recruiting, setting the culture, and being hands-on with the entire process of building your startup team. If this isn’t something you’re great at, it can help if you have a strong cofounder who does have these skills building with you.
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