Hiring the first team member is an exciting time. It means your startup is growing and that the volume of work has exceeded the cofounders’ capabilities.
At the same time, being responsible for someone’s paycheck at the end of each month is a huge undertaking that shouldn’t be treated lightly. So, how can you make the right decision and be sure that you don’t waste your time and money?
Attitude, attitude and attitude
If you ask yourself, what are the qualities that you want in this new team member you are going to employ, you will most likely come up with answers like: trustworthy, hardworking, ambitious, committed, energetic, flexible, confident, honest, etc. Attitude comes out top every time this question is asked, which simply means that attitude counts more than anything else. Skill and knowledge will always be on second place, since with the right attitude anyone can develop them.
Keeping that in mind, how can you tell the good apples from the bad ones? Lying during interviews is quite common, so don’t be surprised when it happens. It’s normal for people to overplay their skills, thinking that will earn them more points, so don’t hire people on an indefinite term with just an interview.
It might be a good idea to give them a test depending on the job specifications (a programming task, sell something, write an article, etc.) and see how they behave. The purpose of the test is not to assess their skills, but rather to see how they act when asked to complete it. Just to give you a real life example, when asked to do a small programming test, a candidate once send us copied sources from one of our blog posts and passed them on as her own work. Oops.
Hire somebody you can afford
Of course we all need experienced, professional people that can just sit down at their desk and bring money into our companies from day one. But can we afford them, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of expectations?
An experienced professional won’t join a startup unless he or she has very specific reasons. Maybe he or she loves being part of a startup so much that they are willing to hop in, but those cases are rare. The high-risk, dynamic environment of a startup is not a good match with a corporate breed that sees the world through different eyes. Compared to that, a junior that just wants to learn and is capable of easily adapting to changes might be a much better match on the long term.
Don’t offer equity as compensation for a small or no salary
Since I have a technical background, quite often I have been given the “opportunity” to join a startup after 5 minutes from meeting the founders. I still don’t understand what prompts these people to offer me part of their company when they don’t know me at all.
People won’t do a better job because they are offered equity. That might work for a while, but after the enthusiasm fades away, they will be left with the sour feeling they still have to pay their bills and be easily corrupted by the first passerby offering them a bigger salary. Assuming you don’t have an investment yet, their X% doesn’t mean anything, unless they are there for different reasons, like loving to be part of your startup or just enjoying the ride, in which case it’s not equity that keeps them around anyway. On the other hand, imagine what could happen if you give X% of your company to the wrong person.
Get someone else’s input
If you’re the one doing the interviews, it’s best to ask one of the other cofounders for their opinion before offering the job to a candidate. If you don’t have any cofounders, find someone else to talk to, like a friend or relative. Also, beware of the situations where you have to hire someone for a position you don’t have any experience in. It will be quite impossible to verify if what a candidate is saying is true, so ask for advice from someone that has the experience and knowledge to confirm their sayings.
Ask for a trial period
Even if they pass the interview, it is perfectly ok to hire people on trial basis. This is the real test because it will tell you if the new team member is a good match with you and your cofounders. One month should be enough to form an opinion, and yes, people should be paid for their time. We always pay people that work for us, even interns, because we believe it’s unfair to ask for commitment if we’re not willing to commit ourselves.
If it doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to terminate the contract. Don’t expect it to be pleasant, just keep in mind that it will get uglier if you don’t take the right actions when you’re supposed to.
Get off your high horse
We should always, always remind ourselves that team members are still people. Don’t expect them to put in a huge amount of work just for the honor of being part of your startup. Don’t frown if they want to go home at the end of the day. Don’t be surprised if they are not willing to work during every weekend (yes, the occasional push for a deadline is fine, just don’t make a habit out of it).
In other words, don’t expect them to work as much as you do – as founders we always feel that work is never done and we should do more. If you find someone that works more than you, just ignore my advice and give him or her some equity J.