17 Qualities of the Perfect Early Startup Hire

By Michael Overell - Mar. 27, 2017
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When you’re first starting out in a new venture it can be thrilling. Adrenaline-filled. Nerve-wracking. Insomnia-inducing. And that’s if it all goes well!

When you get to the point of needing to hire someone beyond your founding team, this process can also be filled with anxiety.

After all, how do you find someone who believes in your vision as much as you do? Someone who will be able to take your vision and run with it? Someone you don’t have to hand-hold, yet they somehow grasp everything you’re trying to do? Someone who understands how they fit into the picture to achieve your collective dreams? Someone who’s flexible not only in terms of job responsibilities, but also with the ever-changing world they will likely face every day? Someone that has the skills to excel while dealing with all of this and more?

I hope I haven’t scared you!

Finding the perfect early startup hire is no easy task, but you’re up to the challenge. Start with identifying the characteristics you need from this person. This list shouldn’t be limited to a technical skill set, though that may be important too. The key is to find someone who is the right organizational fit — a fit with the culture, and a fit with the growing business needs. Someone who just “gets it” and shares your vision for success.

Here are 17 qualities to look for in the perfect early startup hire:

1. Belief in your vision.

If this new hire is going to be willing to give it everything they’ve got, they need to fully believe in what you’re trying to do. At this stage in the game there’s no half-heartedness allowed! Sure, he or she may take time to become as passionately invested as you are, but belief in what you’re doing should be there from day one. This person should be excited about helping the whole team achieve the mission.

2. Energy.

Anyone starting up a business knows that it takes drive and energy to get through the long days. Someone who is too passive and lacking energy to drive toward a goal isn’t likely to be someone who will be able to thrive in a fast-paced startup environment.

3. Intelligence.

You would think this one would go without saying, but it doesn’t. Having intelligence means not only having the expertise (technical or otherwise) to do the actual work, but also having the business intelligence to understand what needs to be done and contribute to the conversation. It also means having the emotional intelligence to know how to play nicely with multiple personality types both inside and outside of the organization.

4. Flexibility.

Does a startup have standard work hours? Hardly likely. One pre-set list of tasks that is an entire job description? No way. Established processes and documentation? Not yet. An early startup hire will need to be completely comfortable with ever-changing responsibilities and work demands. And this flexibility must be accompanied by a good attitude; just because your new hire is willing to put in a crazy long work day when needed, if he or she moans and groans about it the whole time that’s not going to work!

5. Ability to get s*!t done.

GSD. No excuses. No BS. Your new hire should find ways to get things done, even if she’s never done them before. She should be able to ask for help when needed, but not let lack of experience get in the way of making things happen. She should never assume it’s someone else’s job. If it needs to happen, she needs to make it happen! (This skill may also be known as being proactive, persistent or having a sense of urgency. Any way around it: GSD!)

6. Thrives as an individual contributor.

This person won’t wait to be told what to do every step of the way, nor will he feel that he’s above doing even the most mundane task. In a startup, every person has to pull their own weight. You don’t need managers or delegators at this point, you need doers. There’s a time and a place for people who excel at people management and project delegation; but right now is the time for each person to hold their own and then some.

7. Strategic thinker.

Thinking outside the box isn’t optional. A new hire in an early startup has to be able to GSD while looking at the big picture and ensuring that his or her actions are helping the fledgling company achieve its goals. This requires a fair amount of strategic thinking. Ideally this person will have their own six-month vision for the business and will be able to explain their strategic plan to get there and what actions will be required along the way.

8. Creativity.

Did you know that this person will need to get things done, even if they’ve never done them before? Or that there are not yet procedures and processes in place that explain how things “should” be done? The ability to deal with a blank slate (and often limited budget) requires creative thinking. Creative approaches can be a competitive advantage for the organization.

9. Broad skill set.

Do you need someone with technical expertise? What about experience in your industry? What about excellent teamwork skills, adaptability, and a great attitude? You probably need all of those things. You also need someone that is going to be willing and able to pick up new responsibilities as needed. Someone who is going to be able to use their creative thinking to get things done that perhaps they’ve never done before. Maybe your technical person is also going to have to help market the company for a while, for example. Be sure that your new hire has enough experience and the right attitude to be able to take their skills and apply them broadly.

10. Different from you.

One of the best pieces of advice when hiring, especially when your team is still small, is to assess the skills your team is lacking and hire someone who has those skills. This is no small task, but it will help your team become stronger.

11. Willingness to take risks.

The ability to stick your neck out is crucial for an early startup hire. Why? Because there are only a few of you on the team, and whenever the business needs a bold idea or a risky action, someone has to take ownership of it and do it or it won’t get done.

12. Compatible work style.

Call this cultural fit. Call it attitude. Call it whatever you like. The person you hire needs to have a work style that will be compatible with the rest of the team, or misunderstandings and frustrations could quickly mount. They can be perfect in every other way – experience, intelligence, skills, etc. – but if this person is unable to mesh and integrate into your organizational culture, it’s probably not going to work out.

13. Patience.

Some things happen really fast in a startup. Other things – like the formation of a career ladder to climb – are not always so quick. If your new hire simply wants to have ever-changing new titles on his or her resume, they will probably grow impatient quickly. Look for someone who understands that things don’t always happen at the rate you expect in a startup. Sometimes it’s faster and you have to be prepared. Other times it’s slower and you have to regroup. Sometimes processes need to be repeated to see results. Someone who gets frustrated or impatient quickly is not going to be happy in this environment.

14. Ability to fail fast.

Making mistakes is expected. So is quickly learning from them and doing better. This process has to happen fast if the startup is going to survive. In a startup environment, the team must research, learn, implement, analyze for issues and fix problems—and then do it all again.

15. Sense of humor.

When things go wrong – and they will – the whole team needs to be able to band together and fix it. This is borderline impossible if anyone on the team focuses on blame and negativity rather than being pragmatic. Having a sense of humor throughout the whole crazy process is crucial.

16. Ability to receive and act on feedback.

Combine the need to be fast-paced with the fact that mistakes are going to happen and it’s easy to see why feedback will need to be delivered frequently and will need to be acted upon immediately. If a startup team member cannot take feedback and use it to improve, then how will that person learn and grow and help the organization thrive?

17. Gut instinct—yours.

Most importantly: disregard any or all of the items above when you find the person who can mesh with your team and push you forward. Gut instinct matters.

Does having and following this list guarantee success? Of course not – nothing does. But if you start here you’ll have a good idea of what to look for before the interviewing process even begins.


Michael Overell

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