Startup Foundations, Step 2: Team-based Team-building

If you’re reading this series in sequence, you’ve made it through the difficult first step of defining the needs of your foundational team, looking objectively at your existing team, and thinking strategically about the types of skill sets you need to meet your upcoming business milestones. Without those fundamentals in place, it will be difficult to hire the most suitable candidates for your company. If you have successfully conquered those building blocks, then congratulations! You’re ready to move on to the more tactical “how to hire” stage.

Here’s a not-uncommon portrait of a seed-stage startup as company leadership first starts going about hiring: Despite being on the brink of rapid growth in many cases, there’s rarely any method to their hiring madness. Many startup founders lack deep recruiting experience, and so don’t have a strong sense of how to attract high-caliber talent - especially at more senior levels. The result is a team of solid people, but not at the level of talent that senior leadership was really hoping for.

What’s the best way to break out of this frenetic cycle and attract the high-caliber candidates you really want? It comes down to developing a disciplined hiring approach, having a strong sense of your company’s culture, and getting buy-in from your existing team. As you get started, just remember that recruiting is not rocket science, but in order to do it well, it takes care, diligence, and ongoing commitment.  

  • Get buy-in from your existing team. After senior leadership has gone through the exercise of thinking strategically about critical hiring (i.e., the who, what, why, and when of your core team), it’s important to get buy-in from the other people on your team involved in the hiring process. Especially for early-stage companies with smaller teams, it’s important to create some transparency around why you’re hiring for certain roles so that people don’t feel displaced, threatened, or less important. The downward pressure on morale that will result from these feelings of doubt and unease will make it more difficult for you to make a good hire and for that person to fit in with the team.
  • Create a cultural identity. Culture isn’t just about happy hours and flashy perks, but those certainly don’t hurt! At foundation, culture is the thing that compels your team to do great work daily, and, whether you like it or not, it always stems from the top. Before you start hiring, take a step back and think about the type of culture you want. Is it one that’s learning-focused, delivery-centered, or OKR-driven? All of the above? Define and codify that culture early, as it will set the tone for how you approach a multitude of things across your organization. Specifically around recruiting, anchoring people around your values will help you establish hiring criteria that will turn up candidates who match your philosophy.
  • Implement internal processes and tools to establish a collaborative hiring environment. Senior team members will need to determine the process that makes most sense for the company - and they should canonize this process to enforce standardization across the organization. Questions to consider include: How many stages are involved in your hiring process? What types of interviews are best for your team (e.g., in-office testing, take-home exercises, pair programming), and how does this change based on a candidate’s seniority and active/passive status in the hiring market? Who from your team should be involved in the hiring process? And how do you gauge your team members’ ability to evaluate candidates?  Who: The A Method for Hiring is a great resource to consult for these types of questions. Also essential to this step is finding a solid applicant tracking system (for instance, Greenhouse or Workable) to streamline and maximize collaboration among hiring managers.
  • Balance selling versus interviewing. At this point, all startups know what it takes to be considered a great place to work (career opportunity, benefits, mission, etc.) and all are competing for top-shelf talent. Yet many tend to over-value themselves and forget that there’s still a human on the other side of the hiring equation. You offer great benefits and your comp is at the higher end of the scale. Great! But don’t get cocky; you still need to show candidates that you are a strong, values-based company, that you care about your mission and the satisfaction of your employees, and that you provide a solid framework for them to grow professionally. By approaching the hiring process with a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, you will be able to attract the types of candidates who would be a great fit.
  • Ask the questions people don’t ask. In our last installment of this series, we discussed the importance of hiring people with complementary skill sets, and resisting the urge to find clones of yourself. Strong candidate matches go beyond mere skill set, though, and many hiring managers neglect to ask questions that probe beyond technical ability. The questions that really get to the heart of the matter will help you evaluate candidates with complementary working styles (remote vs. in-office, night owl vs. early riser), personality type, and management style (autonomous vs. micromanager, large teams vs. small teams). These questions are rarely asked, yet they’re the ones that will be most fruitful in finding the candidates with whom you can work most productively.
  • Build a long-term recruiting pipeline. Hiring is not specific point in time when you have an immediate need. Rather, recruiting should be viewed as a continuous spectrum, and efforts should be made to build and sustain a strong candidate pipeline so that you’re not starting from Square One for every vacancy. Rather than thinking like a headhunter, think about building a long-term pipeline in which you’re building years-long relationships with highly skilled individuals before you even engage them on a specific recruiting track. As part of this framework, focus on growing a solid community around the problems you’re trying to solve. You can do this through a combination of hosting events at your office or going to highly targeted meetups that will expose you to the types of candidates you’re looking for.

A well-laid-out, standardized hiring process is just as critical for an early-stage startup as it is for a Fortune 500 corporation. Certainly, the specifics of your hiring process will continue to evolve as your company grows and scales, but developing the internal processes and a disciplined approach to recruiting is not something that can be saved for later, when you think you’ll miraculously “have more time to focus on it.”

Stay tuned for our next and final installment of this series, in which we will cover tactics to keeping your employees happy and producing their best work.