Early Stage Founders’ Series A Success Depends on People and Networks Strategy: Here’s How To Build Yours

Your ability to hire and retain talent is one of the most important—and certainly the most cross-functional—skills for startup success. Having guided scores of founders through it, our team compiled our guiding philosophies on what that looks like.

Early Stage Founders’ Series A Success Depends on People and Networks Strategy: Here’s How To Build YoursEarly Stage Founders’ Series A Success Depends on People and Networks Strategy: Here’s How To Build Yours

Here at Primary, we think about the hiring funnel just like we think about a commercial funnel: It’s not about a single transaction of placing talent for portfolio companies—we’re focused on the bigger-picture processes, from building networks through to hiring all the way to retaining great talent.

For early stage founders, the path to Series A investment relies on nailing every stage of the hiring funnel. And hiring is a uniquely cross functional skill, too. Across all key areas our Impact team specializes in—Go-To-Market, Finance, Marketing, and Leadership and Governance—having a strong People and Networks approach will also serve those functions and their ability to scale.

Like with the commercial funnel, the non-negotiable as a founder is to always be selling, although in this case we mean selling talent on joining and sticking with you. We’ve seen this skill is especially crucial across three key parts of your work in building a team:

  1. Building your network
  2. Knowing what great talent looks like
  3. Setting your team members up for success

1. Building your network

Before you even start your company, you can get ahead of the curve by leveraging your broader network for candidate introductions and advisory conversations to make sure you are appropriately scoping a role. Don’t underestimate the power of your network!

Here at Primary, we’ve built an incredible network of talent, customers, and advisors so our founders don’t have to rely solely on their own networks. We like to think of it as immediately amplifying the network effect for our founders.

Recently, a founder came to us with a Chief of Staff need. Having never worked with a Chief of Staff before, we were able to set him up on exploratory conversations with current Chiefs of Staff and founders who recently made this hire, giving him the clarity and context he needed for how to scope his own Chief of Staff need. Once the founder was ready to make a hire for his own team, we introduced him to 10 candidates from our network and helped him find his ultimate hire.

What if you don’t have a network like Primary’s to tap into? The funny thing about networks is they’re often sitting right under your nose and just need a little activation to start being useful. A few thought starters for how you might grow and make use of your startup operator network:

  • Reach out to former colleagues and ask them who the most successful [title you’re hiring for] they’ve known is and they might introduce you for an informational interview. Wanting to network more generally? Simply ask people for the names of 3 best people they’ve ever worked with in any capacity!
  • Join industry organizations and search the member directory for people with the types of titles you think you’re looking to hire. Introduce yourself and approach the conversation with learning, not selling, as the goal. Learn about what they do, what motivates them, and what they like or don’t like about their role.
  • Attend relevant events. Tap into industry specific events hosted by VCs, companies, or industry organizations that cater to an audience you’d be interested in getting to know.

2. Knowing what great talent looks like

Recognizing great talent always starts by first understanding the necessary outcomes of the role. Too often, we see founders start with the job description and let that lead the search process. Instead, we recommend the following approach:

  1. Think about the business outcomes. If this hire is successful, what will they have achieved in 6 months, 12 months, or even 18 months? As Benjamin Sesser, Cofounder and CEO of BrightHire puts it, “Every hire is being made to solve a need in your organization. Get as much precision as possible on the need at the outset: What exactly are we solving for? What will it practically require for someone to solve this problem? How will we best understand if a candidate has these attributes?”
  2. Take those business outcomes and map them to competencies (i.e. skills and qualities) that the ideal candidate will demonstrate. We recommend targeting 6-8 competencies in total.
  3. Use those 6-8 competencies to build a comprehensive and structured interview process. Each interview should focus on no more than 1-2 competencies with the goal being that you’ve thoroughly evaluated each competency by the end of the interviewing process. You should evaluate the most important competencies more than once!

It’s critical that you bring other key stakeholders and interviewing team members along on this three step journey of outcomes to competencies to complete the interview process. Katy Huber, Chief Human Resources Officer at Stellar Health, says the one most important thing to get right from the outset is “Alignment. Be intellectually honest on what the job truly requires and what quantitative and qualitative skills are priorities for the success in the role right now.” Ensuring this alignment exists across the entire team involved in the hiring process at the outset will save a lot of time and make it more clear to everyone how to best evaluate candidates in the process.

If you make this investment upfront to clearly and correctly articulate the role, you’ll have an easier time finding the right candidates and a clearer sense of how candidates are performing in the interview process. Tanaz Mody, Head of People Operations and Talent at Lerer Hippeau suggests taking this time up front can help founders to think about “building their teams the same way they build their products. Hire the right people from the start so you don't incur people debt. This debt can usually be avoided by identifying your company's values or operating principles and then screening and sharing them with new hires so they understand how the team works.”

3. Setting your team members up for success

Making the hire, while a critical step, is only a piece of the equation! It’s critical you create a thoughtful onboarding plan and find ways to minimize the time it takes for the new hire to start adding value.

If it’s the first time you are onboarding for a new role, think about the resources and tools that exist in your network or tap into your VC. For example, here at Primary, we’ve helped several companies make their first ever sales hire—rather than expecting founders to understand and create the right commission plans from the outset, we partner closer with portfolio companies to understand their sales goals and history, and advise on the right commission schemes and structures.

Outside of tactical steps for success in the role, onboarding should also include the tools of the trade for operating successfully within your team’s environment and culture. Diane Vavrasek, the Chief People Officer at Mojo, adds that “a company's values should serve as the lens through which all decisions are made, guiding not only the individual's actions but also aligning their goals and efforts with the company's mission. This alignment creates a sense of purpose and belonging, motivating employees to go the extra mile. A workforce with aligned values is more likely to drive innovation, maintain a strong organizational culture, and contribute to the overall success of the company. Even the most technically skilled and high-performing person will disengage, and likely attrit out, when their values are constantly at odds with the company's.”

If you don’t know quite where to get started when onboarding a new hire, here are a few recommendations:

  • Your goal in onboarding should be to reduce the amount of time it takes a new hire to ramp into their role.
  • This is a great opportunity to set the tone re: employee engagement from the get go.
  • Think about onboarding in 4 buckets: Administrative, Team/Company Onboarding, Role Onboarding, and Manager Relationship
    • Administrative: This includes all of the HR, compliance, and payment related tasks
    • Team/Company Onboarding: Help the new hire get up to speed on your values, company norms, typical communication channels, and any company-wide meetings or events.
    • Role Onboarding: Your focus here should be helping the employee ramp in the day to day of their role. This includes meeting key stakeholders, learning any relevant systems and procedures for daily tasks, and shadowing workflows.
    • Manager Relationship: The new hire’s day to day manager should ultimately be responsible for the onboarding process. You should dedicate specific time to understanding the new hire’s working style and preferences and you should share yours as well. Starting out on a note of asking questions and requesting feedback will make it easier to share ongoing feedback with the new hire as they continue to onboard! If you don’t know where to start on this front, a user manual can be a great place.

Areas to Watch Out For

If you do these 3 things right, you’ll have a much better chance of making and retaining the right hires for your team. Of course, there are some critical “watch out” moments in both your hiring approach and in candidates themselves.

In the hiring funnel

  • Don’t wait too long: If you are starting when you feel the pain of needing the hire, you are behind. This can create tension to focus on speed rather than quality of hire - you should ALWAYS focus on quality.
  • Don’t rush to interview before you’re ready: Take the time up front to set up the right profile and process. It will actually save you time in the long run!
  • Don’t assume you don’t need to be involved: As the founder, you should be involved in the hiring process for at least the first 15-20 employees. You can sell the mission and vision the best!
  • Don’t forget to sell: You’d never send a customer contract before you sold the customer on the product—you should take the same approach with hiring. Use your first call to get a candidate bought in to your company, mission, and vision.

In candidates

  • Don’t forget to evaluate for stage: Katy Huber warns against “not weighing (the candidate's) ability or desire to work in an early stage company. It is often better to look for an athlete who may have less direct experience or doesn't look as good on 'paper' but will be truly energized and thrive in a more agile startup environment.” Similarly, Benjamin Sesser recommends probing in the following areas: “Is their first inclination to solve a problem to hire more people? Have they not really done hands-on work in a long-time? Those are all red flags.”
  • Don’t forget to evaluate for attitude: Diane Vavrasek warns “if someone hesitates when asked to do something outside of their job description, they’re probably not the right fit for a scaling organization… someone who isn’t being flexible and shows resistance early on probably won’t work out in the long run.” Instead, she recommends, “People who can find a way, no matter how arduous the path, and who can learn from their past work, be open to new ideas, and be willing to change their approach and strategy, have a higher likelihood of success in a startup.”

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