Culture, Capacity And Craftsmanship: How To Hire For A Startup

There’s a lot of glory and fun when you’re immersed in the startup experience. Building a team from scratch usually means that everything is fresh and unwritten. Joining a new venture to do something that’s never been done before is exhilarating. And having an impact on the mission of your young new company is empowering. You get to say, “This has my fingerprints on it. We did that.”

But, let’s be honest, it’s also a lot more challenging to hire in an early-stage business because so many things aren’t defined and you have to figure out everything on your own. Hiring, in particular, is more of a challenge in a new company than in a large enterprise with years of brand equity, established culture and specialized roles.

Finding the right people who will thrive in this kind of environment fascinates me. Bringing together people who share common values, beliefs, principles and traits — and who can blend well to form a wonderful startup team — is an exciting and mission-critical task. And, as I’ve learned, and relearned, the hiring choices you make early on are the most important decisions you make.

Most “A” teams in a startup leave their profound mark on the company’s culture — its values and principles — and this influence perpetuates itself as the business grows and scales. The quality bars don’t necessarily shift as the organization expands over time; however, the responsibility for enforcing them does, as the CEO gradually gives way in this area to management and then company-wide leadership.

Obsession is the rocket fuel of creativity and productivity that pushes your idea out into the world. But how do you assemble this “A” team in the first place? Well, when we’re interviewing someone, we can often see, or even intuit, if there’s an energetic exchange, a common belief system or a mutual language that reflects the soft skills we’re seeking. I’m sure you’ve experienced this in your business, too — it’s really just something you feel, and it’s hard to formalize it organization-wide.

Having said that, there are a handful of core beliefs that I do seek, no matter the company, challenge or mission. And, yes, I look for these core beliefs in order to build a more open and harmonious company, but also to make sure — or as sure as possible — that the person on the other end of the conversation will fit in and be happy after joining the team.

The most important skill in a startup is a person’s ability to learn and acquire new skills. Some call this capacity for mastery, others think of it as velocity of learning; but almost everyone recognizes this as a person’s potential.

Adaptability definitely matters, too. In the early days of a company, you’re often hunting in the dark. You’re trying to find that line of revenue. You’re trying to create something that will work in the market to make the business successful.

You also know that whatever you initially build you’re going to set on fire — you’re going to burn it down and rebuild it again and again. You know you’re not going to get it right the first time, so you’re going to have to iterate and change.

I also love the notion of craftsmanship. I believe that, as we get better and better at cranking out new things in the industrialized era of software engineering, craftsmanship is really a point of differentiation.

Craftsmanship counts for me — and I’m sure it does for you, too — because it’s just frustrating to keep seeing the same standard, boorish and unimaginative buttons, modal dialogs and File menus. Technology now affords us creative, inspiring interfaces that understand and adapt to us; and, as a value, craftsmanship is no longer something that requires compromise.

Related to craftsmanship is another important value — obsession. Obsession with detail; obsession with perfection; obsession with moving forward. In my view, obsession is the rocket fuel of creativity and productivity that pushes your idea out into the world.

And I try hard not to confuse obsession with passion. But it’s not always easy. If I asked you whether Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were passionate or obsessive, for example, your first answer might be “passionate.” But think about the focus, endurance and perseverance that are inherent in “obsession.” These aren’t attributes we normally associate with “passion.”

There are two other key traits I’m searching for whenever I’m building a great team.

First, dirty hands. Everybody has to “dig in and do” in the early days of a company. That’s your personal responsibility in a startup. There’s no off-loading or delegating or managing — there’s just doing, even if that leads to being wrong and making mistakes. If you have clean hands, you’re not really doing, and you’re not really in it.

Lastly, I’m looking for people who are inclusive. I think I define this a bit differently than most. For me, it’s all about listening to others with humility, truly internalizing what they’re saying and feeling, giving it open and objective consideration, then speaking with conviction. We all grow. And the reason we grow is that we’re reaping the full rewards of being present for each other. This is creative and constructive collaboration on emotional steroids.

I want to emphasize that there’s no perfect or right way to find the talent that will successfully launch and grow a startup. But after participating and leading five startups, I know what works. In fact, each time I build a company, I incorporate new theories, new experiments and new strategies into the hiring process.

The bottom line is simple and clear: If you practice and model the best hiring practices and skills, and you instill a solid hiring philosophy in the beginning, you will eventually have a growing and maturing company that is driven by teams of great people.

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