Building the Team: How to Recruit for a Startup

Hiring is never a walk in the park and when you’re hiring for startups, it can seem like you’re a contender on a televised obstacle course show with the huge timer ticking. When a company is fairly new, it might not have the reputation to attract the best talent. And when money isn’t flowing in just yet, you literally cannot afford to make the wrong hire. For these reasons and more, getting recruiting right is arguably the most important job of a founder during the early stages and well beyond.

We recently co-hosted StackSummit: Build the Team with Stacklist, where Brooklyn Bridge Ventures’ Founder & Partner Charlie O'Donnell spoke with successful founders about how they built their initial teams. Saman Rahmanian, Co-founder & CPO of Ro, Galyn Bernard, Co-founder of Primary, and Tom Gerrity, Director of Talent Acquisition at Stash-Invest, provided their key insights to help give others the right tools to build strong foundations.

Here are four of the critical tips for startup success they shared:

Tip 1: Hire people who align with your vision

If you’re not able to offer large salaries to top talent, you need to get creative. First, you need to build a company with a clear mission and vision that excites and inspires. As a founder, you must be able to share your long-term vision with your potential employees and present your company in the best way. Then, you need to focus on bringing in the people who will champion this mission and bring it to life beyond a quote on the wall in your lobby.

“If there’s a core value that you want in the DNA of the company, you need to hire for that on the founder level.” — Saman Rahmanian, Co-founder & CPO of Ro

Saman said that it’s important to identify which type of common “founding culture” your organization aligns with:

  • Star model: Hires bright, driven people with less of a focus on specific skill set
  • Engineering model: Focuses on results-oriented employees who flourish under pressure
  • Commitment model: Prioritizes loyalty in the company, as people are hired for culture alignment and passion for the cause

Because of the need for tech talent in early-stage startups, the Star and Engineering models might be expected to prove particularly effective. But Saman reported that a 2002 study by the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (SPEC) “revealed that when it came to predicting the likelihood of an initial public offering, the Commitment model turned out to be the winner.”

This reinforces the importance of making your mission known externally, and hiring people who align with your values and add to the culture early on.

Tip 2: Keep a lean team when you can, but be honest about when you need to hire for gaps

In your startup’s early stages, you’re going to want to do everything yourself to keep costs low, but you need to recognize what you can’t do alone. Galyn touched on the importance of hiring the right people for these gaps. “We hired for things that we knew we couldn’t do, like building a website, doing photography, or design and creating clothes. Don’t be afraid to hire for critical things that might be outside your area of expertise.”

She also revealed that at Primary, they had always thought of hiring expensive people as a luxury. But although top talent may be pricey, it’s most likely going to be a good investment.

“Always think about the bigger picture. That star candidate may seem expensive, but they may be what you need to get to the next level.” — Galyn Bernard, Co-founder of Primary

Additionally, as you grow in size over time, the time will come to rethink your hiring strategy. Tom added, “We started with more generalized leadership roles when we only had a mobile application, but now there’s an entire product suite and we need more hands on deck.” Don’t forget to hire strong tactical people to do the work once your overall strategy is place.

Tip 3: Outbound sourcing is crucial for attracting the best talent

We’ve said it a million times and we’ll say it again: the best talent usually isn’t looking. They’re probably working at great, well-paying jobs. And when you’re building a startup, you don’t have the time to wait around for applicants to come in – you need to be proactive. Tom revealed that most of their sourcing is outbound since it’s very competitive out there, and “every good engineer most likely has several offers.”

“You need to send an engaging messaging that discusses the great opportunity, but you also need to personalize it to their background. You basically need to be a good stalker.” — Tom Gerrity, Director of Talent Acquisition at Stash-Invest

Saman shocked some of the crowd when he said that, as a founder, he was spending 50% of his time on recruiting, sourcing and selling to candidates – but he did that because he recognizes the importance of making the right hires early on.

“I would spend hours on LinkedIn, A/B testing with different authentic messages, rather than using InMail. I’ve realized that the best way is connecting on LinkedIn and sending a short one-liner message in the request and asking to grab coffee. It really works well from the founder level.”

Tip 4: Ask the right questions

One of the most important things to hire for in the early stages is work ethic, drive and passion. Galyn explained that one way to uncover these qualities is to ask very authentic questions, like “Can you tell me about your best day at work?” She says that when answering this question, people tend to talk about things that make them happy in a very genuine way and “you really get a sense for someone’s drive.”

Another one of her favorite questions is, “What would your best friend say they like the least about you?” At a startup, you’re usually in a small environment and working very closely with people. So you want to make sure that you’re as informed as possible about all of your potential hires’ traits – from good to bad to quirky. This question allows you to unpack that, but in a more fun and honest way.

Overall, if you want to be successful in building the right team, you need to learn to prioritize people. Saman mentioned that he used to have a product-focused mindset, but he wishes that he knew early on that “who you bring into your organization is everything. If you have the right culture, people and processes in place, then you don’t need to worry about the product as much. If you get the people right, everything takes care of itself.”

Ready to start building your team from scratch? Learn all the ins and outs of structured hiring in our eBook, Structured Hiring 101: Your Blueprint for Success.

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Micah is the Content & Community Manager at Greenhouse. She was previously an Engagement Strategist at VICE where she worked on consumer brands ranging from ice cream to TV shows. When she's not in the office, she enjoys green parks and NYC rooftops. Keep the conversation growing with Micah on our Greenhouse LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Recruiter Tips