Finding The Right Hiring Strategy For Your Startup

People are not your most important asset. The right people are – Jim Collins

Every day, start-ups face zillions of challenges. And one of the biggest challenges is to hire the right kind of talent. While hiring is a challenge across the industry, be it a start-up or an established company, it is far more complex for a start-up for many reasons.

To start with, a start-up is not a brand. It’s a non-entity. So, folks whose self-esteem is driven by the company name on the business card they carry, and not by the kind of the work they actually do, are reluctant to join. And believe me, majority of the job seekers out there belong to this class; seeking intrinsic security and social status by tagging along an established brand!

Then, a start-up does not have deep pockets to offer big pay cheques, and even more so the perks, which are in vogue in the industry. The shoe-string budget, especially in the first 3 years or so, will never allow the founders to hold a brainstorming session in some fancy resort, with coffee and cookie breaks, where some nebulous long term strategy gets discussed and revised year after year!

Now there are individuals who get a tremendous ego boost by making extremely interesting presentations at such off-sites. That’s beside the point that the part of execution is for others to do! So, as a start-up founder, you will never be able to attract such superfluous talent. That rules out another significant bunch of job seekers!

I guess by now you pretty much know what are my dos and don’t for a start-up hiring strategy! However, let me elaborate and be clearer.

Here is my list, in order of priority, for the skill sets I seek whenever I have done hiring for my own start-ups:

-Passion, passion and more passion to explore and learn. By its very nature, start-up business is full of adventures and the road less travelled. You are trying to solve a problem which has possibly not been solved before and offer solutions which can scale. Unless your team is passionate to explore things, learn from the net, learn from others, try simple solutions, fail and try again…you can’t succeed. The worst hire you can have is someone, who after being told what needs to be done, needs to be told how to do it. The best hiring you can do for yourself is someone who explores and checks around and comes back to you with a suggestion on what needs to be done and his recommendation on the best way to do it.

-Capability to work hard and harder. As an entrepreneur, you will always have lesser hands and more work to do. You yourself will be multiplexing in more than a dozen roles at the same time and you need a team for which work is always a priority. I am not suggesting that you run a sweat shop where coders are spending 12-14 hours a day. Not at all. That would be the easiest way to lose your best talent. However, I am suggesting that you hire people who sign-up to “work before everything else” culture. From my experience, generally this lot is very smart and finds its own unique ways to balance work and fun. They have their priorities right and know they will get the job done, come what may, without you having to babysit them. The problem is the other lot, who looks at the watch at 6 pm and says “my job is done for today”. They can never get their priorities right. Neither they can deliver nor can they have fun. You need to strictly avoid them.

-Some basic domain knowledge but a much larger capability to grasp quickly. More than often, I find entrepreneurs hire extremely expensive talent for the sake of domain knowledge, to only see these people leave after a short time. The simple reason is that too much domain knowledge tunnels your vision and limits your capability to cross-pollinate ideas from other domains, experiment and learn. This is exactly the same reason that much larger established corporates, with deep domain expertise, are not able to achieve what a start-up can in the same field. Their “this will not work” attitude is the extra baggage which slows them down. You don’t want such people in a start-up team. Your best hire is someone who has the basic domain expertise but is always in listening mode..listening to what else is being tried in the market. And then very quickly adapt an existing solution to solve the problem which is unique to your business model.

-Calls a spade a spade. Doesn’t know how to be politically correct! You want to hire honest, sincere and straightforward people in your start-up and build a team which is not infected by office politics. It is perfectly doable in the beginning 2-3 years, which are anyway most important in a startup journey. However, to make this happen you have to make this extra effort in your hiring process which filters out “super smart” individuals who try to leverage from every situation for their own personal gain. If someone is giving you all the “politically correct” answers during the interview process, without letting you have an insight into their core personality, you probably want to be extra careful in hiring them.

-Pedigree doesn’t matter. Not even a single bit. So, there is a race among start-ups to hire from the IITs/IIMs of the world, which I believe is totally misplaced. I am sure that the real intent of such hiring is more to influence the VC mindset than being actually driven by work to be done on hand. I am not saying that IITs/IIMs don’t create great talent, what I am saying is that they are not the only institutions delivering great talent. ALL of my best hires have been from Tier#2/Tier#3 institutions….kids loaded with self-confidence but, unlike their peers from IITs/IIMs, not riding on inflated-egos. They don’t have an attitude and are great team players. They are not seeking 2x increment in six months with a change of job and till the time you keep offering them new challenges, they play a long, steady and sincere innings with you.

What more can you ask for?

This article was originally published in Inc42. Read here.



About the Author:

Suresh Kabra is a serial entrepreneur whose latest venture, PriceMap, provides a platform for a shopper to do product and price discovery in brick & mortar retail. His prior two ventures were successfully acquired. In corporate life, Suresh was the GM of Aricent, Inc. Software Product Division and prior to that, VP, Greater China region for Conexant, Inc.