Finally, Your Essential Overview of Hiring for Startups

q5_logoThe cost of hiring someone bad is so much greater than missing out on someone good. — Joe Kraus, partner, Google Ventures

Each company for which we recruit has a special set of circumstances and a unique story to tell. Large organizations like Raytheon sit and sell differently then giant fast-food places like McDonald’s. Google had its own special place and unique environment in terms of hiring, and hot Cambridge-based SasS startups like Quant5 also have their own set of challenges that require thoughtful navigation if hiring is to be successful. (Define successful as hiring the people you need, when you need them, and they do the job for which they have been hired.)

Like myself, those of you out there who have hired for startups know that even though a candidate might fit the bill in terms of qualifications, they still might not be the right DNA to be the right fit.

With this in mind, lets look at 12 factors that will address the people part of the equation in terms of the recruiting:

  1. Look for startup experience. Understand how a startup really works. Nothing gives a candidate a better understanding of this then having been there before. Startups involve long days and impossible tasks combined with highs and lows that often require nerves of steel. The garage startup that turns into Apple is lovely but atypical. Beware the candidate who romanticizes the startup.
  2. Seek out risk takers. Startups are far more risky then larger and more established organizations. Candidates who are open to intelligent risk are often times better candidates to hire. Look for this belief in the person you interview. Has the candidate taken risks? How have those risks turned out and how did the candidate deal with the ones that did not turn out well. Dig to get answers to these questions because it is better to find out sooner then to find out later.
  3. Hire no “yes” people. The common knowledge in American business is that when you start a new job, you be quiet and keep your opinions to yourself. Get along to go along. This is not the case in a startup. We need to hire people who are willing to tell you what they think. What they like, what they do not like, and their suggestions with which the great and might could disagree. Strong silent types might be good in other organizations, but they are not a fit for a startup. Hire folks who will tell you what they think about all things related to the path forward.
  4. Hire doers. Doug Levin, co-founder of Quant5, has told me on more then one occasion that he seeks people “who will go through walls to get things done and will simply not take no for an answer.” As an industry veteran with a Microsoft/Black Duck Software track record, I can assure you that he gets it. The bottom line is that in many organizations, if it is not done on time, no big deal. In a startup, if it is not done on time (and done well I might add) it can be a catastrophe. Hire those who possess a strong sense of urgency.
  5. Avoid Prima donnas. Those who are in love with themselves, their ideas, and/or their perceived importance will probably be a drag on the progress a startup needs to achieve. Startup folks spend a lot of time together dealing with unexpected problems, a shortage of resources, and overwhelming obstacles. Those with an attitude might not be the best hires unless they can check their ego at the door.
  6. Seek out passion. It is not easy to get the type of effort, commitment, or drive to succeed in the absence of passion. Kenny Moore, coauthor of “The CEO and the Monk,” says that “commitment is not something that can be coerced or conscribed, it can only be invited. It comes as much from the heart as from the head.” Seek out those with a passion for the things that your startup does. Example: Are you in the business of tracking recipes for multi-unit restaurants? Seek out a foodie. Is this required? No, but the passion to make it happen most certainly is. Look for those with at least a tangential interest in your business.
  7. Look for creativity. If you are in a startup, you are charting your own course. This will take creative thinking if you are to make it work. Beware the individual who has done it all and knows best practices. Best practices are nice to know, but at times they are yesterday’s news, as creative and daring solutions will be often be required. How it was done last year will often fall short. Pursue individuals who see the value of innovating with a fresh set of eyes.
  8. Hire people who are engaged. The idea for this article came from something I read yesterday. My tendency is to tell you to hire people who read, because if nothing new is going into the brain, I am not sure how anything new will be coming out. Hire those who are truly engaged because those individuals are constantly meeting and talking, reading, presenting, and writing. A good employment history is wonderful, but that is the past. Do this and your reward will be employees who are multidimensional thinkers who will add to the collective conversation big time.
  9. Seek out the evangelists. People have to do more then simply work at a startup. They have to champion it. They have to be on the hunt for opportunities to further the mission. Regardless of your title, a primary responsibility of a startup is to spread the word while identifying opportunities. Consider this: the world is made up of guests and hosts. Hosts go to a party to just eat and drink. Hosts make introductions, imagine possibilities, and enrich all who are involved. Hire hosts.
  10. Got drivers? Have you ever worked with a driver? A person who pushes through the pain and the stress to get it done? If so, you understand they are simply different from most of the usual rank and file. Spotting the drivers is not terribly difficult. They are usually unreasonable and impatient. They expect a lot of themselves, and not coincidentally, of the rest of the team as well. Bottom line? Drivers required!
  11. Look for the opportunity seeker. The type of person who joins a startup needs to be far more then just a match on experience, a friendly interview, and some good references. A person joining a start up needs to convince you that they want more than just a job. They must convince you that they seek the opportunity to influence and shape a venture that will achieve greatness. A startup person needs this vision to be successful. Look for it.
  12. Hire minimalists. A startup is usually bare bones. Tight space and tee shirts and unshaven faces. Look for folks that can not only survive but also thrive in this environment. Seek out people who know they will make big decisions and make the coffee as well. Hire folks who are OK with small workspaces and understand the importance of being frugal with whatever money/resources are available. Beware of those who came from large companies and are seeking the niceties.

One last thought. We have all worked in companies with rules that made little sense and leaders who simply got in the way. If you are going to hire for a startup, hire the right people and let them do their job.

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  • Do not micromanage
  • Do not set up a bureaucracy
  • Do not get in the way

Aristotle spoke of the balance of rights and responsibilities. Simply stated, if you assign responsibility, you also must assign the concordant rights associated with that responsibility. One cannot exist in the absence of the other. Do these things and you just might be lucky enough to be a part of something that is not just successful but truly great.

This article is dedicated to all of the wonderful people in Boston who have demonstrated compassion, love, and strength of spirit.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


11 Comments on “Finally, Your Essential Overview of Hiring for Startups

  1. The cost of hiring someone bad is so much greater than missing out on someone good. — Joe Kraus, partner, Google Ventures

    I don’t know how Joe Kraus made his money, but that statement is inane. You want Steve Jobs and a thousand crappy sales reps, or a thousand good reps and no Steve Jobs?

  2. “You want Steve Jobs and a thousand crappy sales reps, or a thousand good reps and no Steve Jobs?”

    I do not know the answer to this question but it is an interesting perspective.

    Can you expand on this thinking a bit. I tend to agree with Kraus but I might be wrong.

    Tell me more?

  3. @martin: You shouldn’t have to choose between Steve Jobs and 1000 good reps. Given the “right” talent strategy (assuming you have a product people can sell and customers need) you should be able to have both.

  4. Carol, You might be right but I had to go with the source on that quote:,)

    As far as the “right” talent strategy combined with an appropriate product/service coupled with customer need? That is a stunningly clear assessment of success for an organization. I have yet to see it and in the rare moments where it did exist, it was fleeting and fragile.

    Some day we will talk Carol. The stories I can tell would amaze you.

  5. Howard – nice article.

    I see you’ve focused on ‘selecting’ candidates for startup roles. One of the biggest challenges for many startups (particularly in the current market) is actually *attracting* the best talent.

    As a startup founder myself, I shared some practical ‘hacks’ that can help other startups (and recruiters) with other parts of the hiring process:

    88 Hiring Hacks for Startups:

    Hope that helps!

  6. Howard, it turns on the fact that business outcomes are in many ways emergent phenomena.

    That property makes actionable prediction of future human events difficult; you can’t reliably tell in advance who will be a “bad” hire or who will be “good”, especially in high impact creative or leadership roles.

    Next is a key difference in kind between “good” hires and “bad” ones; good people are more effective at achieving change than bad people are ineffective in merely going about their business poorly. Great talent is active, weak talent is passive.

    Finally you can’t win the ballgame unless you score points. Defense wins championships until it doesn’t, which seems a lot of the time. Defense didn’t stop Michael Jordan, and just how many “bad players’ would Chicago have wanted to avoid over the years in return for missing one Jordan, Bryant, or James?

    It’s the philosophy of someone playing not to lose, or someone who has already won plenty. To me, prevent defense is folly.

  7. Michael:

    Thanks for the 88 Hacks. I will read it tonight. I love that type of information.

    Martin. you bring out a BRILLIANT point. Emergent phenomena is not something I have thought about. We see the company and the candidate and the marketplace in a frozen moment in time and that might be natural but it only give a glimpse of a changing reality.

    Wonderful concept.

  8. Thanks, Howard. Many relevant points. These are particularly useful when you’re going to actually get an in-house or *contract job with the startup. If you are trying to get one of these recruiting jobs one of the most important points you should remember (besides using these talking points) is to be young (under 30 is best) and perky. (More about this later.)

    Now the points:
    1)Look for startup experience. Very important. (Of course, how do you GET startup experience when you don’t have it, particularly since companies want people who HAVE rather than people who CAN.)

    2) Seek out risk takers. A major risk that startups like is attending a prestigious, very expensive university. It does not include things like being in combat in a foreign war- they don’t care for THOSE kinds of risk-takers.

    3) Hire no “yes” people. This generally applies to discussions of software-engineering/programming or other technical areas, and not to larger/broader corporate questions. IT DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU.

    4) Hire doers. The fact that something shouldn’t be done or can’t be done is no reason to not make sure it IS done. Find people who agree with that.

    5)Avoid Prima donnas. This does not apply retro-actively, so despite the arrogance of the founders and low-number employees (particularly in re: to how hiring should be done), don’t look for people with egos as large as they have; it’s threatening to them.

    6) Seek out passion: aka, “the willingness to unquestioningly and unceasingly do whatever they’re asked (but what about #3?) for as long as they’re useful, and no longer”.

    7) Look for creativity. Again, this applies to creativity in very narrow and specialized realms, typically discussions of software-engineering/programming or other technical areas, and not to larger/broader corporate questions. IT DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU (except for the rare occasions where they have you worked as a skilled and experienced professional partner imparting your skills and experience, and not just as a lower-cost alternative to paying too many 3PR fees.

    8) Hire people who are engaged. Again, this generally applies to discussions of software-engineering/programming or other technical areas. IT DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU.

    9) Seek out the evangelists, aka, “fanatics”. This helps build the corp-cults” that startups frequently become. But woe unto them that followeth not the true Gospel, for verily, unemployment shall be their fate, and their mouths shall be full of **ashes and wormwood.

    10) Got drivers? ISTM that it’s a very fine line between *one person’s hard but fair driver and another’s crazy-making, dysfunctional, micromanaging a-hole. (See #5. How about as an addendum/replacement to “No Prima donnas”: “No A-holes”. Again, not applying retro-actively, of course.)

    11) Look for the opportunity seeker. A person joining a start up needs to convince you that they want more than just a job. They must convince you that they seek the opportunity to influence and shape a venture that will achieve greatness. REALLY? The likelihood of the company achieving any type of corporate greatness (aka, “riches beyond imagination”) is very small, so aren’t you just looking for someone delusional, naive, or foolish enough (see #9) to swallow the Kool Aid that the founders and CXOs are having them drink, until the funding runs low and the layoffs start? Perhaps it would be better to hire people who think like founders and CXOs- folks ****who say deep-down to themselves “I’m in it for all I an get while I’m here, and I’m smart enough to get out while the going is good” or who actually convince you of the former while they really believe the latter?

    12) Hire minimalists. I agree: fewer foosball tables and catered meals- more $$.

    If you are going to hire for a startup, hire the right people and let them do their job.

    Do not micromanage

    Do not set up a bureaucracy

    Do not get in the way

    Again REALLY? Startups (and particularly startup EoCs) are infamous for doing many or ALL these things, and it hasn’t hurt them. Do you think they might have succeeded IN SPITE of these dysfunctional hiring practices rather than BECAUSE of them? Why, that’s recruiting HERESY!

    A couple of final notes:
    To get a senior recruiting job at a startup it’s best to have no more than 5 years of experience, and be a perky, attractive, unchallenging, order-taking, low-cost alternative to 3PRs.

    Also getting back to the core of who to hire at startups:
    Startups have a very strong commitment to “diversity”:
    “We hire all kinds of *****young (under-30), largely upper-middle class people of similar ethnic background to those of the founders”, aka, “all sorts of different people JUST LIKE US.”



    * I’ve had LOTS of start-up contracts.
    ** which actually isn’t so bad when mixed with some light balsamic vinegar and used as a marinade or drizzle for poultry (not goose) or white fishes. But I digress…
    *** They might be the same individual dealing with different people.
    **** Probably not- who wants to hear unpleasant things, particularly when they may be true?
    ***** How many folks have you hired/seen at start-ups, besides some of the founders?

  9. Keith, I love your comments. In response to your question, I would say that I have hired mostly tech folks who report to the founders and the next level down. Not sure of an exact number but quite a bit.

  10. Thanks Howard. I put some time into this last comment. I like your column, too. I hire a lot of folks like the ones you’ve mentioned, and a level below that.

    Keep up the good word!


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