Startup Staffing – Against the Grain

Here is what I know to be true. The success or failure of a startup is determined in the first months of staffing that start up. Observing and participating in staffing and coaching those staffs for decades, I can report absolutely, what works, what doesn’t work. Understand that the team in place on day one is probably the wrong team to have on year three. The skill set and attitude of day one are not useful or productive for year three. One requires complete and utter faith in the product with a creative exuberance that allows for experimentation, failure, fast regroup, and out of the box thinking. Year three requires fanatical attention to process and organization in order for the company to scale.

Don’t be afraid to hire consultants. Ideally, the top people who can accelerate your growth are willing to commit to the company success. The problem with that is, they often outlive their usefulness in the the first eighteen months to three years. The product is launched, the marketing is in place and now, it is time to position the company to scale.That’s a different skill set. So hire the best you can find as consultants. If the terms are right, this is a win win win. The third win is your investors will like this approach.

What makes a startup gain traction is whatever makes it unique; the differentiators. Which is why the startup needs creative, brilliant and aggressive team members who contribute ideas, create new processes and who have their pulse on what is happening in the domain behind closed doors. Someone plugged into and participating in creating that new space, and not reliant on the news or Internet announcements for updates may be your best choice.

Repeatedly, what I have observed is a founder who hires his friends as those ground floor contributors. They are often competent, enthusiastic and rarely, brilliant. The founder has very little control over his friends and often the hours they put in or the direction they follow are not consistent with the company mission. First rule of staffing for a start up is hire very smart, very creative people from whom you can learn and with whom you can collaborate.

The founder who maps out the deliverables and the time lines with reasonable mileposts and then seeks outstanding contributors to join, has a better chance of a vision realized on time and fully. She will not have to monitor team performance because the employees have the scorecard. Instead, she can collaborate, generate creative momentum.

If you have searched for those outstanding people and they refuse to come on board, it behooves you to ask what they would have to see to join. You now have actual data on what it takes to hire that core team.

Be reluctant to offer executive level titles. Your first hires need to be doers, not managers. Let the responsibilities speak for themselves. Why avoid those titles? Because the needs of the company and hence the contributors will change quickly. The person who is successful working hard and creatively to land your first twenty clients or customers is not likely the person who can manage the sales team when you are working on 500 customers per week.

Never hire relatives. I have seen only one situation where that has worked even briefly and that was because the CEO hired his brother as President, but was rarely in the country. After four years, they parted ways and seldom speak to one another to this day. Again, while you want to share the opportunity and want to encourage your family, the management of that relationship can hijack your management time, result in poor performance and your hands are tied for firing. I have also seen the whole team react badly to how the family member is protected or worse, how that relationship plays out in the meeting room. There is always a better choice.

Over hire immediately. Counter intuitive? Keep things lean and mean? No. When Microsoft Office/Word first gained traction, there were over fifty product managers. The product and all its tools were broken down into small units for management. If someone left the company, their responsibilities were immediately and easily taken over by peers until a replacement was found. When the the flu hit, with massive absenteeism, no deadlines were missed because there was overlap and several people to jump in who knew what they were doing. This is a very sophisticated form of cross training. It also prohibits career blackmail.

No prima donnas. More than one startup has been seriously handicapped with the defection of a key member of the team. Or worse, refusing to go along with the agreed upon direction. Most startups treat key players with kid gloves because deadlines or product features would be missed. And worse, those key players use that power for all sorts of counter productive aims and use blackmail to get their way. If no one person is indispensable, no one can wield that power and the whole team pulls together.

Fire fast. The mark of a successful leader is one who can make the hard decisions quickly and follow through. If there is a team member not pulling their weight, causing problems or requiring more management time than is reasonable, they must be fired. This is important because the rest of the team needs that action to take place so they can remain productive and loyal. Once you have tried course correction and the employee has been warned, follow through and fire if the change you outlined did not occur. Your time is valuable. Time spent with personnel issues steals from your company.

Look for replacements the day you open the doors on your startup. Know that in the not too distant future, your original team will transition. Start watching out today for those likely to be the next level employees. Look for performance, numbers, statistics, not emotions and likability. Always keep an eye out for people who can teach you something, surprise you.

Network constantly. Don’t say you don’t have time. The time you spend today establishing relationships will accelerate your time to hire when it is critical. A search that takes months can inhibit your growth.

More on how to hire for your startup in future posts. For now, the shock of no friends or relatives will have to sink in. Most advisors tell you to do it because the initial communication is faster and better. That is a very short lived benefit. When you build a team with no subtext, you have better control and the focus is on building the business, not maintaining the relationships.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *