Hiring the first few employees is a big deal for any startup. The stakes are high. Your first hires can make or break your company in its early days.
At Edukart, my education startup, I did not have anything much to offer in comparison to big companies, when making our initial few job offers. No lucrative salary packages, fancy office, benefits, or plan for growth, etc. However, I was still able to build a strong early team.
Here are some of the tactics that worked in my favor:
Did not rush into hiring: Hiring great employees takes time. Your first few employees need to set strong examples for others. Hence, I took time to ensure I found people who were really the right fit.
Hiring the first few mid level hires was an extremely time-consuming process, but totally worth it. It helped me understand what sort of talent I was looking for.
Made good use of my network: Recruiting agencies and consultants can be expensive in the beginning. So, I relied on personal networks and advisors for referrals. In fact, the first hire for EduKart was a recent graduate of a business school that was run by one of our angel investors.
Paid a lot of attention to mission alignment: The first ten employees were going to be like co-founders. They were the ones setting up the company’s culture.
So, I wanted people who cared about the company and its mission as much as I did. People who brought the ownership mindset and were mission-driven, entrepreneurial, problem-solvers, and proactive in their work.
Gave assignments to test skills and aptitude: Many people are good at interviews. They know exactly how to sway the hiring managers. But, what has always helped me is testing their skills with an assignment. The assignment can be small, but it really helps to test the thought process of the potential hire.
Also, for super young startups, it can act as a great filter — someone who is not interested to spend 2 hours on an assignment, may just not be a great fit.
When I look back at the EduKart journey, the biggest mistake I made in early hiring was that I did not focus on a healthy mix of employees from an experience point of view.
Over the last decade, as I have gotten a chance to lead large teams and work with a diverse set of the employee base, I feel the word ‘passion’—when it comes to startup hiring— is ‘overrated’, while experience and skills are ‘underrated’.
Passion is very important but I don’t think we should compromise on the importance of experience for it. Experienced employees are a huge investment, but can be extremely valuable in setting up processes and driving speed.
On the other hand, when it comes to judging for passion, I would suggest looking out for signs. It is very easy for people to say ‘I am passionate about your cause’ but are they up-to-date with what is happening in the industry or have they worked on projects in similar areas before? People who were genuinely interested in my ed-tech startup kept me informed of what they were upto and sync up often.
Looking back at EduKart, I feel that I should have invested in hiring experienced leaders across critical domains early on. I went all out on passion and built a solid team, but of less experienced generalists. As a result, we lacked the experience that could have helped us to prevent a lot of mistakes early on in the startup. However, I learnt from this mistake when I joined as the Managing Director of Udacity in India- my first three hires were all director level in Operations, Product, and Sales. They subsequently built solid teams around them and we moved on all fronts faster.
Your first hires are a big leap for you. Breathe in and take all the time you need to do it right! All the best and let me know if you have questions in the comment section below.