Hiring for Lean Startups: The First Few Hires

Editor’s note: This is a cross post from Flow Ventures written by Raymond Luk (LinkedIn, @rayluk). Follow him on Twitter @rayluk. This post was originally published in January 12, 2012 on Flow Ventures.

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I was having coffee with a founder the other day and we started talking about his hiring plans. Since he’s a non-technical founder (which Ben Yoskovitz claims is a dead-end to begin with) he had several top coders in mind, all of whom were earning big bucks with larger companies.

“I’m paying them a little bit of money but they’ll join full time once I can raise money,” said the founder. It’s something I hear a lot, especially from non-techie founders.

I went back to review some blog posts on Lean hiring, and I came across Eric’s post “Lean Hiring Tips” and Mark MacLeod’s “Fat Hiring for Lean Startups“. Both are worth your time. But I think they’re also written for startups that are already up and running and need to expand. I’m interested in very early stage hiring, e.g. when you’re one person looking for a co-founder or you’re two people looking for your core team.

Companies always take on the characteristics of their founders and in the rush to scale, I find many startups don’t stop to consider how they’re establishing the DNA of their company. The first few hires are the most important ones you’ll make.

  • Hire for an experimental mindset – Look for people who enjoy encountering problems, designing ways to solve them, and finding proof of success or failure. Skill at building, whether it’s software or a marketing plan or a sales funnel, is irrelevant at this point. You need people who will volunteer to scrap their plans, not fight you when you want to change course.

How? Join a hackathon, Lean Machine or just create your own (laptop + Starbucks = hackathon). Give your (potential) team a crazy challenge and see who exhibits the right behaviours.

  • Hire generalists – A lot of people will disagree with this advice. If you can find the best Python developer in the country go for it. But only if she’s also willing to cold call customers, crank out some Web site copy and help you whiteboard the business model. Your #1 focus is to find a business model that works. The latent technical talent on your bench won’t help you unless you graduate from this first phase

How? Again, hackathons are great practical tests. No matter what their skillset, look for passion about your business model and solving customer problems.

  • Prioritize UX over development – This is easier said than done since there’s a shortage of UX talent. But it’s better to have a kick-ass UX person and a mediocre developer than the other way around. UX will help you find your business model and most (good) UX people already have an experimental mindset and generalist attitude

How? Actively seek out UX people, not just developers. You may need to work at a distance if you can’t find local talent. Consider working with less experienced people if they can prove themselves through testing.

  • Get skin in the game – Leaving a six figure job to join your startup for a paycut is not skin in the game, or not enough in my books. Hire those people later when you’ve found your business model, have money in the bank, and need to scale. Skin in the game means working full time, just like you are. It means putting their reputation on the line, raising Ramen funding from friends/family/spouses and saying “I’m going to see this through until we fail.”

How? Stop feeling like you’re a poor startup that can’t afford to pay top salaries. Those aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Think of finding your co-founders like raising your first round. You need to get them excited to invest in your business.

I know this advice seems to apply better to “Web” startups than general technology startups, which is a common criticism of Lean startups in general. But I think it applies more broadly. If you hire for the right attitude, you not only solve the critical product-market fit problem, but you set the DNA of your business right from the start. I guess I haven’t seen too many examples of startups failing because they lacked a specific technical skill. They probably think they failed because of it though.

In the end, I guess “hiring” is the wrong word to begin with. You’re looking for people to co-found a business with you. You aren’t buying their skills, you’re asking them to invest in helping you shape the course of your business from the very beginning. Maybe not all of them (including yourself) will be able to scale up with the business. That’s a problem for another day.

Editor’s note: This is a cross post from Flow Ventures written by Raymond Luk (LinkedIn, @rayluk). Follow him on Twitter @rayluk. This post was originally published in January 12, 2012 on Flow Ventures.

It’s people, people!

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How do I know that emerging technology is still booming? It is incredibly difficult and competitive to recruit, hire and retain people with startup experience across Canada. Just look at the number of jobs posted on the StartupNorth Job postings:

The number one budget item for startups is headcount. For most companies, the people costs far exceed the costs associated with hosting, etc. I don’t know about you but we’re not designing our own servers or opening data centers near the Arctic to reduce the cost of computing and power consumption. It means that the people are the biggest cost for a startup as they grow.

This is different during the initial creation of many of the startups in the bootstrapping phase. We’ve seen a lot of startups get to Minimum Viable Product and start the process of finding a scaleable business model keeping their headcount costs low or close to zero. You might infer that the experience at YCombinator or TechStars or 500Startups is designed to give entrepreneurs the bare minimum of capital and put them in a focused, competitive environment with a deadline (Demo Day) to do the customer development and build the connections necessary for the next stage. Upon exit, many of these companies raise a significant amount of capital. Have you asked yourself why?

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It’s to hire the best people. And it turns out that hiring the best people is not something that can be easily solved with a job posting, or a tweet, or free iPad. Recruiting is Hard! And at startups, it can be difficult to step away from fund raising, product development and customer engagement to focus on the thing that can make or break your business. Ben Yoskovitz wrote a great summary post of his efforts to Recruit and Hire Top People for a Startup that every founder should read:

The war for talent across Canada is just beginning. During my time at VeloCity at UWaterloo, I was impressed at the number of US companies and startups that were actively recruiting on campus. And the established companies aren’t alone, we have seen an increase in the amount of US investments (looking at you GoInstant, Vidyard, TribeHR, Kik, Playerize, Enflick, Shopify, Hootsuite, A Thinking Ape, and others). This will undoubtedly lead to increasing salaries (see @byosko’s # 4 prediction for 2012 in Montreal). It doesn’t even take into consider the continuing recruiting efforts that companies like Rypple, Radian6, Dayforce. For startups, we are going to need to improve our culture and game to keep talent. And getting your startup to a point to raise enough money to pay competitive salaries is going to be the baseline to play in 2012.

If you are designer, marketer or developer and you are curious at who is hiring or if you want an introduction, drop me a note with a resume (david at davidcrow dot ca) and I’ll do my best to match you with companies I know are looking.


How to Hire Me, A Technical Co-Founder

There has been a lot of buzz the past 6-8 months about hiring great technical co-founders. The implication seems to be that being a non-technical co-founder is a handicap of sorts and that CEOs buy sandwiches before the product is finished. Apparently coding & building great products is hard, but running the business is easy. Here are some articles:

Why You Can’t Recruit a Technical Cofounder
Quora – Technical Co-Founders
Please, please, please Stop Asking How To Find a Technical Co-Founder
Thoughts On Hiring a Technical Co-Founder

I am a “technical co-founder” at Peek – I code, keep big scale systems up, hire & fire, set dev processes, and all that other technical stuff. So let me tell you about how I got recruited into Peek by Amol Sarva, @amolsarva.

Sell Vaporware

Amol had one VC committed to Peek in our A, and had a letter of intent from Target (yes – www.target.com – that Target) to sell Peeks nation-wide, in-store in the US. The status of the “product” – he had a carved out a wooden model of the Peek (ala Palm)!! And these deals were huge – a $15mm A round with half committed. Target – nation-wide for Christmas 2008!! These days I hear too much crap from “deal guy” founders about finishing product before doing deals. Lame. Be a stud – go sell vaporware. Go get real customers who pay you real money. Go find partners and distributors. I have seen countless, great sales guys in my life sell smoke and mirrors. Why can’t you?

This guy hired me

Hire Other Studs

Amol had recruited John Tantum, former President of Virgin Mobile USA, as our chairman. He had an all-star marketing & retail guru lined up. Our advisory team was the president of BlackBoard, SVP strategy at Intuit, and the former head of the FCC. No matter what, I knew I was going to learn and have an awesome experience working with some great folks.

Be Generally Awesome

Amol was an interesting guy in general. He had a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford. He was/is building a new property in Queens. He took a photo that hangs in MoMA. The blog I write on is startupnorth, the “blogs” he writes on are Salon & Business Insider. Being generally impressive is important. The important question here is the Peter Thiel question, why is employee #20 going to come work for you? The weight of the CEO’s personality and accomplishments matter here. Senior guys will want to know the accomplishments of your business as well as the accomplishments of your management team. You have to be generally awesome enough to bring people in if you aren’t one of those super red hot, Twitter-esque companies.

Be Top Amongst Your Peers

Amol, while starting Peek, was mentoring other founders. He was one of the original members of Founders Roundtable. His peers looked to him for advice on starting a company.

Now, I know this is a bit of a love-in of Amol. And it also probably feels like a pretty high bar. All you have to do is go get a PhD, raise $15mm and get a distro deal done with the second largest retailer in the US before you can hire great technical co-founders.

Not quite. The main lesson is this. Forget your technical co-founder and realize that the “product” is one aspect of your business. Potentially an important one (also potentially a complete waste of time you need to pivot off of). You need to start consistently proving that you can make this business successful without having a “heroic engineering, product only” mindset. Can you on a day-in, day-out basis creatively solve the problems of the business such as acquiring customers faster/cheaper, reducing churn, recruiting great folks, financing the company’s goals, having great customer service, delivering everything on-time, getting great advice, navigating treacherous competitive waters, and so on and so forth. Can you relentlessly out-execute with or without the crutch of great product and fabulous engineering? The way you have built the business pre-launch tells me a lot about how you will run the business post-launch.

If you can do stuff like Amol did, you’ll be fine. If you are buying sandwiches… sorry, go find someone else.

I’d love to hear from other founders (technical or not) on how they both built their company pre-launch and how they found their technical co-founder.