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.

Lean Startup Tools

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Back in May, Nat Friedman wrote about the tools used in setting up Xamarin. They include a great set of basic tools for getting a startup off the ground with very little investment. We have seen a lot of startups using a similar set of tools and I thought that we’d compile a list of the tools that we’re actively using (and some of the others we evaluated). There are the tools and blogs listed by Steve Blank that include many

Landing Pages

We’re big fans of WordPress at StartupNorth. We’ve powered StartupNorth on WP since the beginning. The combination of WordPress, Premise, and the WordPress MU Domain Mapping plugin is a pretty powerful combination for creating mutliple sites and landing pages to test your landing pages. But we’ve also developed a sweet spot for Vancouver’s Unbounce, it took us less than 5 minutes to have 2 landing pages and a domain set up. We’re big believers that you can use Adwords and Facebook Ads to quickly create a landing page to test ideas before writing a single line of code.


We primarily use Google Analytics and WordPress Stats for StartupNorth. We’ve been working with startups and using a KISSmetrics and Mixpanel to measure activity on their web properties and applications. Make sure you read Ash Maurya’s 3 Rules to Actionable Metrics to understand how the analytics can be used in combination with split testing and/or cohort analysis to better track your optimization before product/market fit (What do you measure before product/market fit? – check out Ash’s conversion funnel and metrics).

Mailing Lists

We haven’t been as proactive in building a mailing list for the StartupNorth community as we probably should have been. I’ve used have started using MailChimp because of the quick integration to GravityForms and WooFoo, but have had very positive experiences using both Campaign Monitor and Constant Contact.

Billing and Accounting

What is amazing is that both of these companies are local to Toronto. We use WaveAccounting integrated with our bank account and PayPal for tracking expenses, billing, and financial operations. And we use Freshbooks to bill for sponsorships. They are a must have in our back office. What we’re missing is a really easy to use and integrated payroll system (I hear that it might be coming).

Human Resources

For full disclosure, I’m an advisor to TribeHR. It doesn’t change the fact that they rock. It is the easiest way to get an HR system in place. And there is no better way to get feedback and help employees improve than Rypple.

Surveys and Feedback

We are actively using Survey.IO to gather feedback from users about the state of StartupNorth. It helps us figure out the state of our product market-fit, if there is such a thing for a blog about Canadian startups, fill it out and help us be better.

Project Tracking

We use Pivotal Tracker. We like them so much, we actively recruited them as a sponsor for StartupNorth. There are lots of other tools from project tools to issue tracking. Curious at what others are using.

Source Control

We use Github Bronze for our project hosting. Most of the code we work on is PHP against MySQL (see WordPress), though we have additional apps in development like the StartupNorth Index (which will be moving to startupnorth.ca/index shortly) but all are LAMP.


Full disclosure: VMFarms is a sponsor of StartupNorth. However, their hosted VMs that are backed up and hot mirrored coupled with the outrageous “white glove” makes them a dead simple choice. We also use Rackspace Startups and EC2 for access to easy Linux and Windows VMs for development and testing environments.

Customer Relationship Management

We don’t have any strong recommendations. There are platforms like Salesforce that are fantastic and sales teams are used to. There is Highrise which is broadly supported with a lot of 3rd party tools. But so far, neither of these has been the clear winner for us. There is a great Quora question about “What is the best CRM for startups” that lists SFDC, SugarCRM and Highrise. There are a lot of choices for CRM including NimbleInsightlyWoosabiCapsuleSolve360,AppPlaneBatchbookPipelineDealsTactileCRMZohoCRM and many others.

Conferencing, Screen Sharing & Telecommunications

I’ve been using Calliflower for conference calling. It’s $5/call for up-to 5 callers, or for $30/month unlimited minutes and >70 participants, it’s a great solution. It is not a replacement for a office phone system.

Google Voice and Skype have been the least expensive way as a Canadian startup to get a US phone number. This is great for me as an individual. However, this does not scale to an enterprise or an organization. I’ve been looking at Grasshopper, RingCentral and Toktumi, but I have yet to settle on a solution.

SEO & SEM Tools

This part of the list is pretty much cribbed from Steve Blank’s list of tools for entrepreneurs. Go read it for a more comprehensive list of tools beyond the SEO/SEM listing included below.

What are we missing?

I’m going to cover in the next post: discounted travel, conferences, business cards, design services, and other tricks for being relentless resourceful as a founder.

There are a lot of online tools that startups are using to make or break their business. And there is a lot missing, monitoring like NewRelic, PagerDuty, Pingdom and Blame Stella for example. But I’m curious what are the indispensable tools being used at iStopOver.com, HighScoreHouse, CommunityLend, Idee/Tineye, Massive Damage, Empire Avenue, Indochino, Lymbix, Hootsuite, AdParlor, Locationary, Chango and others. What are you using? What gives you the edge in quickly and effectively gathering feedback to test your hypotheses?

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development

The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer DevelopmentI was reading Eric Reis’ Lessons Learned blog yesterday and he talked about The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development. I begrudgingly read Steve Blank‘s Four Steps to the Epiphany, which is a must read for any entrepreneur (begrudgingly read because it is not the easiest reading). It is a great book, but it’s tough reading.

“And Steve is the first to admit that it’s a “turgid” read, without a great deal of narrative flow. It’s part workbook, part war story compendium, part theoretical treatise, and part manifesto. It’s trying to do way too many things at once. On the plus side, that means it’s a great deal. On the minus side, that has made it a wee bit hard to understand.” Eric Reis

I bought a copy yesterday based on Eric’s recommendation. It is a phenomenal resource for learning Customer Development. Patrick and Brant have done a great job writing an understanable how-to guide for using Customer Development and Agile Development in a Lean Startup. The book includes a shout out to our friends Dan Martell at Flowtown and Sean Ellis at 12in6.  

The book incorporates the wisdom and experience of real world practitioners of Customer Development in the 5 years since the inital publication of The Four Steps. For the first time a lot of entrepreneurs will hopefully begin to understand a technology adoption lifecycle and the marketing of products/services. I wrote a chapter in Cost-Justifying Usability back in 2005 where I had first encountered Steve’s Customer Development Methodology from his course notes in 2004 at Stanford (yeah, I know that’s crazy). In the chapter, titled “Valuing Usability for Startups”, I argued that getting out talking to customers and testing your hypotheses were key to success. However, I proposed using the Bell/Mason Diagnostic for evaluating the stage of corporate development in order to calculate Return-on-Investment of usability. In hindsight, I probably should have instructed entrepreneurs and usability professionals to look at processes like Customer Development to search for a “repeatable and scalable business model”.

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development is a short mandatory introduction to using customer and agile development to search for a  repeatable and scalable business model.

Discount for StartupNorth Readers

A few quick emails to Patrick today, and he offered to provide StartupNorth readers a 25% discount on any version of the book. First ten StartupNorth readers to go to CustDev.com can use the discount code.

Discount code: STARTUPNORTH (limited to the first 10 users)

Good luck!