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Three Must-Have Traits in Early-Stage Hires



Hiring for an early-stage company is fundamentally different from hiring for a mid-sized, pre-IPO, or public company—and thus requires a radically different approach. As a founder or hiring manager, there's a specific set of traits you need to seek out in each candidate to make sure you're building the right team for the road ahead.


Besides role-specific competence, there are three must-have traits early-stage hires should have:

  1. An authentic attachment to your company
  2. The potential for exponential impact
  3. Cultural alignment


Authentic attachment to your company


In startup circles, you’ll often hear about the importance of hiring someone “mission-driven.” There’s a simple reason for this. If a candidate believes in your company’s mission, she is demonstrating an authentic attachment to your company. This means that when the going gets tough (and it will at an early-stage startup!), she will find the courage to stick it out. Mission-driven candidates exhibit a higher tolerance threshold and are better positioned to navigate the ups and downs of startup life. 


Another benefit to add: mission-driven folks are more likely to be referrers for other hires. And those hires generally are of higher caliber since they are pre-vetted by the employee that has an authentic fit with the company.


However, being “mission-driven” isn’t the only way to demonstrate an authentic attachment. For instance, a director-level candidate might be attracted to an excellent leadership team because that team mirrors her values. Or a senior engineer might be attracted to your technical environment because it offers interesting problems to work on, or a chance to work directly with an all-star technical co-founder. 


The point is there might be several reasons why someone would be genuinely excited to work for your company, and it’s up to the hiring team to flesh those out. If you haven’t done that with a candidate, you’re probably not ready to make an offer. The risks of getting it wrong are too high. 


Pro-tip: A candidate who values a high cash offer above all else does not have authentic attachment! On the flip side, a candidate who wants a lot of equity may be the mission fit you’re looking for.


Potential for exponential impact


With any hire, it’s important that you find someone capable of doing the job. At a startup, however, it’s critical that every hire has the ability (and desire) to extend beyond her core function, demonstrating an interest in scaling her impact as the company scales. 


By nature, startups are chaotic. An early employee’s scope of work doesn’t fit into a neat box and it won’t match the job description. You should aim to hire people who aren’t just OK with this, but are excited by the opportunity. 


During my time as Head of Recruiting at Wealthfront, the founder and CEO Andy Rachleff used to say to me, “Every startup hire should exhibit the potential to be a VP one day.” Essentially, what that means is that founders should set the expectation that change is constant and only hire those who seek out new challenges and thrive in an ever-changing environment. It’s worth pointing out that you don't want to hire the person that EXPECTS to become a VP right away. Rather, it's about the candidate having a very high slope, not very high requirements.


One good proxy for this potential for exponential impact or “professional upside” is looking at a candidate’s career trajectory. Here are few things to keep in mind as you vet the candidate:


  • Has the candidate made good career choices? Did they pick quality startups and demonstrate sound judgement by doing so?
  • Has the candidate exhibited resilience, demonstrated by significant tenure and a track-record of getting promoted from within? 
  • Does the candidate have a clear story for job changes? 
  • Is there clear professional intent behind each decision?


But there are other ways to look for this quality that go beyond a resume: 


  • Did the candidate put herself through college? 
  • Did the candidate earn a graduate degree while working full-time? 
  • Has the candidate achieved more than her peers, maybe having done so while at a distinct disadvantage?
  • Has the candidate shown exceptional ability/commitment outside of the workforce such as devotion and participation to their spirituality, community, or physical feats? (Unusual Partner Andy Johns likes to look for this since it also shows independent drive, which is essential to having a high upside.)


The above is not an exhaustive list. Essentially, you’re looking for a track record of grit and ambition. 


Cultural alignment


An early team sets a company’s cultural foundation. When hiring at a startup, it’s never too early to emphasize cultural alignment. Seeking a candidate that is the right culture-fit does not undermine the importance of making a technically strong hire. They are equally important traits. Remember, you can teach somebody a new skill, but it’s a lot harder to teach somebody passion. 


Maybe you’ve established company-wide operating principles that transcend function and role. For example: “Assume good intent,” or “Strong opinions, weakly held. Or perhaps you’ve already outlined a core set of values that dictate culture at your company. Craft interview questions that compel a candidate to demonstrate how they’ve lived those company values. You should hold the candidate to the same high standard you’ve hopefully set for your team. At Fleetsmith, we worked hard to create a psychologically safe workplace—one in which all employees felt empowered to take risks without fear of retribution or blowback. Weave these themes into your interview process. 


Culture alignment could also be showing that they have the appetite for risk and have worked at startups before. This is a critical trait for any founding team member. If the candidate only comes from big companies, but suddenly wants to try working at an early-stage startup, the risk of low culture fit and organ rejection is very, very high. Churning early team members can be a huge setback for a young startup and seriously injure team morale, so it’s worth spending extra cycles to ensure you’re making the right hire.


Pro-tip: Give candidates from big companies the specifics of their job offer upfront, and let them know that room for negotiation is minimal. Candidates joining startups from larger companies are likely taking a step back in salary, so it's much more efficient to be aligned on that upfront.


I put together this set of interview questions you can ask at each stage of the interview process to vet candidates for each of these must-have traits.


How do you find these candidates?


If you’re looking for candidates that exhibit the traits outlined above (authentic attachment, exponential impact, and cultural alignment), the hard truth is that hiring won’t happen overnight. Finding the right early-stage hire takes time. Here’s the good news: candidates who meet this criteria will often find their way to you. In many cases, the best candidates are running towards your company saying, “This is where I want to be!” Your job is to identify them early, run a swift interview process, and inspire them to join you. 


As a recruiter for our portfolio companies, I spend an outsized portion of my time with the candidates who express the most excitement. As long as I do a good job informing them about the role and company, they often end up selling themselves on the opportunity. If it’s time to extend the offer and you’re not sure they’ll jump at the opportunity, you might not be talking to the right person.


At the same time, you have to be ready to roll up your sleeves and do some active sourcing. Start with your own network and expand outward from there. For example, if you’re hiring a product leader, reach out to product leaders you’ve worked with before and industry influencers. It’s a really good bet they know someone you should meet. When you reach out to people with influence, word spreads quickly. 


Pro-tip: Tap into the “super-connectors” in your network. These are the folks who enjoy receiving an email request for an introduction. They’re the folks not only respected in their field, but also widely known. They derive joy from making connections, so don’t overthink reaching out to them for help!


Eventually, you’ll need to begin sourcing outside your immediate network. Use a targeted approach. Scattershot emailing rarely works. Instead, start by coming up with a list of 15-20 companies whose technical excellence you admire. From here, look for relevant employees at those companies who exhibit the traits we outlined above (eg. start-up experience, a track record of promotions and significant tenure, etc.) Remember, you’re looking for scrappy candidates who have something to prove. 


Once you've put together a thoughtful list of candidate profiles, consider using a modern sourcing product like Gem, which does the heavy lifting for you by automating all outreach and follow-up.


How do you engage these candidates?


Over the past 10 years I’ve partnered with dozens of hiring managers across all functions. Without question, I’ve learned that the most successful hiring managers emphasize relationship-building above all else. That’s not to say that there aren’t other important facets of running a strong recruiting process. Consistent expectation-setting, transparency around compensation, running a timely process, and creating a two-way street where the candidate feels as empowered to ask questions also matter. But at the end of the day, a candidate joins a company to work for someone. Therefore, at the crux of an excellent process is laser-focus on nurturing the potential employee-manager relationship. 


While at Wealthfront, I worked extensively with the design team, supporting hiring efforts across product design, visual design, UX research and design leadership. The team was growing quickly and time was scarce. In spite of this, Wealthfront’s Design VP, Apeksha Garga, made a point of personally reaching out to each design candidate ahead of all candidate on-sites. Apeksha ditched the usual canned email and instead spent 20-30 minutes with each candidate ahead of their final round interviews. Her high 90th percentile close rate reflected how valuable this touchpoint was for candidates. Relationships matter, and early-stage founders and leaders can differentiate their company by making the hiring process feel warm and personal.


Finally, I’ve always believed that the best start-up candidates demonstrate increased enthusiasm with each step of the recruitment process. As you become more excited about a potential fit, so too should the candidate. If there’s a disconnect there and the candidate seems to pull away, have an immediate conversation to understand if it’s worth continuing the process.


Here are a couple of simple steps you can take to get the candidate more engaged:


  1. Share content: Send over a relevant podcast episode, maybe one that highlights a different member of your leadership team. Candidates will be excited to hear multiple people expressing the same level of passion about your company.
  2. Help them backchannel: Ask the candidate, “What more do you need to know?” Offer to connect them with one of your investors or someone else in your network who knows how you work. You want to help the candidate envision what it would be like to work with you.
  3. Find creative ways to highlight your culture: Send a book that everyone in your company reads upon joining or invite them to a team offsite. (We took a recruit axe-throwing and the team surprised her with her own cardboard cutout!)


If all goes well, presenting the offer should feel like a celebration, rather than just a starting point.

Key Takeaways


  • Hiring for a startup is fundamentally different than hiring at a large company. 
  • Understanding a candidate’s technical excellence is always key, but just as critical is your understanding of a candidate’s passion, upside potential, and cultural alignment. 
  • Before you make an offer, make sure you can answer this question: “What makes me convinced that this candidate will still be excited to work here when things get tough?”
  • Consistently gauge a candidate’s enthusiasm for your company, and spend more time with those who are leaning into the process. 
  • Tap into your network to source candidates. Look for the “super-connectors” in your network who enjoy introducing people to each other and making new connections.
  • Make a list of companies whose technical competence you admire and narrow in on relevant employees who might be a good fit for the role. Use a tool like Gem to help automate the outreach process.
  • Build a relationship with the candidate throughout the process and go the extra mile to make the process feel personal and exciting: share content, help them backchannel, and invite them to team events. You want to help them envision what it would feel like to be a part of the team.
Tool
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Candidate Intent Assessment
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Use this set of questions to assess candidate intent at each stage of the interview process.

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