The ability to build and scale a great team is one of, if not the most important skill you need as an entrepreneur, particularly at the seed stage. In the early stages of your company’s life, the people you hire for engineering roles, GTM, sales, etc., will not only impact your product and strategy, but will shape your company culture, all of which can have lasting effects for years to come. Essentially, these hires can and will determine whether you sink or swim as a company.
Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they understand the importance of hiring, particularly when it comes to their initial team, but what many of them don’t realize is how difficult it will be and all of the behind-the-scenes factors that need to be considered. No matter the size of your company, recruiting is challenging, especially in Silicon Valley, where competition is fierce. But for early stage companies, the odds are really stacked against us. Not only are we competing with the big dogs like Google and VMware for talent, but we also have to make sure the candidates are excited about our vision and ultimately, to take a risk on what we are building.
At Banyan Security, we have an aggressive mission to deliver secure remote access for today’s perimeter-free world, a $10B opportunity. At the time we realized the breadth of the opportunity at our fingertips, we were a team of four — three co-founders and one additional employee. If we were to capitalize on our vision of delivering Zero Trust Network Access, we needed to scale our team — and fast.
But scaling a company quickly is not that simple. Between the three co-founders, we have combined 50 years of experience in the tech industry and built extensive networks over the years. But we quickly learned that wasn’t enough and a lot more went into recruiting a top tier team than we originally realized. Fortunately, at the time of this realization, we had started to engage with Unusual Ventures’ Get Ahead Platform (GAP) Team and had the opportunity to work with Jon Volk, Unusual’s Director of Talent. Jon has experience recruiting top technical talent at companies like AppDynamics, Google, and Amazon, and challenged us to focus on bringing structure to our recruiting strategy to scale. Through our work with Jon and the diligence of our team, we expanded from 4 to 15 employees in 6 months.
Here are my key takeaways for other early-stage founders looking to scale their teams in order to move forward on their overall business vision:
1. Qualification Up Front is Your Best Friend
When we initially started looking at candidates, we found a few we felt would be an excellent fit for Banyan Security. However, we did not assess their phase of life or life situation. They told us that they had concerns due to personal financial/family/geographic considerations. Internally, our attitude was, “Oh, maybe we can convince them!”
After one instance where we wasted several cycles on a candidate we should not have considered so seriously, we quickly course-corrected. We learned that on many levels, recruiting is about qualifying the probability that candidates are willing to consider us, just as much as we’d be willing to consider them. From the very beginning of the process, knowing that the probability is high on both sides is necessary to save time. And for a startup in particular, time is everything. Understand whether a person is in a time of their life where they can make a commitment to a startup and if they are, are they willing to take a risk? Other qualification factors to consider, include salary, cultural fit, and the ability to jump in where needed. All of these factors will help you better understand early on whether you want to engage with the candidate and in what capacity. By implementing better qualification processes upfront, we went from a narrow funnel approach to a wide cylinder approach, which led to better conversions and more efficient use of our team’s time.
2. Strategy and Structure
When we were a team of four, there was not much process in place when it came to recruiting and the candidate’s overall experience. It was like, “Hey, come in, you can chat with three/four people, and we’ll see how it goes.” But the moment we started scaling and adding more people to the mix, we quickly realized the importance of putting a structured process in place to truly assess technical and business capabilities, and more importantly, a sense of culture fit.
Jon was instrumental in helping us add structure around all the behind-the-scenes details of recruiting, such as clearer communication to the candidate about how long the process will take, who they will meet with, etc. He also helped us add more strategy to the interview process and impressed upon us the importance of putting together an interview panel and assigning every interviewer a job. For example, we have some people in the company who are much more empathetic than others and can suss out who the real person is behind the interview facade. Make sure every person who speaks to the candidate is assigned a specialized role based on their strengths, so you can get full coverage and engage different aspects of a candidate. Once the interviews take place, it’s also important to have interviewers immediately write up their evaluations and then pull everyone together. I highly recommend ensuring people provide their feedback before you bring the team together to make sure opinions are not influenced by other people’s feedback. By putting structure and strategy in place, we were able to have better conversations with candidates and evaluate them more effectively.
3. Sell, But Keep it Real
Even before I started the recruiting efforts at Banyan Security, I recognized there were two key components to hiring in previous roles. One component involves evaluating a candidate on skillset to make sure they are the right fit for your company, which we already covered. The second component involves selling your company to the candidate, which is even more important. As a candidate, you’re thinking, “How exciting would this place be to work at?” Strategizing and thinking through how to get a candidate excited about your vision — while keeping it transparent and real — is so important and a major part of the recruiting equation.
First and foremost, candidates need to be sold on the vision of what the company is building. The vision you communicate needs to be big and something the candidate would love to be a part of. As an employer, I rarely try to sell the company painting a rosy picture of how exciting the place could be. Instead, I try to explain how we think about the space, what we are trying to do, where we want to get to, and try to understand if they want to be a part of our journey. It’s important to articulate how your overall vision translates to their career, including how they will enjoy contributing to the big picture, how this opportunity will help them in their career development, what it will be like to be a part of a strong team driving towards a common mission, etc. As an entrepreneur, you’re always selling — whether to VCs, customers, job candidates, etc. With job candidates, it’s important to be upfront about the risks and pitfalls to make sure they are on the same page and know what they are getting themselves into. Focus on why you believe this is an exciting opportunity and why they should join, but with all the honest caveats added in. This not only builds trust, but it also ensures you’re hiring people who are fully invested.
4. Hire Top Down
I have a recruiting theory I adopted from Diane Greene of VMware, who happens to be married to my mentor and PhD advisor, Mendel Rosenblum. Many startups build bottom-up and train people who may have never had leadership roles before. It’s certainly less expensive this way, but I believe there is a missed opportunity to bring in a strong foundation and set a quality bar by hiring top leaders first. It’s important to note that these experienced engineers/GTM folks need to have the ability to be individual contributors. The last thing you want is a leader who just wants to build a team underneath them — these leaders have to get their hands dirty and be able to contribute without any other help until your startup can grow.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot harder and more expensive to hire experienced talent first, however, there are two key benefits. First, great people attract great people, whether from an earlier job or via their overall network. It reduces the burden on hiring and there’s less of a learning curve and/or risk. As a founder, there will be people in your network you can tap, but don’t be afraid to leverage your internal team. Offer a recruiting bonus to give your team an incentive to refer people in their network. That brings me to the second benefit — in the early phase of a company, you cannot afford to make many mistakes and people who have experience can come in with a strong mindset of what to do and not do. This decisiveness helps with setting the tone for the company.