When you’re on a tight startup budget and timeline, it can be easy to make compromises on who you hire. Don’t. Here’s what to look for in an employee.
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Here’s something funny about first-time entrepreneurs. Even though they dream about making all the big decisions as boss of their own enterprise, when the time comes to recruit first teammates, they compromise. It’s true. Instead of seeking out a fabulous fit for their organization, they settle for the first person who “is available” and expresses enthusiasm for the startup mission.
The reason why startup entrepreneurs have a difficult time finding good people is they don’t try that hard.
Here are five considerations to help you hire the employee of your dreams.
1. Hire desired skills. Startup entrepreneurs are prone to hire an unqualified employee because the job candidate claims to be a “fast learner.” This kind of enthusiasm may work for larger companies with extensive training resources, but not for budget-starved startups.
Employees who are asked to do something they’ve never done before are likely to make beginner’s mistakes that will cost your company precious capital and time. The best way to avoid avoidable problems is to hire employees who have already “been there and done that.”
If, for example, your company needs proposal writing assistance for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) government grant, don’t just hire any kind of writer to do this important work. Search for a grant writer who has prepared several SBIR proposals in recent years. Then, favor applicants whose proposals turned into grant awards. I’d always rather pay more to people who know what they are doing, than less to people who don’t.
2. Hire relevant experience. Desired work experience should be defined not in terms of years, but rather in terms of specific work achievements. Just because a biochemist has, for example, 10 years of work experience doesn’t mean that the previous work accomplishments line up well with your company’s operating needs.
Another way to define work experience is in terms of work environment. A marketing manager who managed promotion campaigns for a well-established, big-budget corporation may flounder when asked to conceive and implement promotional campaigns for a cash-poor startup. As you review candidates, pay attention to work histories in which applicants were required to perform with little managerial supervision and team assistance. I also like to hire compulsive organizers who are happy to create systems for an emerging enterprise.
3. Hire competitive drive. Let’s face it — all startups have to compete aggressively for customers. So doesn’t it make sense to hire employees who thrive in a competitive work environment? Great startup employees embrace competitive challenges, hate losing clients to competitors and are highly motivated to exceed work goals. During interviews with prospective employees, ask about sports interests and other personal and professional activities that involve achievement under pressure. Prospective employees who dislike fast-paced competition probably won’t be happy working for your new company.
4. Hire persistence. With hiring criteria that emphasize competitive drive, should entrepreneurs favor job applicants who say they “have a long history of winning” in everything they set out to do? Not necessarily. Great startup employees adapt well to shifting priorities and don’t get easily discouraged from unexpected setbacks. Ask prospective employees how they handled career disappointments. Also, invest extra time into talking with prior bosses about a job candidate’s ability to manage frustration in a work setting. Simply stated, all startups need determined problem-solvers, not toxic finger-pointers.
5. Test performance. I’m a fan of long probation periods for recent hires in small businesses. If a new employee doesn’t fit in with the company rhythm or perform well during the first few months on the job, don’t delay in discussing your dissatisfaction. Another low-risk way to test prospective employee abilities is to create a project that can be completed as an independent contractor.
Here’s one last tip. I find that the most productive way to quickly sort through resumes, online or offline, is to have your written job criteria list on hand. If a candidate doesn’t meet your top three criteria for experience and expertise, then discard the person’s resume and move on. Hiring decisions are easy. It all comes down to this: If your game is football, don’t hire (and pay top dollar for) the trophy-winning polo player.