In the last 12 months I have been fortunate to have gone from an initial co-founding team of three to hiring 30 talented individuals to join my startup, Sales Kiwi. I have been equally fortunate to have made many mistakes in building this team which has contributed to great insight on how I will hire the next 30.
In a post-pandemic era where startups are now more amenable to hiring globally, this adds another layer of complexity to building one’s team, which I’ve also witnessed firsthand. Adding “global” to your team dynamic means that your hiring must be even more precise since international hires are not sitting next to you in a typical office.
In this column I’ll be sharing five of my top lessons on building a team from scratch, including why to hire for versatility early and how your initial leadership hires create a major trickle effect for all subsequent hires.
Every startup founder encounters wide variation in the scope of work, with priority items frequently shifting week-to-week. The same goes for early employees at startups needing to wear multiple hats and juggle various items that emerge at random.
It becomes vital that your first five to 10 hires are individuals who aren’t too specialized in a single task. There are obvious exceptions to this, such as if you’re building a medical device startup and need an engineer who has worked on the specific type of technology that you are seeking to construct.
The following make for great initial hires:
The broader the experience level of your first hires, the better. They will likely possess a basic amount of knowledge and ability to work across your startup’s various work streams and projects. What you don’t want is someone coming to your startup who only worked at Uber, a 30,000+ employee international corporation, and had a specialized task of optimizing one specific project. Luckily, when I was on the growth team at Uber, I was able to work across numerous projects and types of work, but I saw many of my colleagues pigeon-holed to a single project for whole fiscal quarters.
For growth marketing specifically, it is extremely beneficial to bring someone on that has a holistic understanding of growth and has seen success standing up various pillars, such as paid acquisition or lifecycle. I’ve included a more in-depth analysis on how and when to make your first growth marketing hire.
Like the saying “game recognizes game”, it’s virtually impossible for B-team and C-team players to understand what to look for in an A-player. Thus, the leadership team you initially hire will have a significant trickle effect that leads into those hires you take on later.
Take your time to find the best fit for those initial leadership roles, due to their huge impact in the hiring of the next ten employees. With my startup, we rushed to hire those first few leadership roles to meet the demands of rapid expansion and this unfortunately hurt us in the long run. We relied on these leaders to build out their own teams and we didn’t pay as close attention to their hiring as we should in this period. The result was a B-team that the initial leadership eventually needed to reassess and rebuild.
I highly recommend asking prospective leadership position hires how they would build their teams and the qualities that they will look for in hires. Getting into the mind of how they will approach team building will give you insights into what outcomes to expect.
Outside of team-building capabilities, the following three traits are what I look for when hiring A-players for early-stage startups:
I much prefer hiring an individual that possesses these traits with less experience, than an individual with more experience, but who is lacking in one or more of the traits. In the early stages of building a startup team, you need a team who will seek out answers to their pressing questions and concerns, and who will be unafraid to ask why things are the way they are.
Early on we hired phenomenal individual contributors (IC) that took us to $1M in Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR), but then their growth stalled. These hires weren’t growing as rapidly as our startup which caused us to slow down to their own pace. When bandwidth became limited for one of our team members because of demand, the time to build a team underneath them became a priority. Unfortunately, this isn’t what the individual wanted, and it forced us to find a leader to take over, which isn’t easy to do at a rapid pace. Leadership roles naturally take longer to fill because of the smaller talent pool and need to be more selective.
In another instance, we had an amazing IC who was one of our first ten hires. However, as the team grew, we encountered challenges with their demeanor when they were working cross-functionally. When you are hiring for your initial team, it is important you consider not only how these individuals will perform early on, but also how they will work cross-functionally as you scale later down the road.
It’s real hard to predict which individuals will transition best as you scale, but below are two questions that can help add some clarity:
By asking these questions early, you’ll set your team up for the best chance at both short-term and long-term success.
Our biggest mistake in building our startup team was relying too heavily on referrals from one or two individuals. It is a unique situation that we ran into, but I still hope that this will help even one startup avoid copying our mistakes when thinking about their hiring decisions.
Let me clarify, referrals can be highly important for identifying and recruiting top-tier talent for your team. In our case, we were too relaxed and unaware of the potential negative consequences of building out a division on referrals from one solitary source.
Issues began to emerge when we brought on someone to the division who wasn’t from the initial referral source. Chemistry was immediately lacking between new hire and the tightly knit rest of the team, with the new hire constantly feeling like an outsider. In addition to this, when things didn’t work out for one of the initial hires from the division, the decision to part ways had a cascade effect on the other team members.
Again, this was a unique circumstance, but in recounting our mistake, I hope it will help other startups avoid over-indexing on one individual’s referrals when building a small team.
It’s even more important to set aside time getting to know your team when you aren’t physically sharing the same office. Not only are some members of our teams not in the same office, but some are even thousands of miles apart, located in different countries like the Philippines and Nicaragua.
There are a couple of easy habits and methods you can implement immediately to start getting to know your team better outside of the standard work emails and Zoom calls. Below are a few tips that I’ve employed to ensure this happens:
One of the best benefits of building a globally remote team is learning about all the different cultures and ways of life. If you approach such conversations with curiosity rather than what you’ll get out of it with your team, you’ll be on the right track.
It may sound cliche, but your team is everything and they will be the largest determinant to your startup’s success. If you implement even just one of the tips I’ve outlined, you’ll be leading a healthier, better motivated and more successful remote team.
How does a founder implement a growth framework to scale to their first million dollars in revenue?