Hiring
  •  
September 8, 2020

Taking Your Early-Stage Hiring From 0 to 1

Daniel Marcinkowski

On May 13th, we hosted another Talking Talent webinar. This time, we invited the founders of three startups: Christian Eggert of Back, Max Koziolek of Spectrm, and ACELR8's own Michael Varley. We discussed with them how early-stage startups scale up and get their hiring from 0 to 1.

If you would like to watch the event again, you can do so on our YouTube channel. Keep reading the article for some highlights from the event.

How did you get your first hires onboard?

Max: 

  • Mainly from personal networks. I had some friends that I knew that are natural salespeople who can sell anything. We tried with LinkedIn as well, where we had one lucky shot — I was searching for a specific person that had experience in natural language processing, at the moment our idea was new and rare, and that person was willing to meet and we hired that person. That was a random LinkedIn message, and he joined and is our top performer. You need luck!

Michael: 

  • A lot of random circumstances, such as meeting my first hire from my soccer team. Furthermore, a lot of success through several platforms such as AngelList. The key is, when you are selling the company, to be completely honest and not being over-the-top was a great filter to get out the real builders. 

Christian: 

  • By building trust. You persuade people by laying out your vision and how you get there. Also, we used our network a lot, not to hire from directly, but to identify great people within those networks.
How do you stand out compared to more established startups?

Christian: 

  • Ultimately, you are selling something completely different. You should be talking with the candidate about their expectations from the job. Tell the story of your company to the potential hires.

Michael: 

  • Being honest and vulnerable to the candidates — share that you don’t know how to do certain things, that will attract the best people.

Max: 

  • You want people who don't mind getting their hands dirty. People joining an early-stage startup want to get broad knowledge, not just focus on one thing like in a bigger company. The learning curve is much steeper. You joined a company, but most importantly, you joined a team.
'You want people who don't mind getting their hands dirty'
How do you identify great startup talent?

Max: 

  • That’s the crucial thing and something that everyone tries to master with every hire. One group already knows that they want to join a startup and what comes with it. The other group are people who are not familiar with what startups are and they are not very excited about the idea of working for one. You want to have people who are willing to hop onto the roller coaster. 
  • I would always look for the growth mentality. If they already have the experience, you can figure out their skills and knowledge during an interview. 
  • If you’re looking for a specific skill, you can adjust your challenge so that you can assess if the candidate has it. One of my favourite questions is "What’s your favourite chatbot?" because it reveals if they are excited about working for our company.'

Michael: 

  • It’s important to know what kind of people you want to attract in the first place. In the beginning, I really liked hiring weird people — people with energy who can go with the ups and downs and are resilient. Search for a ownership mentality — early-stage is not a normal job. 
  • My favourite interview question to identify startup talent is: “what would you do if you were the CEO of their previous company.”’
  • Ask experts in your network for information and involve them in the interview process, as you will not be able to assess every role as founder.

Christian: 

  • It comes down to one thing. Are you really excited to bring this person on board? You want to have people who are changers and won’t be complaining. 
  • What we found helpful was a technique that we call nurturing — before you start hiring, start asking experts. Ask them: how are you doing your interviews? What are tricks you learned in your interviews? What are questions that separate the great talent from average talent? 
‘My favourite interview question to identify startup talent is: “what would you do if you were the CEO of their previous company.”’
How do you balance being selective and meeting business deadlines (so how selective can early-stage startups be)?

Max: 

  • You hire a person always too late, so you will always be behind your deadline.
  • If you have to quickly fill a role because there’s not enough support for your customers, make no compromises on the cultural fit. Otherwise, you can ruin your team and company’s culture. 
  • I’d make a little compromise on skills. You can assess their skills in a challenge.
  • I’d compromise on experience. If they are smart and willing to learn, they can learn the job on the way. 

Christian: 

  • Be very selective in the beginning — you’re building the foundations of your company’s culture. 
  • Be creative in your setups to reach your goal. Think about freelancers, levels of seniority, being flexible in the job titles.
  • Bringing on a freelancer can save you months. We did this by bringing onboard ACELR8. We wanted to have a good recruiting function, which is really crucial. That would take me 3 months, but with ACELR8 and we brought a very experienced recruiter onboard fast.

Michael: 

  • Try hiring freelancers to cover things like web development or design. You will probably make the wrong hires. Make sure that you saw enough people for the position and you know what "great" looks like.
'Be very selective in the beginning — you’re building the foundations of your company’s culture.'
What piece of advice would you give to founders that are going through a similar stage of growth?
  • Christian: 'Be involved in hiring. Getting the right people is crucial. You will be amazed by the sweat you have to put into making a good hire.'
  • Michael: 'Spend more time with the team to pass your knowledge onto them. Try to look for what excellence looks like.'
  • Max: 'All of the mistakes that we made in hiring came from hiring someone that we were not excited about. You will feel if the person is the right match as a founder.'
'Getting the right people is crucial.'

Q&A

What do people need to do if they want to join an early-stage startup like yours? Any special tips during COVID—19 pandemic?
  • Christian: 'There are so many websites listing companies that are currently hiring — they are a great first step. Employers are interested in your work and what you are doing. I’d pick five companies that you want to work for and research each of them.'
  • Michael: 'Directly reach out to people that you want to work for. Build genuine relationships with people in the industry. Try to send 2-3 emails a week to people that you admire. You would be surprised at how open people in the tech industry are.'
  • Max: 'Be mindful of the challenges that the market is facing now. I would start building stuff. Build a blog, Github repository, or something related to the kind of company that you want to work for, especially now. Show that to your dream company and they will be willing to talk.'
'Try to send 2-3 emails a week to people that you admire. You would be surprised at how open people in the tech industry are.'
What's your view on the C-level roles within a startup? Is this one for the founders to automatically fill?
  • Christian: 'It depends on what kind of startup you are funding. There are a lot of questions that are difficult to answer. At Back, we don’t give C-titles in the company since they don’t mean much.'
  • Max: 'In SaaS companies, you have really well-defined titles. It’s easy to give out a fancy title, but they don’t mean much. You don’t want to have only senior-level people. Avoid giving out titles as much as you can.'
  • Michael: 'If somebody is looking for a C-level title, be transparent and honest with them. C-levels can change the culture and mentality of your company. Try to be strategically-minded about your culture.'
In which stage should I hire the first person coming from corporate companies?
  • Christian: 'There’s risk involved coming from how corporates work. It depends on your company and your clients. If you need someone with expertise in a specific market, you may need them from the beginning.'
  • Max: 'We have people with corporate experience who were mostly engineers. Having a good name for the interview doesn’t mean that the person has the necessary skills.'
  • Michael: 'It’s good to have a diversity of people who worked in different environments.'
How much are you, as founders, involved in the hiring process and who is the ultimate decision-maker: you or the team?
  • Michael: 'If I would go back, I would try to pass as much knowledge onto the newly-hired people as possible. Be open-minded. It’s a big learning process that involves all the time.'
  • Christian: 'Usually, one of the founders is a Hiring Manager. At least one founder should interview the candidate. You want to give the ability to the team leads. The founder needs to talk to the person. As a founder, you have an overview of the culture that you want to build.'
  • Max: 'What you don’t want is saying ‘no’ if everyone else is saying "yes". Don’t design a process when you go head-to-head with the team.'

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