What to Look for in Job Candidates When Hiring for Your Startup

It’s no secret that your startup will only be as good as the people you hire to help grow and run it. The secret is knowing what to look for in candidates so you hire the right ones. Chances are, your startup will not be able to hire the best people unless it has millions of dollars in financing, where “best” is defined as the best educated, best experienced, best connected, and with the best track records. However, the “best” people are rarely the right people for a startup.

When I was hiring for my first startup, one of my role models gave me some sage advice. He said:

“Big companies hire extraordinary people and force them to do ordinary work. Startups hire ordinary people and give them the opportunity to do extraordinary work.”

In this context, “ordinary” does not mean average…blah…run of the mill people – because everyone is extraordinary in some way. He meant it to mean people in the job pool who don’t necessarily stand out on paper. In fact, he would emphasize, a startup founder should NOT hire based solely on a candidate’s skills and credentials, or worse, outsource hiring to a recruiter. A startup founder MUST meet each promising candidate in person and spend quality time with him or her other than in an interview setting, to ascertain his or her character and will.

And this leads me to relay the rest of his advice on what to look for when hiring people for a startup:

Look for that which cannot be taught.

Startups are a special breed of employers. They are not suited for most people. Startups can’t hire people like big, well-established organizations, hire people. They must hire them based on unique “fit” with the vision and the team. A startup can’t simply try to match each position to each candidate’s skills… even their soft skills. Lots of people talk about “soft skills,” but even most of those can be taught. A startup needs to hire people who have what cannot be taught and those things are uniquely suited to benefit the startup and compliment the team.

To set the stage for what “that” is, let’s agree on three broad criteria for every single hire:

1. Can she do the job?

2. Will she do the job?

3. Can we stand to work with her while she does the job?

So, number 1 is the criteria by which most companies hire against. Well-established companies have recruitment down to a science. They are very good at assessing how competent a candidate is and his or her track record. They also look at certain soft skills, like how well the candidate communicates, if the candidate is a team player, and how likeable the candidate is. These are all teachable things and, by the way, easy to fake. Most companies rarely look at criteria 2 and 3, because they are too subjective – very difficult to quantify.

In a startup, recruitment is not a science, it’s an art…a feeling, a sense of a person. A person who will hopefully become family. So, a smart startup will consider criteria #1, but not give it as much weight as criteria #2 and #3. A startup cannot afford even one bad hire. Hiring someone who is eminently qualified, but doesn’t do the job for one reason or another, or is a pain in the ass, could be catastrophic.

To ascertain whether a candidate will not only do the job, but do it amazingly well AND be a joy to work with, requires knowing whether he or she possesses attributes which cannot be taught. Things like personality, disposition, motivation, drive, curiosity, trust, integrity, empathy, work ethic and enthusiasm. There are a number of ways to learn this with a fairly high degree of assurance that these things are indeed part of a person’s character and not being faked.

Personality and Behavior Assessment

I am a big fan of DiSC. In fact, I have found it so useful in my career for recruiting and team building, I became a certified coach and facilitator. I use it today with my clients to screen candidates and advise on improving company culture. You can learn more about DiSC here: http://www.disc.startupbiz.com/. Note: If you want a complimentary assessment on your own leadership style and behavioral dispositions, I would be happy to do one for you.

Non-Traditional Reference Checking

In my experience, the references a candidate puts down on his or her resume provide little insight. They check off certain boxes, like, “The candidate worked for me as a [blank] from [blank] to [blank] and did a good job.” No candidate is going to list a reference that doesn’t say she did a good job. In most cases, traditional references know a person’s work history, but don’t know much about the person.

Ask the candidate to give you the name and contact information for a person they did not get along with at their last job. Ask for the name of a teacher or professor they had that they liked the least. Ask if you can speak with their best friend, or a sibling. First, their reaction to you asking can tell you a lot about them. Second, speaking with non-traditional references allows you to do a deeper dive into what really makes that person tick.

Empath Reading

I know people who are empaths. You may think it a black art, but I have seen it work firsthand. There are some people who have a gift for reading others and their energy. I have a person like this in my life and I have her meet my prospective employees and partners. Her instincts are uncanny and she picks up on things I am not able to read in a person. Learn more about empaths here: https://ed.ted.com/on/bmTx74ld

Try Before You Buy

The best advice I can give you is to hire people on a contract basis BEFORE hiring them for a full-time position. In my last startup we hired more than 100 people. In most cases, we required each hire to work on a three-month contract before extending him or her a permanent job. In about 20% of the cases, we did not end up hiring the people because we learned during the contract period they would not be a good fit. People can fake it for a few interviews, but no one can fake it for 90 days of high contact with the entire team, and highly scrutinized work effort.

Social Event

A person’s true personality and outlook on people and life often comes out in a social setting. At my second startup we had a social every Friday afternoon at 3 pm. Sometimes there was a theme and employees and their guests were invited to dress up. We always invited new candidates to these socials. They were great recruitment tools – what person doesn’t want to work for a fun company that throws a party every week – and the socials were a great opportunity for us to assess each candidate on a different level than can be assessed in interviews. After each social, my employees would confide how much they liked the person, or how much they did not like the person, at least for the position we were hiring for.

In summary, when hiring for your startup, don’t just look for how qualified a candidate is in terms of skills and experience, because you can teach almost anyone what they need to know to do almost any job. Look for the things that you can’t teach them, but are important for them to have for your startup to be successful. Happy Hiring!