This week my mind has been super grateful for the team we’ve built. As a small business owner or a startup founder, the journey of going from a solo-entrepreneur to hiring your first employee, and then the rest of your core team is one of the hardest, and most rewarding part of it all. However, I’ve made my share of mistakes, not knowing what to expect from my employees and have evolved into a performance & skill based assessment as I look to hire for every key role. In my decade-long tenure as a product leader at large companies to now hiring for multiple key roles in my own company, I have identified 5 important traits to look for when hiring your early employees.
1. Hunger to learn - If you’re looking to join a company to execute on your existing skills, and don’t necessarily demonstrate an intrinsic hunger to take on difficult challenges - be that technical, marketing, business development or something completely different from your core skillset, you’re likely not the right fit. Its super important for both the employee and employer to find multiple creative ways to assess this.
For example, when we hire engineers into our company - we’re of course assessing them on their technical foundation, but a startup is a chaotic environment with a lot of unknowns. We do this by not only asking the candidate to do a take-home assignment where they can apply their creative thinking to solve a not-so-simple problem, but also ask them to give us 2-3 examples of incidents, projects or actions they’ve taken in the past to hack a system or solve a problem in an unconventional way. From determining which technology stack needs to be developed in house - all the way to brainstorming cool growth hacks they can help develop in collaboration with the sales and marketing teams. A lot of times engineers are invited to even join customer calls so they can hear and empathize with our customers' pain points, first hand. Saying yes to new experiences, willingness to solve problems no one successfully has, and coming up with creative and unconventional ways to solve tough problems is the single most important trait I look for in all my key hires.
2. Hunger to Grow - This seems like a no brainer, however growth in a small business with a massive potential is much different from growth at a large company. Growth can be exponential in a startup, but also comes with an opportunity cost - and its crucial to understand what an employee deems as growth. When working for a large company, growth for many employees is measured by title, compensation, a promotion, managing a large team etc. This often comes with predictable hard work and regular check-ins with your manager ensuring you're working toward the next career milestone. In startups, for the right hires, growth can come within months, and sometimes in less than a year of being in a role. Title bumps, salary and equity grants to building and independently leading an entire function in your business - that’s common, for the right hires in the right roles.
Assessing the right fit is often demonstrated by what they’ve done in the past and/or currently doing. I don’t personally put a lot of weight on the answers someone gives at an interview - so I don’t care to ask typical behavioral questions. I like to throw a general statement at an employee, talk about some options I’ve heard from other hires and let the candidate convince me - through words, actions, research and effort. We’ve had some very senior members in our organization show me how they’ve (not once, but multiple times) built products and teams from scratch, while some others have taken the problem Criya is solving and in 24 hours developed some of the most impressive solutions, presentations, competitive analysis and pitches I’ve ever seen. The right candidates will take it to the next level. You’ll see it in their body language, output and energy.
3. Don’t hire managers: This was one of the first mistakes I made as a first time founder. I imagined I needed people with tons of experience who’d know exactly what they need to do when they come in to work with us. However, a lot of “extremely experienced” people have been years away from “doing the work”. And even though they might actually say the right words, show the right energy, express they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty - they can’t wait to get quickly to the point where they are hiring their team. Don’t get me wrong - we of course want to all grow the business and our teams along with it - but its super crucial for startup founders to weed through the “managers” vs “doers”. Willingness to get your hands dirty, “let me solve this myself”, “let me write that customer response, or fill that form, or do that research or work that call”.. That’s what you’re looking for. No work is too big or too small for a doer.
The way I assess this is by asking basic questions about their idea of growth. This isn’t to actually assess if they have a growth mindset, but really to see how they respond to this question. If their idea of growth is building a huge team, that’s a red flag. I’d rather they respond with how they’ve learned new skills, solved some really cool problems, driven x revenu/ROI to the company. That;s when I know I’m talking to someone who’s a passionate builder, and not a manager. They're my favorite people to grow into a fantastic managerial role!
4. Thrive without Structure - At a small company, with 10 - 25 employees, you are constantly innovating. You’re still building your bearings, you likely don’t have the best CRM systems and haven’t automated majority of our outbound sales, or are still building product with ways that don’t scale well. That’s the name of the startup game. People like us thrive in these spaces where structure is a barrier. We make things happen, without or without the best tools. And so we need people who can think on their feet, and evolve nifty ways to move to the next milestone.
We assess this by asking a problem we’re currently facing. For example, for our business, we’ve been looking to use a specific CRM system to handle the multiple leads that pour in each day. However a lot of CRM systems are built either for B2B companies, or need a lot of operational overhead to even get going. So, we decided (as the biz-dev arm) of the company to use webhooks and stream our user data to Airtable and “make it work”. At our scale, it was faster to do this, than to implement and maintain a more complex and sophisticated CRM system.
5. GRIT - Learning to fail, and learning from failures is part of the journey. At startups, we don’t make mistakes. We run experiments, place bets on hypothesis and constantly monitor feedback to make the next bet. If we’ve failed, its because we’ve not focused on the learning, the cause and symptoms, and instead focused on the aftermath of a failure. Learning to fail is an art in itself. Its like when you play a sport like basketball, you’re bound to fall several times during a game. However, learning to fall is a skill you master early on so you can endure what could be years of successful plays. However, if you don’t learn to fall right, you could injure yourself for the rest of your life.
That’s what we seek in candidates joining us. How candidates view failure is important. We’ve all had ups and downs. I want to know how you’ve (time and again) turned a “failure” into a learning experience, and paved your path to the next big milestone in your life.
At Criya, we’re not just building technology. We’re building a culture of growth and financial independence. Each and every one of our team members imbibe this as our core value and bring that into every conversation we have - with each other as well as with every customer we speak to. If you’ve thought about launching your own business, there’s no better team to learn from! Start your business with Criya, today!