I was in the privileged position a few years back to be leading a tech startup, which had the financial backing of some world-class early-stage investors. Their backing gave my company a decent runway of time and funding to hire the right team to help execute on my vision, which was to build a global B2B marketplace for the tourism and hospitality industry.
It was the summer of 2014, and I’d just closed the company’s largest funding round. The sun was shining, the World Cup was in full swing, and it felt like nothing could get in the way of 3BaysOver becoming The Next Big Online Thing (at least in the not-so-sexy world of B2B SaaS platforms).
Fast-forward 3 years, and I’d let go of everyone I’d hired and was sat in a meeting with a notary to begin winding down the business.
What went wrong?
Many things – as is usually the case when an ambitious young startup fails to achieve its vision. I may write more about that another time. But today I want to focus on what I consider to be the biggest overall lesson I came away with after trying – and not succeeding – to rapidly grow a global company from scratch. And it’s one I think too few startup founders are aware of.
Back when I was a startup newbie, I was convinced that the most successful startups all shared two key things in common (in addition to a stellar founding team, of course):
- They had a great product
- They were exceptionally good at sales and marketing
By extension, it stands to reason that successful startup founders need to be skilled in two things: building great products which rapidly achieve product-market fit, and running a highly optimized sales and marketing operation to get their product into the market and in front of customers.
It is not surprising therefore that a plethora of businesses exist whose sole aim is to support other companies’ efforts to build, market and sell their products. Think about all the tools that launch every day on Product Hunt and which display in neat little dashboards all the analytics and KPIs you could ever need in order to know how users are interacting with your product, where conversions in your sales funnel can be increased, and where your ad spend is yielding the best ROI.
At 3BaysOver, we struggled to build a sufficiently good product, so any sales and marketing efforts were that much more difficult because we weren’t showing potential users something which made them go “wow”. When I look back on my time leading the business, however, something different stands out as being the most challenging, the most time-consuming, and the most directly impactful part of my role as founder: hiring.
Contrary to popular belief, good hiring involves a lot more than posting a job ad then reviewing CVs and arranging interviews (in-house recruiters: I know you hear me!). This is especially the case for senior and/or specialized talent, where the best candidates are usually “passive” (ie. not actively looking for a new job; more on that below) and need to be actively hunted down in the market.
"When I look back on my time leading the business, something different stands out as being the most challenging: hiring"
For those less familiar, here’s a quick overview of the main steps involved in hiring talent:
- Identifying the best candidates in the market (Sourcing)
- Finding the right way to approach candidates and get them talking to you (Engaging)
- Evaluating candidates’ skills and character through a series of interviews, tests, and via referrals (Screening/Assessing)
- Deciding who makes the cut and gets an offer to join, then negotiating comp and contract details (Offer management)
- Integrating new joiners with the company, its culture, and its tools and processes (Onboarding)
- Ensuring new team members grow into their role, can reach their potential, and aren’t tempted to leave the company (Developing & Retaining)
So while a top-quality product and a solid sales and marketing operation are necessary for a young company to stand a chance of long-term success, I would argue that something critical is missing from the usual founder skillset evaluation: hiring skills.
First things first: yes, hiring is a skill! It is both art and science, where the best practitioners combine knowledge and experience with discipline and diligence. You can’t learn it from a book (or blog post), and you aren’t likely to be born a hiring rockstar. It’s something that is best learned on-the-job (which is why serial entrepreneurs have such an outsize advantage compared with first-time entrepreneurs), and happens to also be a skill that virtually no first-time founder has yet had the chance to develop (how many founders do you know with an HR background?).
When mistakes are made, letting go of bad hires can be a lot harder than launching a new feature or reallocating marketing budget from Facebook to Instagram. Bad hires cost you time and money, and can be damaging to team morale. To be sure, building a startup would be easier if talent could be A/B tested like marketing copy and if you could pivot key hires as you might do your USP; that you can’t only make the importance of good hiring decisions that much greater.
To make things even more challenging, hiring as a process isn’t limited only to who you hire. It involves other strategic questions like when you hire, which roles you prioritize, how you hire (“Should we outsource certain functions?”), what markets you hire from (“Are we prepared to relocate key talent?”), and what locations you hire for (“Should we open a new office?”).
In a forthcoming post, I’ll share some more detailed ideas about how founders can up their hiring game. For now, I want to share seven hiring tips for founders who are relatively new to the world of talent and recruitment, and whose hiring skills can still undergo some serious sharpening:
1. Always be engaging passive talent
Passive talent is those candidates who are happy in their current job and aren’t looking for something new. They are exactly who you need to be trying to hire because they tend to be the best at what they do. Finding and engaging such talent is difficult and time-consuming, but it’s the definition of a good investment because the payoff from a standout early hire is immense.
2. Put a solid recruitment process in place
Just because your company is small doesn’t mean you don’t need a process. If you think “process” means doing things slowly then think again: the right hiring process will both de-risk and speed up your recruiting. Make sure your candidate evaluation process includes behavioural interviews as well as functional ones, to ensure you’re testing not only for skills but also for cultural fit.
3. Diligently build your employer brand
Since early-stage startups usually operate under the radar and being hired into one takes a big leap of faith, it’s critical that you articulate your mission in a way that increases your company’s appeal to potential hires. Do this by telling your story in a compelling way on social media, by speaking at relevant conferences and events, and by building an inclusive and positive company culture.
4. Hire an in-house recruiter
At some stage, all successful startups will need to hire their first internal recruiter. Being immersed in your company’s culture means that internal recruiters can sell your company like no external one can. As a general rule, consider getting your own recruiter if you’re planning on hiring at least 15-20 people in the next 12 months. If you’re not ready for that yet, then try and get a recruitment expert on your board.
5. Partner with external hiring specialists
Working with external recruiters makes sense especially for senior or hard-to-fill roles, as well as for scaling your hiring capabilities during periods of rapid growth. Good external recruiters are experts at sourcing, engaging and screening passive talent, so they can save you a lot of time and effort. And few in-house recruiters have the expertise or network that a good external recruiter has. Their services don’t come cheap, but this is an investment that can quickly pay for itself many times over (disclosure: I work for 6 Group, which helps high growth companies attract and hire the right talent).
6. Compensate your talent generously
You should be frugal with nearly everything in your startup; compensation for top talent is an exception. And where you’ll want to be generous is with equity. Rather than being hung up over 0.1% more or less, think about whether this employee will improve your chance of success by at least that amount. When I hired my senior leadership team with 3BaysOver, I probably did not give them enough equity and, as a result, I think they felt more like employees than company owners.
7. Expect to make mistakes but take swift corrective action
You will not get 100% of your hires right. When it’s obviously not working, it’s better for everyone involved to part ways quickly, instead of hanging on to unrealistic hopes that things might improve. In other words, fire fast. Founders always learn this lesson too slowly, but they always learn it eventually.
Without a doubt, many startups fail because of poor hiring decisions. I believe this is due not only to a lack of hiring skills, but also to a lack of awareness of this key growth skill (the distinction is an important one). Making the right hiring decisions is even more important when you consider that the impact of early hires – be it positive or negative – is so much greater in a startup than in a larger company. I learned this first-hand as I saw some of my own hiring mistakes compound and eventually contribute to our failure.
It is widely accepted in Silicon Valley and beyond that success often comes not from breakthrough innovation but from flawless execution. If building a great product and operating a badass sales and marketing machine are considered the central tenets of sound execution, then surely a founder’s ability to select and motivate the right people to carry these out must be at least equally recognized.
How we can support your startup
6 Group's Client Partners, Anna Gromadzka and Steven Collins lead our Digital & Scaleups practice and partner with companies the world over to support all facets of their talent acquisition and management goals. This includes:
- Global Executive Search
- Talent Mapping & Pipelining
- Market & Competitive Intelligence
- Leadership Assessment & Development