Mark Harbottle: How to hire talent for start-ups

Published 26 November 2012 00:19, Updated 28 November 2012 06:02

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Mark Harbottle: How to hire talent for start-ups

Don’t hire start up staff if they live too far away, co-founder of 99Designs Mark Harbottle says.

At a start-up, recruiting mistakes in the early days can be costly. That’s why it’s incredibly important that the first group of founding employees tick a number of boxes. Here are my top seven “must haves” for taking the plunge and recruiting for your start-up.

First, skilled, versatile and grounded: The ideal start-up candidate is all three of these things. You want people who are skilful in key areas that you lack but at the same time versatile enough to move with the times and evolve with the business. Who knows? You might have to pivot two or three times before you nail your breakthrough moment but your people need to move with you. You also want people who are grounded enough to roll up their sleeves: there really is no room for ego in a start-up.

Second, loyal and motivated: When considering a candidate, ask yourself, “is this person likely to stick around and ride the ups and downs with me? Or are they just passing through for personal gain?” This can be a tough question to answer from the get-go because loyalty is built over time. Despite this, there are certain clues that can let you know if a candidate is being driven by personal motivations. You can find these in their employment history and movements between companies. You don’t want a founding team member leaving you the second they spot a new opportunity and taking a close look at someone’s employment history will help you decide whether your potential team members are likely to do this.

Third, passion (both for their work and your mission): The sure-fire way to find out if a person truly loves their job, and will love working for your start-up, is to determine if they would do it even if they weren’t getting paid. To get an idea of whether this is the case, I always look for examples of candidates’ personal projects – anything that shows they love what they do. Also, looking for signs that a candidate truly values what their business brings to the world will show you if their heart is really in it.

Fourth, flexibility: What personal commitments does the candidate have that may affect their ability to focus on your start-up? Can they afford to take a pay cut to work on the business? If so, for how long? There’s no way around it: your first few start-up employees will have to take a below-market salary to work for you. Are they likely to be asking you to adjust their salary in two or three months, or can they ride the ups and downs and grow with the business? Also, what else do they have going on? Can they pull long days and nights and weekends? Or do they have too much else going on in their personal lives? These are all questions worth asking before hiring for a start-up.

Fifth, likeability: Life is too short to work with people you don’t get along with: make sure every person you hire is someone you like. You don’t have to be best friends but if someone is likely to rub you or others up the wrong way, forget about hiring them. Culture is everything in a start-up and there’s no room for compromise, regardless of how talented someone might be.

Sixth, a bias for execution: Does the candidate have a history of rolling up their sleeves and getting things done? Or have they worked only in strategy type roles? Even if some projects your new employee has worked on have failed, it’s better to have hire someone who can execute rather than people who just strategise and shuffle spreadsheets.

Seventh, geographically convenient: Only hire people that live within a short commute to your office. This is especially important at the start-up phase of your business because you want your team to be spending between 50 and 60 hours a week together: any less and someone, somewhere is executing their business plans faster than you. You can’t afford to have your core team spending hours travelling each day or telecommuting; so much happens in a single day at a start-up that you need everyone within earshot every day.

The only exception to this is if your start-up is just you and you initially outsource certain projects to get something off the ground.

While it may seem like an impossible task to attract talent to your start-up, you’ll be surprised at how quickly it can come together if you know what you’re looking for and if you make it your personal mission to build a great team.

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