Starting Up Part 1: Hiring Employees with the Startup Mentality

By Ryan Ayers

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Now that you’ve taken the big, scary step of turning your startup dreams into reality, it’s time to start thinking about hiring your team. Up until now, you may have been able to handle all the work yourself, but you won’t be able to keep that up forever—you’ll need to bring on people to fill in your knowledge gaps and help you get your business off the ground. Choosing your first employees doesn’t necessarily mean finding the most experienced team members. Startups require certain skill sets and personalities that go beyond years of experience. So what should you look for? Here are 7 traits to look for when hiring your initial team.

1. Flexibility

The only guarantee at a startup is that everything will always be changing. Hiring someone who does not adapt to these changes will drag your team down early on and prevent your business from growing in the directions it needs to. In the early days of your company, the team will be small enough that everyone will need to do a little bit of everything and take on tasks not spelled out in their job descriptions. Employees should be ready and willing to jump in wherever needed—even if that means taking on a task they’ve never attempted before. Don’t hire people who just do what they’re told—choose the self-starters.

2. Innovation

The founder can’t come up with all the ideas at a startup, and your team will contribute many of the ideas that build your business. However, there are many talented, hardworking individuals who are not interested in contributing new ideas or taking the initiative on innovation. Studies show that 74% of executives believe that innovation is more important for long-term success than cost reduction. At least in the beginning, choose employees who have great ideas—and aren’t afraid to share them.

3. Energy & Ambition

Building a startup great is hard work, and it’s not for everyone. Your core group of people will face long hours, pressure, frustration, disappointment, and many, many changes. To withstand the stress, your team will need to be energetic and ambitious to avoid burnout and keep their eye on the goals rather than the difficulty of the journey. Ambitious people are perfect for startup culture, because as time goes on, you will likely be able to create a role that blends their skills and passions, even if the role isn’t needed right away.

4. Emotional Intelligence

Your first employees are likely to become the leaders in your organization as your team grows, so look for traits that correlate with strong leadership qualities, like emotional intelligence. Though not a skill that is easily measured, emotional intelligence is just as important as a high IQ. According to Brandeis University, emotional intelligence accounted for 58% of success in jobs, far outweighing over 30 other skills considered. On top of this, 90% of top performers in the workplace were high in emotional intelligence. With numbers like these, you should definitely consider emotional intelligence as a key trait to look for in your workforce.

These may be compelling arguments for hiring emotionally intelligent people, but what are the traits to look for? The study identifies emotional intelligence as a combination of the following qualities:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation/Self-Control
  • Empathy
  • Motivation
  • People Skills

While it is important to hire people with the appropriate “hard” skills needed for the job, emotional intelligence is what makes candidates really rise to the top and serve your company.

5. Confidence

Prospects who have no failures to admit may not have taken any professional risks. Why is this a problem? Because startups involve a lot of trial and error. The confidence to try new things and the humility to admit when something isn’t working are key traits in successful startup employees. Confident people tackle problems when they come up, reach for the stars, and never stop learning.

6. Tech Skills

Not everyone on your team will be a developer, of course, but everyone on your team should be comfortable with using a computer and basic troubleshooting, no matter what their job involves. Almost every new business will involve daily work on a computer, and someone who does not feel comfortable with tech simply won’t be a good fit for the vast majority of startups. Look for a robust digital presence—this shows how prospective employees keep up with the latest trends in technology and know how to build a digital presence your business is looking for.

7. Collaboration

Your first employees will become part of a tight-knit team, all working toward a common goal. In order to evaluate and make changes as you go along, you’ll need to work closely together and collaborate on next steps for the company. For this reason, a team player will be more successful as a new startup hire than someone who prefers to work totally independently.

Your New Team

Becoming one of the first members of a startup team isn’t easy, and it’s important to choose your employees carefully—they will be key in defining your success. As Entrepreneur notes:

“Seeking the startup team is not a search for people who ask where the manual is. Rather it's a hunt for people to write the manual.”

During the hiring process, ask the questions that matter to you and your business, not just boilerplate interview material. You don’t want to spend your time babysitting your team—spend your time creating and refining your vision by hiring a fantastic team and investing in the long-term vision. Good luck, and trust your instincts!


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