What Qualifications Do You Look For In A Startup Employee

By Benjamin Powell

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Bad hires can be expensive for a company. Employees who do not fit the role you hired them for, not only cost the company financially, but they can also bring down the productivity and morale of your team. For a bootstrapped startup, such recruits can deal a devastating blow.

One of the popular maxims in Silicon Valley is “hire slow, fire fast”. That is, startups should be careful while hiring new employees, but should be quick to fire someone who does not fit. But hiring can be quite an arduous task. Startup roles are demanding and often require employees to don multiple hats at work. This makes the job of a recruiter challenging because you may not know all the different roles that an employee will be required to handle. How do you draft a job description for a role that is so diversified?

As someone who has managed a startup team of wonderful employees for several years now, here are some key lessons that we have learned through this time.

Peer benchmarking

The first step in building a job description is identifying the fundamental skills your employee must have. This includes the technologies that a prospective employee has experience in, along with other hard and soft skills that are important to the role. One quick way to build a list of such skills is peer benchmarking. One strategy that has worked for us is to look for jobs posted on niche industry portals instead of those published on sites like Monster or Indeed. These portals have a lot more depth in the kind of openings they have compared to the wide range of profiles you see on horizontal job portals. A peer benchmarking study will give you an idea of the wide range of skills that a candidate must have (or be willing to learn) to qualify for the role.

Industry Exposure

Startups need people who are fantastic in their jobs. But do not hire people on their technical prowess alone. Exposure to the industry you are operating in is equally valuable. An employee who has a firm grasp of the industry can be a strategic asset and can serve a wide range of responsibilities that are beyond the scope of the role they are hired for. This is extremely valuable in a startup that does not have veteran founders to steer the team. Also, employees with such exposure are helpful if your startup has to pivot midway, which happens more often than you might expect.

Founding Experience

It is a common misconception in the job market that candidates who have spent too much time “outside the system” running their own business are not employable. This is partially true in the case of enterprise recruitment where experience is measured by the number of years a candidate has spent in a specific job role. Startups hiring candidates, however, should value applications from such candidates. These are candidates who are ready to hustle and do not shy away from getting their hands dirty on the job. A startup founding experience demonstrates this ability to hustle. As a matter of fact, a number of successful businesses (including the likes of Google and Facebook) routinely ‘acqui-hire’ tiny startups that have great hustlers in the founding team.

Side Projects

You may be limiting your pool quite significantly by only including applications from people with startup founding experience. The general rule of thumb while hiring a startup employee is to find someone who is passionate, ‘ready to learn’ and ‘not afraid to get their hands dirty’. Requesting your applicants to share their side projects is a great way to evaluate their passion in the industry or role they are applying for. For instance, coders routinely contribute to open source projects or run their own side projects. While side projects are generally frowned upon (since they may take the employee’s focus away from your own business), it is a good idea to encourage such projects, as long as they are not directly in competition with your business. This way, your employees may work on projects they are passionate about which helps them to learn and contribute in your own business.

Hiring a great startup employee goes beyond these guidelines. Most importantly, your employee must be a cultural fit for your organization. But this is something that can only be evaluated after a face-to-face round of interview. The guidelines provided above should help a startup business draft their job description and help filter candidates based on what has been provided to them in the applicant’s resume.

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