There are startups I’ve started, startups I’ve worked for, startups I’ve consulted for, and startups I’ve just plain hung out and had beers with. In each of those cases, I’ve had multiple opportunities to hire or help hire into those startups. It’s a process that can take many forms and several indirect routes to get to the same place.
It’s also tricky as hell.
When done right, hiring can alleviate a ton of pressure on the company, and promote exponential growth. Bring on the right people, and they’ll more than pay you back in innovation, dedication, and a healthy boost to the bottom line.
When done wrong, hiring can actually bring a company down.
Early Days: co-founders, employees
The startups that I’ve founded personally from my own idea have always been the most daunting, not because of the execution or the hard work, but because I’m ultimately the one responsible for the survival of the company. Every decision is mine alone to make, and while that seems like Utopia when you’re sitting in a cube doing someone else’s work, it’s never an easy place to be.
That grass gets less greener real quick.
I always try to bring in a second player as soon as possible. However, the concept of co-founding is overused and misunderstood. I’m in total agreement that a company started by more than one founder has a greater chance of success. The shared risk and responsibility, along with what is hopefully a diversity of talent on each side, makes those survival jitters seems less paralyzing.
But you should limit the situations where you pick up a co-founder. Specifically, a co-founder should be someone who not only brings a unique combination of talent and experience to the table, but also has at least one new idea and a roadmap to get that idea into reality. Oh, and most importantly, that idea should be one that the company could not otherwise exist without.
I’ve seen companies with four or more co-founders, and I can’t imagine that each one was essential in building the idea to a level that a company could be sprung out of it.
The cofounding equation, dumbed-down, should look like this:
“I’ve been working on X and I think it will be huge.”
“What a coincidence, I’ve been working on Y and I think it will be huge.”
“You know, if we combine X and Y it could be megahuge.”
“Agreed. Let’s map this out.”
In most (not all) other cases, what seems like a co-founder should probably be employee #1. This doesn’t happen for a couple of reasons.
The first and most likely is the lack of ability to get a first management hire on board who is sharp and dedicated enough to make that exponential growth happen, but is also risk-averse enough and – this part is crucial – believes in your idea enough to take on startup hours and startup risk for startup pay.
In these cases, the term co-founder is dangled to underline the reward for this buy-in. It’s an easy fix. But this is a false label, and it will come back to bite you. A founder who did not found is just not going to be as dedicated to the success of the idea, and could likely be the first one to start the pivot conversation in the experimental days. And guess what? If they’re part of the founding team, their opinion carries a lot of weight.
The second most-likely reason for bringing aboard a non-founding co-founder is technical skills – and as a technical founder I’ve thankfully avoided this and I wince when it happens. In my mind, a technical co-founder should not be brought on just because they can code and you can’t.
If your idea has merit, there are a couple things you must do in this circumstance.
• You can learn enough code to get your idea to MVP and build enough traction to hire a coder as employee #1. That’s still a theory of hot debate, but one for which I believe the time has come.
• You can also raise enough money to get the idea coded to MVP, which, by the way, will also serve to test the validation your idea, even if it’s just you considering maxing out credit cards or selling stuff to take on the financial risk yourself.
• And finally, well, you can refine the explanation of your idea and business model to a point where any coder with some sense would kill to be in that employee #1 role.
Not there yet? Gut-check your idea before you start giving very important titles away.
All of three of those measures, and especially the last one, are going to continue to get you through the hiring process, by the end of which you should have a management team that is awesome, dedicated, and passionate.
If you can’t get this together, you need to look at contractors.
In every startup I’ve started and most of those that I’ve worked for, the first dozen or so employees have either been passionate believers in the idea or paid mercenaries whose fees I could make up on margin.
At some point, the lines begin to blur between talent, buy-in, and cost. In every case, I’d rather pay more for undedicated, easy-to-jettison A-level contractors than pay less for B-level talent or start hiking up my burn for A-levels who aren’t totally sold into the idea enough to take a pay cut.
Yes, eventually you are going to have to start hiring and paying A-level talent to come on board full time, but this should never happen until the company has a solid, bought-in early team with a generous stake in the company. It should also never happen until revenue is there, recurring, and you have a bright outlook for the next 12 to 24 months.
In other words, at that point you’re no longer early stage, but growth stage, and the hiring process is a whole different animal with a whole new set of problems.
But believe me, they’re good problems to have.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resourceExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com