How to Hire Your First Employees as an Early Stage Founder
May 1, 2023
As your company grows, the to-do list grows exponentially longer. Simply working longer hours is not the answer. Most founders can work, at most, 20% more in a given day.
But bringing the right person on board doubles the output, which means hiring is the best way to leverage your capital and the only way you’ll grow sustainably.
A lot of founders try to replicate what big brands like Google do when it comes to hiring. But startups can’t recruit like the Amazons or Metas of the world. They don’t have the brand, team, or budget.
The point is recruiting is not one size fits all.
In this guide to hiring for startup growth, I’ll cover several best practices for recruiting before you have a well-known brand. I’ve learned these lessons as a three-time founder and have used to build the fantastic team at Pulley.
Use them as a jumping-off point for building your own strategy, but keep in mind that the important thing is to figure out what works for you, and run with it.
Get super clear on role requirements, outcomes, and expectations
Putting the right people in the right seats is mission-critical, and starts with establishing clear expectations and requirements for each role.
Before you dive into creating job descriptions or ad copy, nail down answers to these questions:
What are the crucial outcomes expected of a person in this role?
How does success in this role ladder up to our success as a business?
What key characteristics, skills, or experience does a person need to be successful in this role?
How will the person in this role collaborate with other team members?
Hiring for a role you've never done? That's okay! Talk to five people you respect who are currently in this role.
If you don’t have five contacts to draw on immediately, find where the best people in this field work (i.e. Meta in 2015 for product or Square for finance) and source from there to improve your signal-to-noise ratio.
Use the questions above to learn what great looks like from their perspective, then collate their answers and reformulate them into role expectations written in your own words.
Outsourcing to recruiters
Before you do anything, establish role requirements, expectations, and outcomes. It’s a non-negotiable first step whether you’re hiring on your own or outsourcing to a recruiter.
Recruiters are effective only if both sides invest the time upfront to define what good looks like.
Here’s how to approach outsourcing to recruiters:
Come to the table with role expectations laid out clearly
Write out the screening questions
Provide examples of what good responses look like
Negotiate a compensation scheme that rewards the firm for successful hiring. Fees range from a flat rate to 10-30% of first-year comp (negotiable in this market).
This approach reduces financial risk and works well if you stay engaged. A debrief with your recruiter after each interview is essential for maintaining this engagement.
At Pulley, we worked with Dover on this basis to place great folks in product and design.
Sweat over your job description
Your job description is your first impression for potential hires; don’t gloss over the details.
Your goal when crafting a JD is to find the balance between concision and detail. It should communicate the expectations and outcomes you’ve outlined in the previous stage but be succinct enough to fit on one page.
Take this framework and make it your own:
Company: Give some background on your service or product, mission, and team.
Role: Discuss the expectations and requirements of the role.
Outcomes to drive: Describe what defines success for this role.
Benefits and perks: Outline your full comp package.
You don’t need to start from scratch here. Copy from the best.
Take inspiration from job descriptions created by companies you admire and mimic their style.
Promote your job opening broadly
“If you write it, they will apply” doesn't happen. You need to promote the opening like you promote your product:
Promote broadly on LI and Twitter
Leverage your existing network (ask them to share your job ad to maximize reach)
Look for candidates on Github and Reddit
Supplement inbound approaches like job ads with outbound strategies. You and your team's networks are the first places to source.
Sit down with every hire & walk through their LinkedIn. Ask who's good (not who's looking) and reach out. At Pulley, we host LinkedIn sessions for high-priority roles. We invite team members to hop onto Zoom, share the high-level job description and requirements, and ask everyone to send across potential candidates.
Worst case: it's not a fit, and nothing has changed. Best case: you fill the role.
Reach out to anyone who might be a fit, and ask for past hacks or writing samples to evaluate passion and skill, rather than making assumptions based on brands they’ve worked for.
Bear in mind, of course, that great candidates are expensive or taken, and usually both. Work within your means, and if it's not a fit based on remuneration, keep the door open. There might be an opportunity to revisit at a later point.
Respond immediately to inbound leads
Speed is the biggest advantage you have as a startup. FAANG doesn't respond on Christmas. You can.
Inbound applicants (from your ads) are your warmest leaders. The fact that they’ve applied signals intent they’re in the market to jump ship.
Move quickly with these candidates. Respond on the same day where possible, and schedule an interview or screening test immediately.
You can run twice as fast as bigger companies and close a great applicant while other companies dally.
Write like a human
Personalized outbound emails will always get a better response. Don't shy away from being opinionated; it could help you stand out.
When crafting email copy, write just how you communicate with your team. This will help you attract the right kind of people, and differentiate your outreach amid a sea of To whom it may concerns.
Expect a long-term game when sourcing execs
Sourcing executives is a different ball game to standard hires. Give yourself a timeline of six months or more for these hires to set realistic expectations and to prevent hasty decisions. The success rate for hiring execs is 50/50, so screen carefully.
Having been through this process a few times now, I’d highly recommend looking for an executive recruiting firm with partners who bring existing connections.