January 4, 2017

Four Ways to Find (and Keep) the Perfect Startup Team

We tend to believe that ideas are startups’ currency. Those that have the best technology, the most funding or the shiniest new products are the ones that are destined to succeed. This mindset overlooks what is actually the most important resource of every startup: people.

It seems obvious, but the startups that are destined to succeed are actually the ones with the best people. Knowing this, the question then becomes “how do we recruit and retain the best employees?”

There’s no doubt that spending a significant amount of time on recruiting can make executives feel like they’re ignoring “more important” aspects of their job. Realizing that there is nothing more important than identifying and hiring the best people should ease this burden. 

Below are four personnel strategies that can apply to any early-stage startup. They’re broken down into the three distinct areas that are critical for small companies: identifying the right talent, hiring those people and keeping them for the long run.

Identify Talent: Focus On the People Behind the Resumes

In any job, co-workers that get along are positive assets for the team as a whole. Within the small team driving a startup, striking the right balance of strengths and personalities that each teammate brings to the table is a critical endeavor. Hire employees that will fit and expand your company’s culture, work openly with the team and keep up with your startup’s fast pace. Above all, hire people you’ll still want to hang out with after work – that spirit of camaraderie will help form the heart of your business.

Once you’ve identified and hired people, let them be who they are. Don’t try to bring them in line with heavy-handed discipline or requirements. Walk that fine line between giving achievers the tools and structure they need and pushing them too hard towards an environment that can be stressful.

Hire Talent: Look to Experience First

 When it comes to management, experience is the most important criterion. There is absolutely no replacement for the experience of having (successfully) navigated the startup rollercoaster in the past.

Sure, there are some natural leaders that can step into a management role and become a valuable asset on Day One, but it is more likely that new managers will have growing pains and make mistakes that startups just can’t afford. This isn’t a knock on them, however; there are very few startups that can afford to stick with someone through the rocky early management experience. Let another company train your leaders at first, then after the company has grown and matured, you can better afford to nurture your own. 

Retain Talent: Be Clear and Open

One of the biggest advantages of an early startup environment is that the team is likely small, and everyone should be focused on a very clear purpose – getting a product to market, developing a technology, etc. Every single person affects the company’s success, so buy-in almost comes naturally.

Take advantage of this situation to avoid a couple common problems that larger organizations face. First, communicate clearly. Create that setting where responsibilities are clearly laid out, and questions are encouraged and answered truthfully and openly. 

Second, when problems and issues inevitably arise, tackle them quickly and head-on. The team you have carefully curated deserves honest communication, even if a message is tough to hear. While they might not always agree with your decisions, knowing the reasons behind them will create an atmosphere of trust that employees appreciate.  

Motivate Talent: Offer the Right Incentives

No article on startup hiring would be complete without mentioning infamous startup perks. Everyone has a crazy story of what some early-stage startup offered to attract employees and keep them happy. A kegerator in the kitchen, hammocks for naptime, unlimited gourmet ice cream, the list goes on and on. 

While perks like this are nice, they aren’t what attract talented employees and keep them around. In fact, these perks become an afterthought during those inevitable times when works piles up and deadlines loom. The type of employee that succeeds in – and contributes to – a startup is generally motivated by more concrete things than a high-end cotton candy machine. 

It all starts with goals: working with employees to identify meaningful targets, giving them input – and even control – into how to accomplish them, and clearly measuring progress is one of the best motivators around. A culture of achievement, built around intense, but achievable goals, is the “perk” that helps keep the type of team members that you want (and need) in a startup.

Working at an early-stage startup isn’t for everybody. The lifestyle, challenges and demands require a specific type of person. Identifying, recruiting and keeping these people is perhaps your most important job as a leader. By taking it seriously, and following these recommendations, your company will have a leg up as it moves from startup to established business.

Lazarus Vekiarides is the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of ClearSky Data.  Follow him on Twitter: @lazvek.