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Startup Hiring Pointers

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I’ve been in the startup business for a pretty long time now.  One of the things that I’ve found hardest to do is find and recruit exceptionally talented individuals.  This is not particularly surprising, I think all businesses (big and small, young and old) have this challenge.  However, I think this challenge is particularly acute for startups.

5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring

Here are some of my thoughts and ideas on the whole startup recruiting process.  [Side note: I prefer the word “recruiting” instead of “hiring”, but hiring is more widely used and I’m ranked #1 on Google for the term startup hiring and want to maintain that].

  1. The Idea Will Change:  You probably don’t want to recruit people based too strongly on the idea you are pursuing now.  As passionate as you may be about the idea, chances are, it’s going to change.  The right individual will continue to be the right individual even when this change happens.
  1. Help The Best Find YouI’m not a particularly big fan of the classic recruiting channels for one simple reason:  they are not that effective. It’s very inefficient to go out into the world “looking” for that perfect new person for your startup.  The odds of you finding them and convincing them to join you are slim to none.  Instead, I prefer the reverse.  Instead of spending a lot of time going out there looking for the perfect person, invest in activities to help that perfect person find you.  For example, for my current startup, HubSpot, I haven’t been particularly good at going out and finding people.  I have been good and having great people find me.  This is a result of a limited set of activities:  this blog, the HubSpot blog on Internet Marketing, and local startup activities I participate in.  In short, in order to get the best people, you have to help them find you.  This is particularly challenging, because many of the best people are not looking.
  1. What Can You Do For Them?  Too many companies hire based mostly on what they think the new recruit can bring to them.  This is the “what can they do for me” line of thinking.  This is not totally wrong because part of the goal of bringing new people on is clearly to “create value” for the company.  But, I think this is short-sighted.  In addition to asking yourself “what can they do for me?”, also ask:  “What can my startup bring to them?”   Now, many of you may jump to the conclusion that this is “big company thinking”.  Only big companies can afford things like career paths, training programs and other benefits to help develop their employees.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  What I’m driving at is that you need to find ways that the new team member can benefit from your startup that they may not be able to get elsewhere.  Things like greater responsibility, broader use of their capabilities (perhaps they want to do technology and marketing), expanding their personal network should they want to start their own company some day, etc.  At some level, you are playing a passion arbitrage game.  You don’t have the resources to give new hires all the benefits of a larger company.  You shouldn’t try to.  Instead, find people that are passionately looking to get an experience that only you can deliver.  Then, deliver it.
  1. Specialists vs. Generalists:  My co-founder and I have this ongoing debate/discussion on whether it is better for startups to hire specialists (i.e. people that are exceptionally good at one thing) or generalists (i.e. people that are pretty good at lots of things).  I don’t have a good answer for this because a lot depends on the stage of the company and the specific circumstances.  All things being equal (which they never are), I tend to lean towards really smart generalists in the early days because they can wear multiple hats and “specialize” in whatever the company needs at that time.  As the team grows, specialists tend to be more necessary as roles start to crystallize.
  1. Skill vs. Talent:  I generally don’t advocate hiring for skills (which seems to be the way 95% of companies approach the problem).  Instead, I prefer leaning towards talent.  So, although the HubSpot platform is based on ASP.NET and C#, I don’t necessarily look for people that have those skills.  I’d prefer finding developers that have talent whereby the actual language/platform is incidental.  The best people are problem solvers and like to build elegant solutions and are not hung up on specific languages or technologies.  Of course, there’s a line in the sand somewhere.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone work for a company that is writing consumer Internet applications in COBOL.  But, as long as the underlying platform is reasonable for the problem at hand, you should be able to find great people.  In HubSpot’s case, I’m sure there will be people that will refuse to join us based solely on the fact that we are using ASP.NET (instead of Ruby On Rails, Java or whatever their learning is).  That’s ok.  My guess is that most (not all) of these people would not have been a particularly good fit for us anyways.  I’m looking for talent, not skills.

If you’re a startup that is recruiting, would love to hear your thoughts on what has worked for you (and what hasn’t).  On the other hand, if you’re an exceptionally talented and passionate individual that happens to be in the Boston area, I’m always looking.  What I desperately need right now is a devigner (part developer, part designer) that is passionate about building great web applications that delight users and makes them happy. Just send an email to passionatepeople [at] hubspot.com and let me know what I can do for you.

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