When it’s time to hire, many of us have the same instincts: Look for Fortune 500-level company experience combined with a prestigious education. 

No doubt those candidates offer a wealth of experience and contacts. But on many levels, it’s easier for someone to succeed when they have the resources and branding of a large company behind them.  Think of John selling Nabisco cookies compared to James selling Granny’s Best Chocolate Chips out of a makeshift kitchen.  Both John and James can put in the exact same amount of time and effort, but you can bet that John will sell more cookies and make more money. If John transitioned to Granny’s Best, would he be successful?  Maybe, if he, in addition to his pedigree, shows the following…


Look for employees who are flexible in both thought and action. Smaller and newer companies often reinvent themselves, over and over again, as they define their market and their product offering. Their employees must be willing to put aside their alleged job descriptions, roll up their sleeves, and switch gears as the company’s needs dictate. They need to be as nimble as the company itself.


There is nothing more humbling than getting tripped up over tasks that, in a previous job, an underling used to do for you.  A friend of mine with an Ivy League MBA recently moved from a senior position at an international packaged goods conglomerate to a senior position at a tech start-up. She has the knowledge, skills and contacts to succeed in her new environment, but she became ridiculously frustrated after spending five hours fumbling with fonts and images for a PowerPoint pitch. The content was spot-on, but the slides looked awful. Her comment was simply, “I had an assistant do that for me!”  But she sucked it up, persevered, sent her deck to her client, and closed the business. Not everyone with her credentials would bother with menial tasks they considered to be beneath them.


Such a trite word. But what is it? The ability to think out of the box; to make something out of nothing; to make lemonade out of lemons. However you define it, a start-up requires employees who can think for the themselves and excel without a lot of process and spoon-feeding. Small companies lack the protective layers and systems (bureaucracy) that slowly grow their employees and compensate for any one person's weakness. Some people will sink without structure. Others will thrive; they love the intellectual freedom and challenge. Hire the latter.

The challenge for the employer is that these traits are difficult to qualify in a resume or job interview.  But they are critical to success within a start-up. Ask a candidate to describe situations in which he or she had to act quickly, solve a problem, or change course. Then listen between the lines to how they reacted in the situation. Do they tell their story with pride and excitement? Or is it laced with negativity and resentment? You want the positive attitude.