How to Make Your Most Important Hire: Your First
You know, as most entrepreneurs do, that a company is only as good as its people. The hard part is actually building the team that will embody your company’s culture and propel you forward. Note that I said “hard,” not “impossible.” Here are four things that my co-founders and I have learned from our own experience that can help you as you assemble your winning team.
1. Hiring Takes Time
Lots of time. It’s not as simple as “get me a designer!” You first need to decide which positions to fill, write job postings, and interview a number of candidates to find the right people for your openings. None of that is trivial. We also found it worthwhile on occasion to play headhunter and solicit applications from people we thought would be a good fit—and that, too, takes time.
At least one of the founders is going to need to budget enough time to see the process through—often 10-15 hours a week for a couple weeks. And all the co-founders should clear enough time on their calendars to interview any final-round candidates in person—it really is important that every early hire gets along well with the whole team.
2. Test Your Potential Employees
Sure, it’s fun to chat with people with interesting backgrounds who seem to have a passion for your company. But a job interview is not a friendly chat. You need to determine whether candidates can they really do the job. So ask them to prove it.
When we were interviewing for a marketing position, we told candidates to bring a list of ideas for initiatives to expand our user base and a sample email pitching a partnership we might want to have—that is, the very same work they would be doing day in and day out if they were hired. Could the candidates come up with creative initiatives? Could they craft compelling and professional-sounding emails to potential partners? Were we comfortable with the way they represented our brand?
We were happy to have the answers to those questions before we made any offers. Truth is, being a good marketer (or developer, or designer, or salesman) is not the same as being good at chatting with the founders about why their company is so great.
3. Screen for Cultural Fit
When your team is small, it’s important that you work well as a group. You also want to know you can have fun together. You can—and should—screen for cultural fit before making the offer. We once took a candidate out for karaoke on the first night of his two-day interview, since he was in from out of town. As it turned out, Day Two, following karaoke night, was a lot more productive once we realized we actually enjoyed spending time together.
4. Trial Periods Are Your Friend
Pre-hiring tests and a thorough interview process are a great way to weed out applicants. But there’s only so much you can learn about someone before you actually work together. If you’re able to arrange a trial period with a new hire, do it. It will give both of you a chance to make sure the position is a good fit—and can help you avoid being in the awkward situation of wanting to fire someone three or four weeks in.
Trial periods can take several different forms. Our first employee, our managing editor, worked for us part-time for nearly six months before we brought her on fulltime. More recently, when we brought on our first marketing exec, we invited her to join on a two-month contract so we could get a sense for how well we worked together before committing to a long-term arrangement.
We learned this the hard way. We didn’t set up any sort of trial period with one of our early engineers—despite being explicitly advised to do so—and ended up parting ways after just two months. It was not fun, and meant we had to get a whole lot of paperwork in order to make sure the split was appropriately finalized.