We all know how important employees are to any company. Payroll is often your biggest expense. It takes A-plus employees to build a successful business, and if you're going to spend most of your waking hours at work, why not spend it with people you enjoy?

I think hiring great talent is absolutely critical to get right, and it's why one of my favorite questions to ask other founders is "What's your favorite interview question?"

Doing so has helped me unearth some gems that I now include in my own interviewing practices--like the all-revealing "On a scale of one to 10, how lucky are you?" (which is an instant gauge of how positive and glass-half-full a candidate is -- I love answers that are 8-plus). 

Asking smart questions is helpful, but only when you know what to look for. Having spent my career in companies of all sizes, I do think there are specific qualities that make up a phenomenal early-stage employee--the person you want in the trenches with you when you've got fewer than 50 employees.

Here's what to look for in your future star employees:

1. Generalists, generalists, generalists

Your biggest pain point today may be marketing. But what about tomorrow? In an early-stage company, you need well-rounded players who are willing to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to do anything and everything.

The best early hires I made at LearnVest could transition seamlessly from running a focus group to understanding our customer acquisition stats to reviewing a legal doc. They were title agnostic and open to pitching in wherever they were most needed. While it might seem counterintuitive, deep expertise in a niche area is less important at this stage than finding an athlete who can do anything and everything.

Often, people who fit this description are inbound candidates. They've gotten scrappy and identified your company as an exciting opportunity. They want to be at a startup because they want to have a voice in shaping a company's future. Ask questions like, "What gets you out of the bed in the morning?" to verify that their motivation is intrinsic and driven by a need to contribute in any and all ways.

2. No egos

One of my mentors once told me, "If you knew what it took to start a company, you'd never do it." Building a company is hard.

That's why there's no room for egos--both literally and figuratively. For starters, chances are your first HQ will be small and a rude awakening for any employee coming from a corporate boardroom. But beyond that, everyone needs to check office politics at the door and bring a team-first mindset. 

In the interview process, dig into how a candidate worked with others. Ask them to describe a group project they worked on. Is this someone who's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team? (For example, before our first board meeting at LearnVest, I was the one cleaning the bathroom before our board members came in. At the end of the day, they appreciated how "all in" I was!) Does this person share credit and praise their co-workers?

Early-stage teams are often limited in the number of teammates, which means that everyone has to give that much more. Think of it as a startup golden rule: Be the kind of employee you would want to work with. For me, that means zero egos. 

3. Believers

In the earliest days, your success isn't tangible yet. Employees have to derive motivation from a bigger vision and unite around a shared mission.

Simply put, you can't have any skeptics at this stage. Look for people who bring positivity, optimism, and a can-do attitude. It is these believers who will act as your culture builders, and once your company scales, they will help you carry your original mission forward.

It can be hard to spot this quality in an interview process, so be sure to spend some time on the topic in any reference calls you do. Try to understand how this person has weathered challenges in past roles (from someone other than the candidate).

4. Grit

Growing up, I was a competitive diver. One of the best lessons it taught me was grit. No matter how your dives go, you have to get back up on the platform and keep pushing yourself. You have to fully commit to every move you make, despite the pressure for perfection and the eyeballs on you.

You need that same grit in your early employees. There's so much competition--both from incumbents and other startups that will inevitably appear in the same space. The curveballs are endless. Or, as I've said, being an entrepreneur is like getting punched in the face every day. Those who succeed are those who have grit, pure and simple. It's OK to take a day off or walk around the block on a challenging day, but only the resilient ones who show up every day, ready to face the next task, make it.

I've long been a believer in setting goals that seem too far out of reach. When you strive for something that seems impossible, you'll often end up going much farther than if you set the bar too low. The best gritty employees I've seen have been able to reach those far-out goals--because they continue to push and come up with creative solutions. In practice, this might be your business development lead who repeatedly gets a no from your dream partner. Instead of letting it lie, they come up with a creative solution to nudge the door open and end up inking a deal after all.

As the saying goes, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." The best startup personalities are those who are motivated by roadblocks. There's no time to shut down for a pity party--you have to keep working harder, smarter, and better.

Published on: Aug 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.