In turbulent times, hiring becomes more important than ever. For startups, hiring can become a huge vulnerability, because one bad hire can have a ripple effect throughout an organization. The Department of Labor stated that the average cost of a bad hire is up to 30 percent of the employee's first-year earnings. The reason that startups take such a blow is there isn't the buffer that larger organizations have to pick up the slack of underperformers.
Startup life is not for everyone, and it is essential that hiring managers figure out quickly if their candidates can cut it in an often turbulent work world. The comparison I like to make is that startup life is like riding a Jet Ski--you feel every wave and bump along the journey. It can be equal parts exhilarating and nauseating at the same time. You have the autonomy to forge your own path, but you can also easily set the team off track. In contrast, large orgs are like cruise ships. Hop on, do your job, and follow through on your daily itinerary or agenda.
When it comes to hiring at a startup, you have to look beyond just someone's experience. I have heard hiring managers reject candidates for the lack of early-stage experience on their résumés. I think this is a cop-out and prevents your startup from gaining additional knowledge about later-stage organization's playbooks.
For me, the key trait to look for is intellectual curiosity, which is a superpower in a startup. Research has backed up my thoughts. Your best employees will be the ones who are eager to learn and solve problems. As the world went remote-first in 2020, I found this trait to be even more vital among my teammates. Curious people are constantly deconstructing situations to understand why things work or why they fail. They never let an opportunity go by without learning from it and improving themselves and their work.
Learning should be a core attribute of a startup's culture. Hire people who thrive on knowledge and ask questions as opposed to just taking orders and nodding their heads. Carve out a budget every year to allow your team to expand their minds, pick up new skills, and think in new ways.
Perks around learning and feeding your team's curiosity are great ways to start to attract the right talent, yet in today's world where you can apply for 20 jobs in 20 minutes without much effort, finding the true intellectually curious candidates in the stack of résumés is an arduous task.
One trick is to bypass the standard cover letter that almost always says, "I can do the job because of these three things that you probably could have read on my résumé." Instead, ask them to name a recent book they enjoyed and write one or two paragraphs describing why. It doesn't matter if it is science fiction, a biography, or a cookbook--curious people will highlight what they learned and how it made them think.
During the screening process for candidates, listen for thoughtful questions about the organization, the product, and the problems the company is solving. Intellectually curious people can't help but ask. I have even gone so far as to give a vague description of a product feature to see if they just nod their head or raise their hand.
Intellectually curious people thrive in startups with cultures that are open to the team collectively solving the biggest hurdles. It matters less that they have done things before and more that they are dedicated to finding the best path to success. In hiring, never dismiss or bypass the questions candidates ask you, as they are your path to finding the perfect candidates.