Entrepreneurs are bombarded with issues competing for their attention during the early days of a startup venture, and prioritizing strategically can be a challenge. But even in the midst of that frenzied environment, choosing the right startup team should be at the top of your list. “Hiring the right team is critical to your success,” says John Paul Engel, president of Knowledge Capital Consulting. “You’ve got to be able to find people who are going to stick with it -- people who are doers and will get things done regardless of the resources or the challenges. A good startup team will create a culture that is like a family, where people feel good to be a part of it.”

It’s important to start out with a good sense of what kind of person you want to hire and the type you want to avoid, says Tim Eisenhauer, co-founder and president of Axero, a bootstrapped social software developer that has grown to 23 employees. “You need people who eat, sleep, and breathe the ideals and goals of the company. You need people who believe in your goals so much that they go above and beyond the call of duty to get things done.”

Because money is usually tight at startups, you might not always be able to get your first choice in a new hire, especially if you are looking for someone with a lot of experience, says Ryan Sanders, COO and co-founder of BambooHR, an online human resources information system. “If you hire more for attitude and are willing to be patient and let employees learn or be trained, you can get a great employee for a lot less than the one who already comes with loads of experience.” Sanders likes to hire for “the three Hs,” he says:

  • Humility, because humble people are teachable and self-directed;
  • Honesty, because you need employees who will be trustworthy in every situation; and
  • Hard-working, because they’ve got to be willing to do what it takes to get the job done.

It’s critical that startups make choosing the right team a top priority, but it’s also important to proceed with caution. “One common mistake is moving too quickly,” says Kurt Greene, president and owner of Arrow G Consulting, LLC. “Yes, there may be a lot of pressure to get everything done quickly when starting up, but you have to be careful with the ‘build the team’ part. While you can and should make that exercise as efficient as possible, due diligence is key.” Another potential pitfall is favoring technical expertise over managerial or leadership skills. “In a startup, leaders have to know how to manage people, projects, and problems right off the bat,” he says, noting that it’s easier to teach a strong leader your technology than it is to teach a technology expert how to manage a team.

Helen Wheeler, principal consultant at Alexander Mann Solutions, a provider of talent acquisition and management services, stresses the importance of the interviewing process. “If you don’t know how to interview someone properly, learn,” she admonishes. “Interviewing is a science, and you should really take the time to get a better understanding of it.” Wheeler also suggests that entrepreneurs not be afraid to let their new employees help create the company culture. “You may have ideas for what you want, but if you hire strictly to this vision, you may miss out on what the business could be,” she warns.

Finally, give some consideration to diversity and cultural fit, suggests Richard Gravelin, regional sales director for mid-market and strategic channels at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning. “Diversity is key to building teams that practice strong decision-making, collaboration, and creativity,” he says. “Balance cultural fit with necessary skill sets. At Harvard Business Publishing, we talk to companies about both emotional intelligence and cultural fit and how they are both critical to hiring the right team.”

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