After Ashley Merrill caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror wearing her husband's old frat T-shirt and rolled up boxer briefs, she decided to launch a company of luxury pajamas that were just as comfortable but felt more runway-ready. The CEO and founder started her new company, Lunya, from her living room in 2012, and Merrill says since then she and her team of now 45 employees have grown the Santa Monica, California-based company 400 percent year-over-year. But to get there, she had to find the right people--and ensure they were up for the challenge. Here, Merrill reflects on how she found her hard-hitting team. --As told to Anna Meyer

Early on, hiring was especially tough because like many startups, we weren't a desirable place to work yet. I couldn't hire expensive recruiters or afford to bring experts in full-time. In fact, I didn't even feel confident that I knew what the perfect employee looked like.

You see, I was working out of my house at Lunya's start, posting vacancies on Craigslist, Indeed, and LinkedIn, and taking interviews in a coffee shop. In the early stages, I got a mix of awesome young, hungry people--which were my essential early-stage employees--and then a few people not as awesome, which I knew in my gut from the start, but I brought them on anyway because I was new to hiring and second-guessed everything.

I found that the people attracted to our very small venture liked to spread really wide and tackle everything. That was great at first, when I wanted masters of all trades, but as the business matured, I needed experts in their craft. I hired more, and jobs got narrower as I grew, which was nice for people that wanted to go deep, but for people who like to spread their wings really wide, it felt like I was taking something away from them as time went on.

I learned that flexibility was key as we grew--in both my attitude and that of my staff. I decided not to make or follow a traditional org chart, and I hired using general job titles, knowing things could shift around in as little as a few months. As our reputation grew, Instagram became a great hiring resource, since people we connected with on the app already were passionate, loyal followers.

 inline image

I also learned the hard way that once I notice a need in one area of the business, I need to trust my intuition. When you're growing fast, you can go from feeling slightly strapped to completely desperate for resources in the blink of an eye. And I've been susceptible to rushing into ill-fitting hires simply because we were in a state of desperation. Now I know problems only get bigger with time, so I need to act fast to give myself time to make good decisions.

No matter how difficult hiring can be, I try not to outsource it. I meet with every employee--even if it's a retail employee at an out-of-state location--just to get a sense that everyone fits the culture. At this point, I've built a pretty rigorous hiring process, particularly for more senior roles. I haven't hired anyone above a VP that hasn't worked for me already in a consulting capacity.

Now I know within three minutes of a phone call whether someone is right for Lunya, and I trust my gut reaction immediately. That's what I wish I could tell myself at the start of all this--just trust your instincts more. You don't have to change to become the leader you think you're supposed to be, but instead work on evolving into the person that you already are.

Being a leader is a nonstop challenge, so I turn to working out and boxing to relieve stress, to stay healthy--and even to test my staff to further get a read on them. When you work out with your team members, you see how they handle a challenge. Do they turn inside themselves? Do they get angry? I don't require everyone to work out, and not everyone does it, but for those who do, it's a great way to learn more about them.

As every founder knows, launching a business is exhausting. In boxing, you build the most physical strength when you push through the fatigue. Likewise, you build up your professional strength by facing what scares you: it's just like a muscle.