Who Should a Startup Hire First?


Avoid people whose skills complement yours! Consider the “cell division” approach instead.

Early hiring, yet another area where startups often reverse Muggle business logic. Conventional hiring wisdom says to add people who excel at important skills you lack. “I’m great at product and engineering. We need sales, though, so let’s hire a fantastic salesperson!”

Founder, replicate thyself.

It’s understandable. Founders start out doing everything. As you run out of time in your day, it’s natural to want relief. Wouldn’t it be nice to bring on a person who excels at the things you find unfamiliar? So you hire someone to do that new job — sales, marketing, community management, something. Magic!

You spend a while searching for just that special person, and then… disappointment. “I can outsell this person and I don’t even know how to sell!”

The problems with the “hire someone who brings new skills” thing are that:

  1. People who are good at doing early startup stuff often (sensibly!) prefer to start companies — so there can be some adverse selection in first hires (unless you know them already and they join for you, you’re famous and they join for your reputation, they’re personally passionate about the problem you are solving, you are offering co-founder levels of ownership, or you get lucky).
  2. Founders have so many innate advantages doing any job that you’ll get frustrated when you realize the (supposed) expert has no clothes. Even a portion of your time spent doing the new thing can be powerful, given your innate knowledge of everything in the startup, the intense motivation of your fused identity, and (let’s face it) your general founder greatsomeness.
  3. It’s hard to assess a skill you’ve never practiced (it’s like getting a specialist doctor, you pretty much have no choice but to trust the referrals of others).

So, maybe you should do the job, at first, instead. Even if it’s only with a part of your time. How might you do that?

Solve the problem of freeing up the startup’s single most valuable resource — your time. Many founders will look for a head of sales before they’ll hire a virtual admin to handle minutia. That seems silly: your time is more valuable to the company than anyone else’s, so you should free it up in the least expensive way possible. Yes, all great founders have to handle some of the scut themselves — everyone is in the boat together. But too many founders pride themselves on shouldering the load for everyone else by doing the least valuable work.

If you’re a technical founder, hiring an engineer so you can focus on sales might be better than hiring a salesperson (at first). The founder often has to do a new job herself for the company to be great at it. The founder has to be the first salesperson, the first content marketer, the first X in many essential areas. (There is, of course, the risk of spreading yourself thin at the expense of doing your One Thing with excellence — as with all things startup, exceptions are the rule and you have to use your judgment.)

Call this the cell division approach — because you first hire people to take on some of what you are already doing.

Once you’ve tried to learn the new skill, even if it feels awkward at first, you’ll more confidently hire a better fit for the job. The company will — more often than not — be better off.

To upgrade yourself, find an advisor who can coach you (or maybe one of your investors can do this, as we do from time to time in areas we feel we know well). Get a project-based contractor so you can stub your toe leading the work before you make a permanent hire, even if their work is mediocre.

When should you, eventually, hire the expert in some new skill?

  • When you’ve already been doing it and now have a confident feel for exactly what you want.
  • When it’s a crazyodd subspecialty (e.g., RF engineering) that you just know you can never learn, and you need to have on the team.
  • When it’s actually not that critical a skill to the company, even if it is necessary (why startups outsource finance and HR in the early days).
  • When you get big, famous, or rich enough to hire someone extraordinary without needing luck.

Consider hiring by cell division — bringing in a next person good at the same things you are good at, and handing her some of your work in that area — so that you can focus on practicing the next skill the company needs.

Thank you to Jeff LaBarge for reacting to an early draft.

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