The Essential Guide to Growing Your Early-Stage SaaS Startup
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Chapter 8: hiring for your startup
Sooner or later, the time will come for you to consider growing your team. You’ll have a lot to think about, especially while you are busy running your business full-time.
You need to find time to keep a lean startup, manage time for hiring and normal work — all while getting top talent on board.
Do you actually need to grow the team?
If or when you experience scaling problems, you might be tempted to solve them by hiring someone new. Instead of launching into recruitment straight away, take the time to perform a root cause analysis to understand where in the chain things are falling behind, and try to find the right process to remove any bottlenecks first. Competition among early-stage companies for top talent is fierce; but the only way to think about startup jobs and hiring is that anything less than the best won’t do. You can see it as a case of ‘hiring for a business problem’ instead of ‘hiring person X before someone else does because they are great’.
Before committing to bringing someone else on board, always make sure there are enough hours of ongoing repeatable work for new hires:
You’re not looking for tasks they can do this week only. You must have repeatable work for them to take on. You don’t want to make the same mistake I made early on, when I hired because I was so busy (right now), without thinking about the ongoing workload (or lack thereof).
Founder at Audience Ops
Startup hiring right > fast
This might sound counter-intuitive, but if you reached the point where you need someone else because you have run out of time, you need to find… more time to dedicate to startup hiring.
You don’t want to hire fast, bring the wrong person on board, and lose some of your best existing people as a result. That’s why successful startups who build a great company and cohesive team are intentional with the positions they create and hire for. They want to ensure they establish the right position that matches the needs of the company to the right individual job searching for that role.
What happens when you’re a startup, and you are living on borrowed time, and you are so strapped for resources that you will fail if you don’t have warm bodies there doing the work?
You STILL hire slow.
CEO at Likeable Media
You may be a small team without a formalized vision & mission statement, but you should already know what your goals are, what is important to you, and how you want to work together.
Use this knowledge as a guiding principle and take your timehiring for culture fit: find people whose business and life values align with yours, and who can communicate and work well together with the rest of the existing team.
To ensure culture fit in our ever-growing team, we have implemented astructured hiring process with several checkpoints. Every job listed on our careers page takes applicants to a long survey with 10-12 detailed questions: whoever is not motivated enough to fill it in is already not the right fit. Within those 10-12 questions, we always include a few key screening or filter ones whose answers we look at first, which is a second culture fit checkpoint.
The process continues with video submissions, interviews with the HR team and hiring managers, and a paid multi-day task—the whole journey can take around 6-8 weeks, in line with the belief that hiring right is better than hiring fast. Reviewing a candidate’s work and interactions with the rest of the team also helps us get a really good understanding of whether, and how, they would fit in if they were offered the role.
If you want a more in-depth look at the process and the rationale behind it, you can listen to our Director of Marketing Nick Heim in the video below + check out the podcast interview with our hiring partner Recruitee in the resources list at the bottom of the chapter.
Where do startups find the right people?
For a startup, recruitment agencies are generally expensive, especially if their fee includes a percentage of the annual salary upfront. Going at it the social way by posting on Twitter or Facebook may not be very efficient, but it’s worth a try; LinkedIn ads might bring in more targeted candidates, though they could get expensive fast.
As a small team, you are probably better off trying to find the online spaces where the people you need ‘hang out’. Two good examples are Stackoverflow if you are looking for devs and WeWorkRemotely for remote team members.
You should always use your network connections and reach out to any relevant contacts you made at conferences or accelerated programs you participated in. Additional tip: get help from these external experts during the interview process as well. They are likely to know what to look for in a candidate, especially if you have never done the job you are hiring for.
If you can’t afford a full-time salary, you can explore temporaryalternatives that don’t involve hiring, such as contracting and working with external partners. You can also look at part-time hiring and job sharing options: you can allow candidates to apply separately or in tandem, with a joint CV that highlights the pair’s overlapping and complementing skills.
When to hire marketers
If you and your co-founders are mostly technical, it’s easy for you to get caught up in the product, especially at an early stage. When you are ready to go to market, you want to have someone marketing-minded who can help express your value proposition clearly and persuasively, and knows how to network their way around the industry.
In a tech startup’s earliest stages, it’s common for founding teams to undervalue marketing. This may be because of tunnel vision of building out the product, lack of experience on the leadership team with demand gen[eration], product positioning, and other key early-stage growth activities… [marketing projects] are consistently deprioritized in favor of product development.
Georgiana Laudi and Claire Suellentrop
Founders at Forget the Funnel
Try to bring on board someone who has empathy for your market and launched projects with very little investment before. If this is not possible right now, consider at least splitting your time between business roles: for example, be the sales or marketing person on Monday and Tuesday, the product person on Wednesday and Thursday, and the finance person on Friday. Having this kind of separation will allow you to focus on the main issues in each department, instead of trying to do everything at once.
Make employee onboarding easy
Work on your onboarding and make it a repeatable process so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time someone new joins. At Hotjar, have aTrello board with a list of tasks each new team member needs to go through during their first week; we include a few video messages from our CEO David Darmanin, which help new people hear the vision directly from one of the key founders.
The team at EnhanCV have a similar board, where new hires can familiarize themselves with company structure, values, and policies:
EnhanCV's Onboarding Trello Board
Measure effectiveness and get feedback from each new hire, so you can tweak the process accordingly.
Learn to become an effective leader
You may be an amazing developer, but that does not mean you will be an equally amazing team manager if and when your team grows 10x in size. In the startup world, the emphasis on ‘getting things done, fast’ doesn’t account for the learning curve you and your team will need to go through as you grow.
Start by understanding your individual strengths and weaknesses, so you can quickly figure out the easiest and most productive ways your team can work and grow together. At Hotjar, each new hire is given a copy of StrengthsFinder 2.0 and asked to take the 16 Personalities test; we add our results to a shared spreadsheet, so we get a better sense of how our individual traits strengthen and complement one another.
As a founder or staff member moving into management positions, you might later need guidance and training on how to build a high-performing team. Know that working a ton of hours won’t result in more customers or revenue, but it will lead straight to burnout: you must learn to take care of your team’s well-being, check in with them, and keep a good work environment. The best thing you can do is start cultivating a growth mindset right now, and look at ways you can improve yourself:
Effective leaders… surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future. And because of this, they can move forward with confidence that’s grounded in the facts, not built on fantasies about their talent.
Author of "Mindset"
Case study: working on team dynamics
Before building the team, when it was just the three co-founders, one of our advisors held a workshop on team dynamics: the goal was to see if they complimented each other, and identify potential areas for conflict and overlap in the future.
Now, we are at a later stage and company needs are different. That advisor is a full-time employee whose role is to work with the leadership team so it can grow personally and professionally. Soon this will be extended across all employees in the company.
Chief Strategy Officer at EnhanCV
Before jumping headfirst into recruiting, confirm that existing bottlenecks and limitations cannot be solved with more efficient processes.
When bringing new people on board, hiring for culture fit and growth mindset should be your main priority: look for an applicant’s personality, expertise, and attitude throughout the process.
Try to bring in external experts or advisors when interviewing for a position you are not familiar with.
If you are a mostly technical team, consider bringing marketers on board to help you build an audience.
Ensure your onboarding process is smooth and repeatable.