Hiring Employees

The 3 Secrets to Building An All-Star Startup Team

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Most startup founders leverage expertise of one kind or another to launch their businesses.

For example, in my first startup, a legal-industry business, I used knowledge of practicing law to connect with clients. Two co-founders of Consero, my events-industry startup, brought experience building world-class conferences. However, for the business to grow, you need not just founders' knowledge but a team to share the workload.

That said, building a great startup team can be a complicated exercise. Few startup founders have mastered the process, with most learning on the job. It can take years to feel comfortable with this critical element of startup growth, and even after a decade in startups, I am still learning team-development lessons.

However, there are a few practices I have learned along the way that could help those starting from the ground floor in recruiting and hiring for their new businesses.

Related: 5 Essential Ingredients for Making a Smart Hire

1. Build a content following to expand your pipeline.

To begin your team-building efforts, you need to develop a pipeline of candidates. There are many ways to do this: through advertisements, word of mouth, job fairs and the like. However, there is one productive way to find candidates that is often overlooked: The development of a content following.

As we began to build Consero, we struggled to determine which resources would produce the most suitable prospects for hire. We tried various job boards and recruiters, and though we had some success, we spent a lot of time sifting through cover letters to find the people who were genuinely interested in our company. However, as we began to generate content relating to the substance of our programs and people began to read it, we saw spikes in applications with each new piece. Moreover, the applicants within those spikes seemed to be more attuned to the work of the company than other applicants, making our initial employment discussions with them more productive.

Developing substantive thought pieces takes time and effort. But if you start early and write the pieces with an eye to enticing not merely clients or press but candidates for hire, you may find that your content becomes your most valuable recruiting resource.

2. Seek adaptability.

An employment position at a startup is vastly different from a typical job in a number of ways. In my experience, candidates applying for ground-floor startup roles seem to understand most of the differences, including the need for independence and the importance of being able to stay focused while cash burns. Most of these individuals demonstrate some of the necessary startup character traits merely by opting into a partially defined role at a company with a limited financial runway. However, other critical characteristics can be harder to gauge -- and among the most important of these is adaptability.

Related: 6 Tips for Hiring at Your Small Business

One guarantee at any early-stage business is change. No matter how well your business plan is constructed or how smart your CEO is, you can be sure the company will end up looking different from what you originally envisioned. As a result, you absolutely must have a team that expects and is comfortable dealing with periodic changes of direction -- both small and large. Without people who are adaptable, you risk defections when the going gets tough -- precisely the time when a committed, focused team is most important.

In vetting candidates, it can be very difficult to determine their ability to adapt merely by asking. Rather, consider evaluating their composition by forcing them to adapt in the middle of an interview. One option is to change the interview plan once they arrive (e.g. by having them meet with someone who was not on the schedule). If you are testing software developers, give them a project and then change the constraints before they finish. When you announce these changes, watch their reactions closely. If they happily change course and head in the new direction, they may have the right mentality. If they express or even hint at feelings of frustration, cut them loose. They surely will not last when the changes are real.

3. Use referrals effectively.

Once you have found a candidate you like, it is time to get outside opinions. The natural course is to check references, or asking for feedback from prior employers. However, let’s face it: Many reference calls are a waste of time. Few intelligent candidates will list references who will say anything but good things, and even fewer references will eagerly throw former colleagues under the bus. This does not mean that reference calls can't give you what you need. To the contrary, conducted effectively, reference calls can be invaluable.

To make your reference calls most productive, ask open-ended questions about particular circumstances that demand differentiating responses. For example, ask about how best to work with the person or what type of environment will help the candidate thrive. By inviting the reference to describe, rather than affirm, you open the door to characterizations of the candidate that offer much more value in assessing the fit, leading to better hires.

Building the right startup team is among a startup CEO’s most critical tasks. If you bring on board the wrong team, the path will likely lead to failure, or at the very least be much more painful than it should have been. But with the right team, you add strength and momentum, making the ride a lot more pleasant and increasing the odds for a successful outcome.

Related: 3 Simple, Yet Critical Musts for Onboarding Success