Why Your Startup Should Stop Hiring People - Right Now

Employing a whole bunch of people means you have a 'real' company, right? Wrong. The best thing you can do for your young company is to hire slowly… very slowly.

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When does a start-up begin to feel like a proper business? For many people it comes down to two things: Renting a fancy office and hiring a whole bunch of people. And because these two things signify success in many peoples’ minds, founders tend to rush into them, hiring a bunch of employees and installing them in a freshly-painted office. However, according to Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, it’s the worst thing you can do as a founder.

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“One of the weird things you’ll notice as you start a company, is that everyone will ask you how many employees you have. And this is the metric people use to judge how real your start-up is and how cool you are. And if you say you have a high number of employees, they’re really impressed. And if you say you have a low number of employees, then you sound like this little joke,” says Altman.

“But actually it sucks to have a lot of employees, and you should be proud of how few employees you have. Lots of employees end up with things like a high burn rate, meaning you’re losing a lot of money every month, complexity, slow decision-making, the list goes on and it’s nothing good.”

Growth is a good thing, of course, but the kind of growth is important to pay attention to. You want your sales to grow. You want your revenue to grow. You want your profits to grow. You don’t want your expenses to grow any more than is absolutely necessary to facilitate revenue and profit growth.

“You want to be proud of how much you can get done with a small numbers of employees. Many of the best YC companies have had a phenomenally small number of employees for their first year, sometimes none besides the founders.

“They really try to stay small as long as they possibly can. At the beginning, you should only hire when you desperately need to. Later, you should learn to hire fast and scale up the company, but in the early days, the goal should be not to hire,” says Altman.

“And one of the reasons this is so bad, is that the cost of getting an early hire wrong is really high. In fact, a lot of the companies that I’ve been very involved with, that have had a very bad early hire in the first three or so employees never recover, it just kills the company.

Early hires are tricky, argues Altman, because they are more like co-founders than employees. They will be entering the business when it is still young, so they need to be motivated by the same things that are motivating the founders.

If they need ‘management’ in the traditional sense, and if they care about things like working hours and number of leave days, they probably won’t work well in a start-up. So, when hiring an extra hand becomes an absolute must, you need to fight the urge to employ the first decent person you interview. Hold out for someone you could picture as your co-founder.

“Airbnb spent five months interviewing their first employee. And in their first year, they only hired two. Before they hired a single person, they wrote down a list of the culture values that they wanted any Airbnb employee to have. One of those was that you had to bleed Airbnb, and if you didn’t agree to that they just wouldn’t hire you.

“As an example of how intense Brian Chesky is — he’s the Airbnb CEO — he used to ask people if they would take the job if they got a medical diagnosis that they have one year left to live. Later he decided that that was a little bit too crazy and I think he relaxed it to ten years, but last I heard, he still asks that question,” says Altman.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was similarly careful about hiring in the early days. “Mark Zuckerberg once said that he tries to hire people that he’d be comfortable hanging with socially and that he’d be comfortable reporting to if the roles were reversed. This strikes me as a very good framework.

“You don’t have to be friends with everybody, but you should at least enjoy working with them. And if you don’t have that, you should at least deeply respect them. But again, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time around people you should trust your instincts about that,” says Altman.