Hire the Best Folks, Even In a Crazy Market: The “First Ten” Rule
Hiring is harder than ever — but that doesn’t mean you should compromise on who joins your team. Or maybe, it means you need to select for something deeper than “years of experience in a similar role/function.”
I have a rule that has guided hiring strategy at my last two companies: every hire should be someone we would want as one of our first ten team members.
If you hire those types of people, your team will continually adapt, initiate, and problem-solve, and your company will grow beyond your own prescriptions. You’ll stay early-days nimble even as you scale, and you’ll be excited by what you learn from your colleagues.
Conversely, if you’re super focused on hiring for a particular role or just someone who “can do the job,” you’ll slowly become a clump of optimizers, and talent will leave your organization for somewhere more interesting. A startup is always changing, and you want people who will drive that change and eagerly meet new challenges.
Your ego doesn’t want to hear this, but there are inevitably companies out there just as interesting as yours, so creating good conditions for talent and having a real philosophy should be high on your list as a leader. You can’t stop attrition — and you truly wouldn’t want to — but you can do your best to ensure you hire the kind of folks who will comprise the heart of the company long-term and become your leaders.
I’ve been employee number 2, 5, 3, and 5 at my last four jobs. So while this is all a bit self serving, you’re the one reading my writing — and I have some experience with who works out in the first ten!
First we’ll cover what they do well (and why they’re such a good fit for startups), then what they don’t, and last how to identify and hire them.
Here’s what First Ten people are:
- Business Partners: it’s their company, so they do whatever needs to be done, and have opinions on what that should be. The success of the organization is their foremost goal (company success is highly correlated with success for early employees), and you can trust them to always think of it first— this is the mentality that will carry someone to leadership over time.
- High Speed Learners: they have a high information processing speed and can get to 80%+ competency in a new area quite quickly. A successful growth company is constantly trying new things. We have all wasted a lot of money/time on people who will apply the wrong playbook or wait for someone else at the organization to do something for them.
- Autodidacts: they’ll pick things up through trial and error, osmosis, asking their network, first principles thinking, and reading voraciously (articles, newsletters, books, and even social media). Teaching is great, but you won’t have time for it.
- Self-scaling: they find a way to solve problems and not do the dirty work long-term, thus increasing their leverage. Great people don’t do the same thing ad infinitum; as they grow they fill in their lower branches with automation and delegation. This is an important one — lots of great folks lack this ability and while you’ll still love them, you’ll have to manage their scope or coach them to scale themselves.
- Free Range: you can manage them to goals, not to tasks. You probably shouldn’t tell them exactly what to do or you’ll block their light, instead use check-ins to keep them roughly on course without stifling innovation.
- Inspired: they bring their own vision for what a company can be and will get excited during a conversation about getting there.
- Novelty Seeking: they seek growth opportunities for the company and for themselves. Every quarter or so give them new things to do and new directions to grow.
Here’s what First Ten types may not be:
- Domain Experts. You will see their resumes and almost assuredly consider them underqualified. Fortunately, a couple well-placed experts on a leadership team or in advisory roles can enable a bunch of First Ten types.
- Balanced. These folks get deeply invested, and may be at risk for various forms of stress, and you might need to help them manage themselves and coach them over roadblocks. I need to be better at supporting this; if you are reading this and work at Banza I apologize for not being better at this.
- Comfortable with Micromanagement. Command-and-control types will stifle these folks. You should empower good people to make most of the company’s decisions. Broadly true if you want to scale.
Versatility, learning, ingenuity, and energy are the building blocks of great team members at any organization, especially startups. We become boring and staid when we start hiring “for the role” instead of “for who we are.” Some questions I ask myself during interview processes: could this person move over to [adjacent department] if there was a need? Could we see them growing two levels up from where they are over the next several years?
Inverse correlation of First Ten traits and experience level may exist, but it’s weaker than you’d expect. Folks with 20+ years of experience who had typically worked at larger orgs have brought that desire test their mettle against something new, plus the experience of having failed and succeeded in multiple contexts and having a growth mindset. Kids fresh out of college can prefer that someone just tells them what to do and how to do it, and lets them stay in their lane and compartmentalize their job as “what I’m asked to do by my manager.”
Does the First Ten archetype sound right for your org? Cool, let’s go hiring. How will you know when you’ve found one?
- Adaptive Excellence: They’re very good at multiple, non-correlated things. This can be work skills or hobbies. This predicts that they will be good at the next several things they try.
- Successful Risk Taking: they’ve done something that wasn’t guaranteed to work — maybe multiple times — and made it work. It’s a mindset.
- Rapid Rise: they get promoted/change roles frequently. But they don’t jump ship from companies when the wind blows. Look for promotions at every stop and at least one job with 3+ years.
Some questions you can ask them to find out:
- Tell me about a time you created something from nothing/went zero to one. What happened along the way? You can ask for multiple stories from different jobs or even parts of life. This should get them excited.
- What’s something you learned how to do recently? It doesn’t have to be job related. They should be able to describe it and kind of inadvertently get excited about it.
- Tell me about a time you ran into a roadblock and had to change your approach. Reinvention when facing setbacks is the heart of a startup.
- Tell me about a time you scaled yourself out of a job function. As above, they’ve proven they can overcome a problem permanently and grow into a new one.
- Why are you looking to leave X job or Y function? These folks should always be running towards something, not away from something. They’ll instead talk about what they’re excited for at your spot.
- Ask me anything. They should almost never run out of questions, because they are naturally curious and want to learn things they don’t know. This is where you really find out whether they have the right level of curiosity.
People who see their success as being the same as the success of the organization are the best-case team members, in any market. They’ll grow and change with the company, and always try to prioritize what matters. You’ll find yourself more energized by your work because you’re surrounded by others who are as well. Happy teambuilding!