Startup Hiring: 6 Key Traits

The ideal hire for a startup can differ quite a bit from what a large company needs. Here are 6 traits that are especially important to consider when hiring for your startup. These go beyond the obvious things like experience, intelligence, honesty, and generally liking the person. 

  1. Comfort with ambiguity. Startups are generally an (unavoidable) mess in some respects. You are growing fast and there is no way to keep it all organized. Priorities are constantly shifting. Roles are somewhat unclear. You need someone that thrives in this kind of environment. Pay attention to whether or not they’ve held similar roles in the past, and what aspects of their prior companies they did—and did not—like.

  2. Grit and resilience. Related to the ambiguity point, people at startups often have to “eat pain” much more frequently than they would at a larger organization that helps to abstract away these issues. Some people thrive in this type of “raw” environment while others tend to shy away from it. When the going gets tough, when resources are low, when things aren’t going smoothly… what happens next in the story? Get curious about someone’s past jobs—both accomplishments and mistakes—and see what patterns emerge on this dimension.

  3. Full ownership mentality. Closely related to grit. When someone hits a bottleneck, do they pass the buck? Or do they see it as their job to dive into the root cause analysis and “fix badness wherever they see it”? Unlike a large corporation where crossing boundaries can cause a lot of political blowback, you generally want to move fast and add value wherever you can. You want people who don’t use the concept of “staying in my lane” to avoid doing the painful work that needs doing.

  4. Deep mission alignment. Directly related to the grit and pain point—most people are much more willing to tolerate the “growing pains” of startup life because they 1) are deeply aligned with the mission and 2) know there is huge financial upside if they are successful. Don’t underestimate the importance of the first point—you want to make an independent assessment of someone’s implicit motivators to see if they are truly a strong mission fit for your company. This requires much more than just judging their 2-min sales pitch about “Why do you want to work at our company?” Specifically: pay attention to why they left (and joined) previous jobs—this will yield much more reliable data and can also reveal blind spots. The Deep Dive interview format (career review) covered in Talgo On Demand goes into explicit detail on how to extract the best signal here.

  5. Status and career advancement. Relatedly, will this person be ok with the fact that titles matter less (or not at all) at your startup? Or that they might not have clear visibility on when people will be reporting to them? Are they truly ok with maximum impact (and growing their slice of the pie)? Some people are, and some aren’t. Make sure you allocate time early in your screening process to hear about what someone wants for their long-term career and short-term goals to see if it’s a realistic match with what you are offering.

  6. Raw output. At the end of the day there will be periods (perhaps most of the time) when you simply need people to get things done quickly. Speed is one of your main advantages against incumbents and you need people that can move fast. This is a combination of intellectual acuity, rapid prioritization, and the ability to work long hours when needed. You will be surprised how well you can calibrate this by simply getting several examples of when someone has worked their hardest—or fastest—in their life. People differ widely on this dimension—you can use the combination of what you learn about them in interviews and references to form an accurate picture here.

Find ways to elicit signal on these dimensions and make sure that they are covered in your hiring criteria, assuming you agree that they apply to your startup. Be careful about compromising on any of these—these are some of the prime reasons that someone who is otherwise very impressive (i.e. their resume "blows you away") ends up underperforming in a startup culture. 

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