What Does a Startup Founder Look for When Hiring New Employees?

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By Karthik Sridharan
Co-Founder at Kinnek

Kinnek is a B2B platform that allows small businesses to request and receive customized quotes from suppliers. The company has raised $31.5M.

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Nothing about a tech startup is “normal.”

You have a few people in a room (maybe multiple rooms if you have some funding), working on disrupting entire sectors of the economy. Your company is worth millions of dollars on paper, but perhaps has little to no revenue. It’s an exciting environment, one where traditional structures and definitions of a role are often unclear.

My friends always ask, “What do startups look for when it comes to hiring?”

The first thing to understand about hiring at startups is that not all startups are created equal. Hiring practices and strategies vary dramatically depending on whether you’re a very early-stage startup (one with fewer than 15 employees), between 15 - 50 people, and a few hundred people. Any bigger than this, and I don’t believe the company is a “startup;” it’s a large tech company that has more similarities to large corporates than anything resembling a startup (hint: Google, Facebook, even Dropbox are not startups anymore).

When a startup is at its genesis, it typically looks for generalists, people who can be jacks-of-all trades. This is because as a young company, you don’t know what may be important to your business in six months or a year.  Things change dramatically, and it doesn’t make sense for you to hire people with niche, super-specialized skillsets.

In addition, hiring tends to be centered around the founders’ social and professional networks.  At Kinnek, for example, the first eight people we brought onto the team were either friends or referrals from friends.

As a startup grows in size to a few dozen people, the types of roles they will look for become more clearly defined, and they are forced to look for more specialized people that will necessitate looking outside the founders’ close circle of contacts. Once the company reaches a few hundred employees, roles tend to be very specific, and responsibilities tend to be much more restricted.

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Our team at Kinnek just hit thirty people, which is exciting. We’re still a small, high-performing team that is trying to take on the world, and that informs the profile of candidates we look for. Here are some of the things we value:

You are an intellectual athlete – Exact experience matters less to us than raw intellectual horsepower. We are pioneers in our space, forging a new way of thinking when it comes to B2B marketplaces. As such, it’s not always possible for us to find candidates with the exact experience we need. We’d much rather go with a candidate who has the intelligence and passion to figure out how to do something in a new and innovative way.

When we hired the first two people on the supplier side of the Kinnek marketplace, Kel and Andy, it was unclear what the dominant focus of our efforts should be. So, rather than have to choose between hiring an established expert in product design, sales strategy, account management, or operations, we decided to hire two people who had impressive intelligence and a passion for Kinnek. We trusted they would be able to figure out things across the spectrum on our supplier side.

You thrive in unstructured environments – While it is not a total “Wild West” situation, it is very important for us to find people who enjoy many degrees of  freedom when it comes to their job. At an early-stage startup, sometimes it’s not possible to draw up exact specifications for a project or put together an exact list of contingencies to be aware of, before running an experiment.  You have to learn by doing, by making mistakes, and iterating as quickly as you can so that it’s better the next time around. Adaptability, agility, and a self-starting nature are all critical qualities of a good startup candidate.

An interesting manifestation of this came earlier this year, when one of our team members noticed that many of the buyers on Kinnek were attending key trade shows. Trade show strategy was certainly not part of his job description, however he recognized that it was a major opportunity for us to engage with our user base. He did not let his lack of relevant experience hamper him. Within a few weeks, he researched the trade show, developed our marketing collateral for the show, bought a customized booth, registered Kinnek as an exhibitor, and manned our booth at the show. And yes, it ended up being a big success for us.

You crave intense responsibility – The main frustration I had at my previous large-company job was that I felt like a cog in the machine. The company would succeed or fail regardless of my contributions, even though I was putting in a lot of work. I just wasn’t important enough for the company to assign any kind of meaningful risk to me. At an early-stage startup, that does not happen. You have no choice. Every single team member has immense responsibility, be it running your own team, spearheading expansion to a new industry, captaining a new product launch, designing a new interface, etc. Regardless of your age, experience, title, etc., you handle mission critical things on a daily basis at an early-stage startup.

Earlier this year, I asked one of our brightest young team members (just a couple years out of school) to take over the reigns of our performance acquisition channels.  Within a month, she had to ramp up from knowing almost nothing about digital advertising to becoming an expert across many digital marketing channels and captaining the lion’s share of Kinnek’s digital marketing efforts.

You enjoy the duality of execution and strategy – I always tell candidates that apply to Kinnek that we look for people who not only love doing the nitty-gritty (whether it’s making sales calls, sending out emails, fixing a bug, writing a function, etc.), but also have a knack for taking a step back and seeing the big picture. How do we scale this process up as we grow? Will our current system be able to handle 10x the users? How should we think about hiring in this area over the next 6 months? What metrics should we focus on for fundraising? These are the types of questions that are thought about by everyone, regardless of seniority, at Kinnek. Everyone is thinking about how to take the company to the next level.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that joining a startup is not the same thing as joining a “small company.” Join a startup that gets you excited to be thinking about their product and whose founding team you trust. Join a place that you can look back in a couple years and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I was part of building something so special.”

As a side note, we are hiring at Kinnek! If you want to help us build the world’s most powerful B2B platform, check us out: https://www.kinnek.com/jointeam.