Welcome aboard – 6 startup founders share tips for hiring

A key skill to growing your business is hiring the right team members to help you. A common tip for hiring is “hire people who are better than you.”  But how do you separate those few brilliant candidates from dozens or even hundreds of others?

The challenge does not stop there; once you find your key team members, you need to figure out how to keep them around. In the highly competitive world of startups, there’s always another company trying to poach your “A” players with the offer of a bigger salary.

In this post, we ask 6 founders from leading startups 3 questions on their hiring process:

  • How do you know when it is time to make a new hire?
  • Do you have any unique tactics or strategies for finding the perfect team member?
  • How do you retain the great team members you already have?
How 6 #startup founders decide when to hire, who to hire, and how to keep great talent on their team. Click To Tweet

Brennen Byrne, Co-founder – Clef


At a startup, you always need more hands. The questions are:

  • Can you afford them?
  • What experience will be most helpful?

If you hire a developer, they may still be involved in marketing or design because everyone wears a lot of hats at a small company. But every hire is bringing experience and skills that will help the company, so it’s time to make a new hire when you can articulate what experience or skill you need more of on your team.

Related: 8 entrepreneurs reveal the 1 critical skill they focused on to grow their business

There are no perfect team members; every decision is a compromise between many different skills, backgrounds, and compensation amounts. If you had 1,000 candidates applying for a position, they would each have a unique mixture of pros and cons (and they would all have cons). Instead, it’s important to look for someone whose experience matches your needs (as opposed to who has the shiniest credentials) and who you want to spend a huge amount of time with.

I think the glaring omission in how people think about retention is that you should say you want employees to stay and ask them what they need to stay. There’s a perceived “company vs. employee” negotiation around compensation and performance that makes companies feel like they should be secretive about who they want to stick around. In their mind, if an employee knows they’re important, they’ll demand a raise. But I’ve found that it’s really powerful to tell people that you want them to have a long career at the company and to ask them what they need to stay. If we can’t offer them what they need, we’ll wish them well, but at least we’ll have made that decision together.  

It's powerful to tell employees they are valuable and to ask what they need to stay. @brennenbyrne Click To Tweet

Gillian Morris, Founder – Hitlist


A good tip for recruitment is be visible in the community. Present your startup at meetups and conferences, or try and get press. If you can’t get on a panel somewhere, organize your own event. If you can’t get press, publish a blog post or an infographic others might pick up. Answer questions on Quora. Be active on social networks, especially Twitter. If you were a talented startup-person, would you rather work for a respected, contributing member of the tech community or an MBA who has never built a business before?

A good tip for recruitment is be visible. Present at meetups and conferences. @gillianim Click To Tweet

Always hire people smarter than you, as long as they respect you and aren’t earning such a high salary that they’ve got no skin in the game.

So, psychopaths. They exist, and they can ruin your company. Do your due diligence. Try and find some connection in the network of the person you’re hiring. I don’t actually like asking candidates to volunteer a reference, as I’ve always found that to be a pain when I was interviewing for jobs. I usually inform a potential hire that I’m going to try and reach out to people in my network who might have worked with him or her (it’s important to mention this so he doesn’t feel violated if he hears you’ve been snooping, but he should also understand that this is a completely reasonable thing to do). I search LinkedIn for the previous company, see if I have any first or second-degree connections there, and reach out. Blind hires probably have a greater likelihood of working out than your average blind date, but that’s not saying much.

Related: Finding and Hiring Talent at an Early Stage Startup 

Wade Foster, Co-founder – Zapier


When important pieces start dropping through the cracks or when someone takes a vacation and it really stretches us thin, that means it’s time for a new hire. Or times are good and money is rolling in and we have some extra change to push forward on new initiatives.

I recommend recruiting from your user base. They already love the product. Spec out the job post with as much detail as possible. All of our job posts ask candidates to rank different tasks based on what they would like most to do and what they’d like least to do. If they put something on the like least list that is critical for the role, then we know they aren’t a great fit.

I recommend recruiting from your user base. They already love the product. @wadefoster Click To Tweet

If you treat your team great, they will stick around. Great benefits, listen to them, help them out. The golden rule really applies here. If you go the extra mile for them, they’ll go the extra mile for you.

Josh Pigford, Founder – Baremetrics

We constantly have more things in the roadmap than we can tackle at any given time, so the only constraint for hiring is budget. As soon as the budget allows for it, we hire. For the size problem we’re solving, there will be no shortage of work any time soon.

I’ve found that simply becoming more well known as a company goes a long way with recruiting. Becoming well known can largely be attributed to our content marketing efforts. Most of our employees have found us through me and/or the writing I’ve done on building a company.

Related: What to do if your content is not getting traction? 8 entrepreneurs weigh in

The best way to keep your star team members around is to respect and trust them. I hire people who are exponentially better at me in their field and so I trust them to do their job well. I want them to take things off my plate, not create more work for me, so I try to give as much responsibility to my team as possible and then step out of the way. Also, being respectful of the fact that their entire world doesn’t (and shouldn’t) revolve around the company helps keep people from getting burned out. I actively spend time making sure our team is not overworking themselves.

I hire people who are exponentially better at me in their field and I trust them. @shpigford Click To Tweet

Jason Cohen, Founder – WP Engine


Once, almost 20 years ago, the company I was with put an ad in the paper for a fairly mundane job, and at the end it said “free toaster.”  In some sense, it was a test, like the famous brown M&Ms, but more interesting was hearing what people said about it, how creative or funny they were, etc… You can tell a lot about someone by talking about something odd, rather than the standard interview questions.

You can tell a lot about an applicant by asking odd, rather than normal interview questions. @asmartbear Click To Tweet

For retention, you have to remember that great talent can always simply walk across the street and get a job for 10-20% more salary.  Why?  Because great talent is always precious, and now they have another year of experience on their resume to trump up.  Therefore, you have to build a place where people will want to work, and not because of the salary. Talented people often need 3 things to have a fulfilling life at work:

  • Ability to do excellent work
  • Autonomy in their work
  • Purpose that is connected to something important

Ask yourself, am I creating that environment?

Hint: If you can’t articulate for every person in your company what “excellent work” means to them, or confidently answer whether they’d agree they have autonomy, or guess accurately what they think the purpose of their work is, then you haven’t created the environment.  If you’re not actively talking about these things with people, then probably you’re not doing it, just like if you’re never talking to customers, you’re probably not building the right product.

Related: 12 remote workers reveal how to be happy, effective and valuable

Nick Francis, Co-founder – Help Scout


Each case varies with new hires, but it’s certainly time when the business risk associated with not hiring someone is higher than the risk of hiring them. If you can’t see yourself meeting your business goals in 6 months without additional help in this area, then it’s worth the time and investment to bring someone in.

Don’t hire for what someone’s potential is, but for what they’ve already accomplished and can apply to your business. We also like to have people do a project as part of the process, so that we can see how they work, provide constructive feedback and see how they think about problems.

Make sure your key team members can’t see themselves being happier working anywhere else. We find that the most important thing you can do to make them happy is to trust them and give them the autonomy to make an impact.

Make sure your key team members can't see themselves being happier working anywhere else. @nickfrancis Click To Tweet


There are many creative ways to find and retain great team members for your startup.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Being visible with content marketing and at conferences can help draw talent to your company.
  • Happiness, autonomy and a sense of purpose can trump higher salaries when it comes to retaining talent.

How do you recruit and retain your team members? Let us know in the comments.


Kyle is the founder of Conversion Cake . He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur" A book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him @kylethegray

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