5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring

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5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring


I’ve been in the startup business for a pretty long time now.  One of the things that I’ve found hardest to do is find and recruit exceptionally talented individuals.  This is not particularly surprising, I think all businesses (big and small, young and old) have this challenge.  However, I think this challenge is particularly acute for startups.

5 Quick Pointers On Startup Hiring

Here are some of my thoughts and ideas on the whole startup recruiting process.  [Side note: I prefer the word “recruiting” instead of “hiring”, but hiring is more widely used and I’m ranked #1 on Google for the term startup hiring and want to maintain that].

  1. The Idea Will Change:  You probably don’t want to recruit people based too strongly on the idea you are pursuing now.  As passionate as you may be about the idea, chances are, it’s going to change.  The right individual will continue to be the right individual even when this change happens.
  1. Help The Best Find YouI’m not a particularly big fan of the classic recruiting channels for one simple reason:  they are not that effective. It’s very inefficient to go out into the world “looking” for that perfect new person for your startup.  The odds of you finding them and convincing them to join you are slim to none.  Instead, I prefer the reverse.  Instead of spending a lot of time going out there looking for the perfect person, invest in activities to help that perfect person find you.  For example, for my current startup, HubSpot, I haven’t been particularly good at going out and finding people.  I have been good and having great people find me.  This is a result of a limited set of activities:  this blog, the HubSpot blog on Internet Marketing, and local startup activities I participate in.  In short, in order to get the best people, you have to help them find you.  This is particularly challenging, because many of the best people are not looking.
  1. What Can You Do For Them?  Too many companies hire based mostly on what they think the new recruit can bring to them.  This is the “what can they do for me” line of thinking.  This is not totally wrong because part of the goal of bringing new people on is clearly to “create value” for the company.  But, I think this is short-sighted.  In addition to asking yourself “what can they do for me?”, also ask:  “What can my startup bring to them?”   Now, many of you may jump to the conclusion that this is “big company thinking”.  Only big companies can afford things like career paths, training programs and other benefits to help develop their employees.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  What I’m driving at is that you need to find ways that the new team member can benefit from your startup that they may not be able to get elsewhere.  Things like greater responsibility, broader use of their capabilities (perhaps they want to do technology and marketing), expanding their personal network should they want to start their own company some day, etc.  At some level, you are playing a passion arbitrage game.  You don’t have the resources to give new hires all the benefits of a larger company.  You shouldn’t try to.  Instead, find people that are passionately looking to get an experience that only you can deliver.  Then, deliver it.
  1. Specialists vs. Generalists:  My co-founder and I have this ongoing debate/discussion on whether it is better for startups to hire specialists (i.e. people that are exceptionally good at one thing) or generalists (i.e. people that are pretty good at lots of things).  I don’t have a good answer for this because a lot depends on the stage of the company and the specific circumstances.  All things being equal (which they never are), I tend to lean towards really smart generalists in the early days because they can wear multiple hats and “specialize” in whatever the company needs at that time.  As the team grows, specialists tend to be more necessary as roles start to crystallize.
  1. Skill vs. Talent:  I generally don’t advocate hiring for skills (which seems to be the way 95% of companies approach the problem).  Instead, I prefer leaning towards talent.  So, although the HubSpot platform is based on ASP.NET and C#, I don’t necessarily look for people that have those skills.  I’d prefer finding developers that have talent whereby the actual language/platform is incidental.  The best people are problem solvers and like to build elegant solutions and are not hung up on specific languages or technologies.  Of course, there’s a line in the sand somewhere.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone work for a company that is writing consumer Internet applications in COBOL.  But, as long as the underlying platform is reasonable for the problem at hand, you should be able to find great people.  In HubSpot’s case, I’m sure there will be people that will refuse to join us based solely on the fact that we are using ASP.NET (instead of Ruby On Rails, Java or whatever their learning is).  That’s ok.  My guess is that most (not all) of these people would not have been a particularly good fit for us anyways.  I’m looking for talent, not skills.

If you’re a startup that is recruiting, would love to hear your thoughts on what has worked for you (and what hasn’t).  On the other hand, if you’re an exceptionally talented and passionate individual that happens to be in the Boston area, I’m always looking.  What I desperately need right now is a devigner (part developer, part designer) that is passionate about building great web applications that delight users and makes them happy. Just send an email to passionatepeople [at] hubspot.com and let me know what I can do for you.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Mar 09, 2007


Hi Dharmesh I really agree on your tip about thinking about 'what we can do for them' while recruiting (ok, hiring). If we can offer a good value proposition if we come across a talented person, we have a nice chance of hiring him/her. Also I agree on the generalist approach initially - one of the advantages of a good staff at a small company is being able to switch roles quickly.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 1:20 PM by Arun Agrawal

I like your recruiting philosophy. In my experience, one thing to watch out for is people who seem to worry about the risk involved with a start-up. Talented people know that there is always another job around the corner if the start-up craters. The biggest risk for these people is the potential of working on boring stuff with boring people. They won't mention that out loud. While talent trumps specific programming skills, we've found that certain languages are predictive of the mindset and passion that the recruit brings to their work.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 1:25 PM by Zach Gemignani

Skills and Talent mean nothing if they don't have Chemistry. You could hire a genius with all the talent and experience imaginable, but if they don't blend well with others in your company, they can be very ineffective. They can screw up the organizational culture and make everyone wish they weren't there.

In the past we have always focused on skills and talents. But now we've added another key deciding factor: how will they fit in... with our organization and with our clients and suppliers.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 2:10 PM by Thomas C. Snide

Dharmesh, You wrote: "I generally don’t advocate hiring for skills (which seems to be the way 95% of companies approach the problem). Instead, I prefer leaning towards talent. So, although the HubSpot platform is based on ASP.NET and C#, I don’t necessarily look for people that have those skills. I’d prefer finding developers that have talent whereby the actual language/platform is incidental." Although I agree with the general sentiment, I only agree to a point. You also mentioned that you're looking for the best people. Well, there's one truth that's been widely discussed on numerous other blogs that I think you're ignoring here: the best people want to work with the best technologies. Yes, the best developers are open to learning and working in something new, but not necessarily just *anything* new. Now, I'll freely volunteer that I'm probably not one of the *best* developers (Google passed on hiring me) but I've heard enough positive feedback about me over the years to say that I'm a darn good one, so let's use me as an example. I'm primarily a Java developer, but there's lots of hot new technologies and languages out there that I'm eager to learn and work with: Erlang, Ruby, Python, Haskell, Scala, Ruby on Rails, Wicket, etc. However, I'm definitely not looking to learn ASP.Net and C# - and, frankly, to me that would be a strike *against* taking a job at your company. And I suspect that many top developers would feel similarly. (Ask yourself: how many people at Google work - or are looking to work - extensively in ASP.Net and C#?) So although, yes, you shouldn't just hire for skills, keep in mind your point #3: What Can You Do For Them? One very important thing that you can do for your developers is choose exciting, cutting edge technologies to work in, and which will help a developer advance their skills. If you choose not to do that, you risk taking yourself out of the running as an employer of choice for top developers. That's not necessarily a problem for a big company, since they always have the money to hire headhunters and place ads on monster.com to help recruit 2nd tier developers well-versed in "standard" technologies. But for a startup, which needs to, as you said, "Help The Best Find You", this can wind up being a serious mistake.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 2:57 PM by DAR

DAR: Certainly, giving a developer an opportunity to learn a new, exciting language/technology would be a benefit. However, the cost of this (from a startup's perspective) is too high. Also, I'm not sure what you have against ASP.NET/C# but it is a reasonably expressive language coupled with a relatively strong framework for web development. In any case, instead of providing training ground for Ruby On Rails, we've elected to make the application itself relatively fun and interesting to work on. We're doing some cool stuff with Internet Marketing that I think is awfully interesting and fun. Looks like I'm not going to be able to sway you, but that's ok.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 3:08 PM by

Dharmesh... The spirits have drawn me to you. If you're ever in need of a diviner, it will be my esteemed pleasure to read your fortune. The cards never lie!

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 4:24 PM by Miss Cleo

Hi Dharmesh, This blog post in itself was a nice sneaky way to advertise your open position and do some recruiting. Kudos on the creativity to leverage your large readership :)

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 5:20 PM by Seemant Kulleen

I don't think I'll be able to top Miss Cleo's dulcet tones! However, my take on startup hiring is slightly different. What I have tried to do is analyze the personality of the person I would like to hire. Startups need to have a lot of positive energy in all roles. Most technical people (and I count myself part technical!) tend to be introverted and shy. I tend to lean towards people who are a bit more gregarious while ensuring that their abilities, technical or sales, are above average. Generalists are obviously well suited to a startup and can be an asset. However, for a startup, it is important to not only have bright people but also those who can galvanize the whole organization.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 6:01 PM by Srini Murty

DAR: "(Ask yourself: how many people at Google work - or are looking to work - extensively in ASP.Net and C#?)" Some people might want to ask, why blindly follow the model that Google uses? I'll be the first to admit that they have an innovative corporate strategy and that they've put out some excellent products, but different development projects necessitate different technologies and approaches. I would put myself farther from the line that Dharmesh drew--very talented and passionate people should see languages as tools, not as schools of thought. If I see a great startup idea with smart people running it, I'm all but apathetic about what they're using to develop the product.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 7:57 PM by Patrick

I think skills and talent matter equally. It's hard to see hiring someone to your core dev group who has a great deal of raw talent but no specific platform experience. In a fast paced startup environment you want someone with a command of advanced concepts of the language or platform (i.e. C# generics or binding data via a SqlDataSource control), especially in how it would be applied to your business' core competency.

Also, the guy who was advocating using freshest technologies except for .NET is missing the point. You should choose technology as it pertains to your business, as well as it's long term viability, and not jump on the latest fad like Ruby on Rails. So what if some 22-year whiz kid idealist is put off by Microsoft and .NET? I'd rather invest my time and resources building solutions on established platforms, especially one backed by a billion-dollar business that is continuously reinvented and innovated. If you have a sound business model and the prospects for success are high, you will attract the best and brightest talent, period - regardless of platform.

posted on Friday, March 09, 2007 at 9:03 PM by Joe A

Nice post, and timely, as I am working through some of these issues myself. I've seen a couple of trends: - Engineer founders tend not to be good judges of sales skill. A lot of churn happens as a consequence. As Ben Saren suggested, get your board to be very hands-on in this process. - If you create a strong culture, self-selection automatically happens. I've been associated with companies where, unfortunately, the culture wasn't clearly defined and reinforced up front. If you rely on sort of an "emergent culture" then you lose a potent way of differentiation.

posted on Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 11:46 AM by Rahul Roy-Chowdhury

Dharmesh, Very crucial topic and excellent suggestions! I would like to know your views on "hiring your friends in early stage of startup". Because, in early stage, the important point is to have a great team-chemistry. And person whom you know already, shows a great probability of getting tuned to your frequency. So for # 2, how about you contacting your best friends instead of waiting for them to contact you? Because these are the people who will be with you even in bad times. What says?

posted on Monday, March 12, 2007 at 4:23 PM by Aditya Kothadiya

Dharmesh - I am a also strong supporter of the hire talent concept. Two important tests: Ego must not exceed ability Must know what they don't know

posted on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 10:04 AM by Andrew Lavers

Hello Dharmesh, I agree to most of what you've said in past but this is an exception. Though you are a mind immeasurably superior to mine but I've few thigns to say. Nothing personal. This post is a clear indicator of the fact it was written in a hurry :) Strong empirical evidence is available in user-centered innovation that lead users believe in free revealing of the information and manufacturers reaps all the financial benefit(Von Hippel--MIT). Now I guess everything is self-explanatory. ASP.NET is a closed-source technology though Microsoft has taken enormous steps and provided with huge number of toolkits to help foster the innovation. But that *free-revealing* factor is still very low and when most of people do it, it's only beceause they either want to be elected as MVPs or they have access to core references. Moreover, the type of *free-revealing* is poor in quality and can't be qualified as good as free revealing by real lead-users. Bottom line--free revealing factor is sky high when it comes to open technologies and this is exactly the reason you will find lead users in open-source communities or companies that understand how to hire and create great environment for "lead users". Moreover, I am sure you are not left with huge number of design spaces if you are using closed-source technologies and this is the exactly reason why the development of toolkits by the asp.net community is agonizingly and critically low both in number and quality. Now I have nothing against ASP.NET and I often use it pay my bills and I also believe that C# is very close to beocming a great language. I also know couple of very hardcore programmers using asp.net but still the count is very very low. But I would agree on your point that I would never hire a person who has religious affiliations with a language or platform. I would look for talent and *taste*. I would love to discuss more, will you? Drop me a line :) Thanks.

posted on Wednesday, March 14, 2007 at 4:17 PM by simplegeek

Re: Specialists vs. Generalists. I always like to go back to Peter Drucker's maxim that the function of management is to combine people so their strengths become effective and their weaknesses become irrelevant. I also think it is helpful to think about 'contribution' not 'title' or 'role'. i.e. What contributions do we need?

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 3:24 PM by Nivi

Generalists vs. specialists...I think that that is the biggest distinction for myself at the moment. I am an aspiring web entrepreneur in the New York are that is looking for those passionate generalists that look to provide services to people that gratify by leveraging information through communication. Very valid pointers.

posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 5:42 PM by Oren Schindler

I agree on your point on skill vs talent. I have been providing solutions for about 7 years now. i architect a technically correct plan. Whoever actually builds the house is not my lookout. There are civil enggs, for that. I gave a solution to my customer and he/she is satisfied..period. On a personal front i would prefer talented professionals than skilled. Out here, based on market forces we have commerce/science/engg grads getting into software testing/.NET/C# ?!!. Nothing wrong with that but where is the domain knowledge going ? Would be great to meet some talented people who can think of solutions rather than implement whats been already thought of. Personally find that boring . I develop algos in the domains of Image Processing / Video Processing and C. Vision

posted on Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 7:57 AM by Ashish

When you mention hiring based on talent and not skills do you mean you would hire a fresher(and then train him) over someone less talented but knows the skills you are looking for? 
People with talent and people with skills both will leave and will be a bad investment if der isnt a higher understanding between you and the guy hired. 
I look for that "instant click" thing when i look for people and i look for people who are creative inspired problem solver. 
few questions that are important to decide if the other persons is a "champ" or a "chimp": 
Problem solving: 
Faced with a impossible problem will he run or get turned on and face it? 
Personal integrity/bonding 
If i tell him 3 months down the line, "there is a financial crunch, we are not getting paid for next 3 months, but you will get compensated more than enough once we are out of this crunch", hearing this, will he run away or will he trust me? 
Learning ability/skillset 
Does he have the patience and inclination to learn a new skill and tools to get a job done? Does he already have the skills i need, how good is it? how long will he take to get productive? 
If all these 3 anwsers are satsifactory i generaly would hire the "champ", other wise i would let the "chimp" pass on 
PS: i have actually never been in a financial crunch situation bad enough to not pay people :-D 

posted on Friday, July 25, 2008 at 2:41 AM by Adi

I agree with much of your response to the Entrepreneur article. 
I'd rather hire an employee who is not risk averse, is ambitious, and intelligent. I work in advertising, and in this industry you sometimes have to be a jack of all trades type (especially in a smaller company)--this means being adaptle to change. 
Smarts alone are good, but if the person is unable to adapt quickly to change, those smarts are pretty much useless.

posted on Wednesday, August 06, 2008 at 11:29 AM by Alma Gray

well now-a-days there are specialized websites that cater to only start-ups. they take care of hiring for start-ups and that too free of cost. check outwww.sutrajobs.com which is actually developed by the holding company SutraHR. It focusses only on start up hiring.

posted on Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 8:14 AM by rajesh

Hi, just got linked to your article…..its great to get reviews from the end users themselves. My name’s Afaq and am one of the Chief Recruitment Officer at Sutra Services Pvt. Ltd. 
We have been promoting this cause for the past one year and have seen some good talent come into startups…. SutraJobs is just another step forward in this direction. 
I would love to hear from you again…you can write to me at the email address I have submitted along with the comment. 
Take Care 
Afaq Khan

posted on Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 10:07 AM by Afaq Khan

I especially like #3 and #5. Your idea about hiring for talent over skills is spot on, especially from a retention standpoint. While I appreciate the thought in #2 which ties into "employer branding" and is an aspect of marketing that many startups (and others) neglect, it simply is not enough. You must have both a push and a pull strategy for the best recruiting. For hiring exceptional people, generally a targeted search is the way to fly and I know this seems self-serving coming from a recruiter. If you are in the driver's seat in recruiting with targeted recruiting efforts that focus on pursuit you will be more likely to strike gold -- certainly doing the things you've mentioned in #2 as part of your recruiting "pull" strategy. I also like your initial thought about using the term "recruiting" vs. "hiring" -- admittedly for self-serving reasons, but as a recruiter I have begun to focus more on the end goal which is the hire -- this helps me stay focused on "solution" rather than "process" -- although hiring really isn't the goal either -- it's the beginning.

posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 5:27 PM by Donna Brewington White

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