February 21, 2020

Five Keys to the Best Startup Hiring Strategy

You’ve got your idea, your business plan, and even some investment capital. Your dreams of growing your own startup company are coming true, but you realize that in order to grow, you’ll need help. And to scale quickly, you’ll need a lot of it. While you are knowledgeable about your industry and of course, you are an expert regarding your innovative idea, you realize you’ve never had to hire employees at scale across multiple disciplines.

How do you begin? How do you find, attract, and then hire top talent? How do you know if someone fits your culture if you don’t have a culture? What compensation is reasonable?

The concept of hiring your first employees can be overwhelming and lead to paralysis by analysis if you don’t first put a system in place and create a hiring strategy. And even more importantly, making the wrong hire can cost your company thousands — money a startup can’t afford to waste.

According to a CNBC study of 800 Fortune 500 CEOs, their top challenge is attracting and keeping great talent. That’s even more true for startups. Startups don’t have the power of positive employer branding of a well-known company, nor do they have the Glassdoor reviews for potential employees to research. Often, they may not even have an office! Yet, hiring the right employees can be the key to a startup that becomes the next Amazon or one that fizzles out in the first five years.

Keys to a Startup Hiring Strategy

Hire with Intention

You were intentional with your business plan and your vision, so don’t settle when building your team. Take time to envision your company’s culture. Make a list of the character traits and skills you want your new employees to possess. What are the core competencies you are seeking? Be intentional with the interview questions you ask; consider what is important to uncover in an interview. These are the people who will set the tone for your company’s future and who hopefully will have the same passion you do for your new company. At SHRM, we estimate that the cost of one bad hire can be as much as $240,000 when considering the costs of recruiting, onboarding, disruption, possible relocation, risk of litigation, and the value of your time. This is capital a startup cannot afford to waste.

Hire People Who Can Do What You Can’t (or Won’t)

We all like people who are like us. However, that’s not always the best way to build a strong and diverse team. Consider your strongest personal skills, and evaluate your weakest ones. Find talent to join your team who fill your gaps: the candidates who will be the ying to your yang.

In a startup, the founder often wears many hats. Which hats do you want to remove? Of all your job functions, which ones feel like a “job” and which ones excite you? If you hire employees who enjoy what you do not and who are good at what you are not, you’ll develop a well-balanced, diverse, successful team.

Consider Culture Fit

In the 21st century, corporate culture is more important to potential employees than ever before. Employees look for a positive culture and a culture that fits their personal values when evaluating their next step. And, with a small team, each member’s contribution to the culture will be a significant part of the final culture you build. The benefit of a startup is that you can create the ideal culture for your organization from the ground up.

Before the interviews begin, review your company’s mission statement and consider the office environment you want to build. You can use culture to present unique benefits that can attract top talent (especially if you can’t yet offer competitive salaries). Do you want to offer a flexible work schedule or a casual workplace? Be deliberate with every decision you make and with each person you hire, as the impact will be the foundation of your corporate culture for years to come.

Vet Your Applicants’ Skills

Can the candidate do the job? Obviously, you have a set of job functions that need to be accomplished successfully in order to scale your startup. Whether it’s sales or technology, you need to be confident that the new employee has the skills and experience to manage the responsibilities with the position. Be sure to assess and vet the candidate with appropriate interview questions, examples of past success, and even testing, if applicable to the position. Go beyond the resume and job description and match their skills up against what you need. In a startup, you won’t have the time to oversee each employee’s work and give them daily direction. You’ll need to trust that they can do the job and do it well.

Look at Potential

While you want a skilled and experienced employee, consider skills that can be taught on the job before dismissing a less experienced candidate with great potential and who is a solid culture fit. In a startup, work ethic, self-motivation, willingness to learn, and a collaborative spirit are all imperative traits. A less-experienced candidate may evolve into an important contributor because he or she has intangible qualities that allow for real potential.


The scary truth is, the majority of startups fail. But the largest differentiator between those that fail and those that succeed is people. The decisions you make when hiring your first team are the most powerful decisions you will make. Be deliberate in choosing the right people to join you in transforming your initial idea into a profitable company.