Startups are growing organizations. They need to be nurtured and provided the right resources at the right time to help them flourish and grow. With the buzz around clean tech and innovation, one might be surprised that I list hiring as a challenge. But we are in a very unique space – we are a manufacturing unit. Our realities don’t always match the expectations of someone looking to join the start-up ecosystem, and my challenge starts there. Through my interactions with various founders, I have realised that this is a challenge not just for us – many non-tech, early stage start-ups face the same issues. I have been experimenting with many hiring strategies over the years to address this challenge. I don’t yet have a sure shot formula for what works, but I do have some broad principles I go by, and those seem to be working.
So what works for early-stage startup hiring? It doesn’t help to paint a rosy picture if the reality is different. The first thing is, as founders, to accept our reality and be upfront and honest about it. Startups are tough work and we don’t need to shy away from it. The right fit for us, is someone who is willing to work hard, dirty their hands, don multiple hats and juggle many balls. In a world where there are umpteen options which are way easier, not many want to take this up. As founders and recruiters, let us not be ashamed of or be bogged down by this reality. More importantly, let’s remember not paint a rosy picture and get someone in, just because we have a position to fill or an investor to please. I have burnt enough fingers to accept that one is better off not hiring, than hiring for the wrong reasons. Most of the time, a bad hire or an ill-informed hire is a much bigger issue than a vacant position.
That being said, there are many candidates who are willing to take up the startup challenge. Employees and close stakeholders - investors, vendors & suppliers and customers - are the best sources to reach out to, for such references. These stakeholders not only understand the organizational culture, but are also able to judge a good fit and hence their references invariably work well.
Early-stage startups are highly dynamic and their realities are constantly changing. In such circumstances, its very difficult to accurately define roles and responsibilities. It is important to bring this upfront in all discussions with prospective candidates and consider hiring only those candidates who are comfortable with this truth. Invariably, candidates who are highly specialised in certain roles and those who have built their careers with large established organizations find this thought intimidating. Such candidates raise a red flag which should not be ignored. It is safer to wait until you find the next candidate who sees this uncertainty as an exciting opportunity to learn and diversify their skill sets.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and that’s very true for an early-stage startup. Given the challenges of attracting and retaining good talent, one should be very mindful of not upsetting existing internal balances and dynamics while hiring for new positions/candidates. While culture fit is something most recruiters would check for, in small organizations and early-stage startups, it is very important to have new candidates interact with existing employees to gauge their acceptance. It is a known fact that having internal buy-in always helps a new hire settle in well. It helps in more ways than one in early-stage startups.
A lot of the time, talent outgrows an organization and vice-versa. This happens a lot more frequently in early-stage organizations than they do in established larger organizations. Hence retention and attrition need to be viewed differently and contextually in early stage start-ups and continuous efforts should be made to upskill and retrain existing employees. This not only helps organizations to ensure existing talent stays relevant to their growing demands, it also helps them manage unexpected exits better.
Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge everywhere. In start-ups though, the rules of the game are different and hence what works best here, is to be open to playing the game differently.