Interviewing — Early Hires (Co-Founders / First Employees)

Twitter Summary: You are going to spend a lot of time with your early hires. Make sure you enjoy their company.

A special case in interviewing is finding and assessing co-founders and early employees.  The first hires are critical as they will help dictate the direction and eventual outcome in success of the company.  The interview process for early employees is different in that the people you are typically interviewing are referrals or perhaps “friends of friends.” Generally these are people who have been successful in some other organization and your job is to determine if they can successfully help you bootstrap your small organization. Spending extra time with them during the interview phase is especially important as you will be spending many more hours with them getting the company off the ground.

The interview questions in this case are not very different. However, the skill set you are hiring for is broader and personality attributes are much more important.  Interviewing early employees should take more time as you need to assess if they have all the skills you require.  Following up with the referral candidates is also critical. Even if the candidate is not offered or decides not to accept a role they may turn into an invaluable resource for other future hires.

Key traits to look for in early hires are:

  • Can you spend a lot of time with them?
    • Rather than a 1-3 hour interview, spend a full day with each other talking about the business or social matters.
    • Consider taking a trip with a potential candidate to a client site to see if you would enjoy working with them.
  • Would you want to be in a foxhole with this early member?
    • Does the candidate have a wide range of skills or more importantly the enthusiasm to do things beyond their skillset in order to get what needs to be done completed.
    • Consider asking the candidate how they deal with stress, both their own and others? Startups are by definition stressful environments and having a candidate who is self-aware to provide a good answer with examples is really important.
  • How do they deal with ambiguity?
    • All early stage companies lack phone systems, HR resources or people to help with basic maintenance tasks. In the absence of information, a policy or even an ability to do something, what is their approach to make sure the task is completed.
    • If the garbage is overflowing do they (a) Take it upon themselves to do it, (b) complain about the garbage overflowing, or (c) create a schedule to rotate who takes out the garbage until an office manager or someone is hired to take care of it as a permanent responsibility.

This post was inspired by Mark Goldenson’s comment in an earler blog posting.

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