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Who Should a Startup Hire First? NewCo Shift

Who Should a Startup HireFirst?

Avoid people whose skills complement yours! Consider the cell division approachinstead.

Early hiring, yet another area where startups often reverse Muggle business logic. Conventional hiring wisdom says to add people who excel at important skills you lack. Im great at product and engineering. We need sales, though, so lets hire a fantastic salesperson!

Founder, replicate thyself.

Its understandable. Founders start out doing everything. As you run out of time in your day, its natural to want relief. Wouldnt it be nice to bring on a person who excels at the things you find unfamiliar? So you hire someone to do that new jobsales, marketing, community management, something. Magic!

You spend a while searching for just that special person, and then disappointment. I can outsell this person and I dont even know how to sell!

The problems with the hire someone who brings new skills thing are that:

  1. People who are good at doing early startup stuff often (sensibly!) prefer to start companiesso there can be some adverse selection in first hires (unless you know them already and they join for you, youre famous and they join for your reputation, theyre personally passionate about the problem you are solving, you are offering co-founder levels of ownership, or you get lucky).
  2. Founders have so many innate advantages doing any job that youll get frustrated when you realize the (supposed) expert has no clothes. Even a portion of your time spent doing the new thing can be powerful, given your innate knowledge of everything in the startup, the intense motivation of your fused identity, and (lets face it) your general founder greatsomeness.
  3. Its hard to assess a skill youve never practiced (its like getting a specialist doctor, you pretty much have no choice but to trust the referrals of others).

So, maybe you should do the job, at first, instead. Even if its only with a part of your time. How might you do that?

Solve the problem of freeing up the startups single most valuable resourceyour time. Many founders will look for a head of sales before theyll hire a virtual admin to handle minutia. That seems silly: your time is more valuable to the company than anyone elses, so you should free it up in the least expensive way possible. Yes, all great founders have to handle some of the scut themselveseveryone is in the boat together. But too many founders pride themselves on shouldering the load for everyone else by doing the least valuable work.

If youre a technical founder, hiring an engineer so you can focus on sales might be better than hiring a salesperson (at first). The founder often has to do a new job herself for the company to be great at it. The founder has to be the first salesperson, the first content marketer, the first X in many essential areas. (There is, of course, the risk of spreading yourself thin at the expense of doing your One Thing with excellenceas with all things startup, exceptions are the rule and you have to use your judgment.)

Call this the cell division approachbecause you first hire people to take on some of what you are already doing.

Once youve tried to learn the new skill, even if it feels awkward at first, youll more confidently hire a better fit for the job. The company willmore often than notbe better off.

To upgrade yourself, find an advisor who can coach you (or maybe one of your investors can do this, as we do from time to time in areas we feel we know well). Get a project-based contractor so you can stub your toe leading the work before you make a permanent hire, even if their work is mediocre.

When should you, eventually, hire the expert in some new skill?

Consider hiring by cell divisionbringing in a next person good at the same things you are good at, and handing her some of your work in that areaso that you can focus on practicing the next skill the company needs.

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