Fatal Errors in Early Startup Hiring

I don’t pretend to be an expert in HR or tech recruiting, at all. However, being a VC lawyer gives you a deep inside view into a lot of what goes right and what goes wrong in early-stage hiring for startups; particularly what goes wrong, because that’s usually when lawyers get called in. Lots of data points to notice patterns. While there are a whole lot more issues that I’m not covering, below are a few key recruiting errors (tactical, not legal) that I’ve regularly seen Founder CEOs make as they start trying to expand their roster.

Hiring Sociopaths

Well that escalated quickly, didn’t it. Very very very^2 few people are so talented that they can make up for having a toxic personality. What is toxic? Someone who either (i) can’t control their own emotions, or (ii) seems to somehow regularly trigger other peoples’ emotions, in a bad way.

The early days of a startup are chaotic. You need personalities that will absorb some of that chaos, and make it easier to manage, not harder. Character and values are at least as important as the person’s skillset. When I hire lawyers, I pay at least as much attention to subtle cues in a person’s behavior as I do to their analytical skills; their facial expressions, manner of speaking, how they react to others, how they describe other people and themselves. I’ve seen what it’s like to work in places where there is even just 1 super toxic personality. It ruins everything, and can sink a company.

That doesn’t mean emotions in general are bad. Emotion often means you care about something. It’s OK for people to get emotional about stuff; better than people who are disengaged and stoic all the time. But there’s a world of difference between getting emotional because you care about something v. just because you can’t control yourself, or don’t want to. Blind reference checks help a lot.

Hiring “Big Company” People

Jeff Bussgang’s “jungle, then dirt road, then highway” metaphor is valuable for understanding how you can go wrong in hiring people who aren’t the right fit for a startup environment. A Series C or later company operates extremely differently from how a seed or Series A company does. Later-stage companies have higher salaries, more narrowly defined roles, more predictability, more formality, more perks. Earlier stage means lower salaries (but more equity), more flexible and broad roles designed to ‘just get it done’ (whatever ‘it’ happens to be that day), more unpredictability, and closer-knit/more casual culture. “Highway” people usually can’t handle the jungle, or even the dirt road.

Problems arise when a company has raised a seed or Series A and suddenly wants to present themselves as one of the big dogs by hiring someone with a very impressive resume and title. That person will very often want a compensation package that strains the company’s budget, and a level of resources and order that simply isn’t appropriate for early stage. Talent can come in the form of a lot of different cultures and personalities. Make sure you’re hiring talent with realistic expectations for your company’s stage. Salary v. equity expectations are often a valuable signal here, and can select for the right or wrong people.

And a big thing to watch out for: I’ve known of VCs who subtly push founder CEOs to hire “big company” people sooner than they are really needed, to create a greater sense of urgency in needing to raise a new round, that they lead. If an investor has put some seed or Series A money in your company and wants to lead your Series A or B, they have an incentive to shrink your runway by filling your payroll with high-salary people earlier than is appropriate.  More payroll means you’re forced to close your Series A (or Series B) sooner, and at a lower valuation, than you otherwise would’ve wanted; increasing their ownership. Be mindful of this dynamic, and ensure you have a total grasp of what your talent needs are and aren’t. 

Hiring Too Fast

You see far more companies that die because they hired too fast, and eventually couldn’t keep up with payroll, than the converse. Successful entrepreneurs know how to be scrappy and resourceful; seemingly magically figuring out a way to achieve results with far fewer resources than other people could. That should apply to hiring as well, and it’s often achieved by ensuring that you aren’t hiring “big company” people (see above) with (i) unrealistic salary expectations, and (ii) such specialized skillsets that they leave needs unfilled that require hiring more people.

Hiring extremely talented, flexible generalists appropriately suited (and compensated) for early-stage is often how resourceful CEOs keep their early-stage company “default alive” instead of “default dead,” to use Paul Graham’s language.  As a general matter, at early stage someone who is really good at X, Y, and Z is more valuable, and a much safer hire, than someone who is world class at just X.

Hiring Friends or Family

If you build anything that starts getting traction, there will come a time when people start suggesting their friends and family to fill job positions. In some sense, this is not a bad thing. Recruiting from your existing roster’s network is actually a very smart and common way to find quality candidates without needing to pay recruiters. The danger, of course, lies in the psychological tendency for immature founders to hire people simply because they like them, rather than because those people actually have the talent and skills the company needs. 

Only go down this path if you are 100% comfortable saying ‘no’ over and over again, because you’ll need to. Frankly, if you’re CEO and don’t know how to say “no” when you need to (often), you’re going to face much bigger problems than hiring. 

Friends and family are easy to hire, but they’re much harder to fire because of the emotional and political dynamics surrounding the personal relationship. And hiring people because of existing relationships, instead of because of merit, is also a fast way to create an insular, mediocre mono-culture of people who are all buddies with each other, as opposed to a performance driven one. As a resource-strapped early-stage company trying to navigate chaos, you can’t afford to have a low performance culture. Hire for merit from Day 1.

As I said, there are dozens of big mistakes companies make in hiring, and I’m sure there are fantastic blog posts out there from experts on the subject. The above is just a few really core tactical blunders VC lawyers see founder teams make, because we’re usually called in to help the team clean up the mess from a legal perspective.

In the early days, hire extremely talented, flexible and mature team-players with realistic expectations about startup life, not too early, and not just because you like them or they are someone’s friend. It’ll save you an enormous amount of headaches… and legal fees.


Also published on Medium.