The Secret to Startup Hiring? Think Like a Casting Agent

What does hiring for your startup have in common with a Hollywood movie? Casting is everything.

February 2nd, 2018   |    By: The Startups Team    |    Tags: Management, Hiring & Firing

What do startup hiring and a Broadway production of Hamlet have in common? No, it’s not the murder, the Oedipus complex, and the existential crisis. (If it is, what kind of company are you running?)

In startup hiring, as in the theater, casting is everything.

Startup Hiring

When it comes to building a startup, you are who you hire. Not only do the people you bring onto your team determine the direction and destiny of your product; they also shape what it will be like to come to work every day.

Hiring is one of the most essential components of building a startup. But for some reason it’s also one of the least talked about. When you’re a founder, you’re frequently pulling double-duty as your own HR rep. But how many founders have you heard of that actually have HR experience coming in? And yet somehow we don’t think hiring is a worthwhile subject to talk about when we talk about building a company?

Yeah, forget that. We’re going to talk about it.

Joining us is one of the best “casting agents” in the business: Brian Govatos of Methodology Coaching. As a training and development consultant, he’s worked with Microsoft, Google, and Best Buy to develop their field teams into evangelists who can change beliefs and affect behaviors. And, as Brian will be the first to tell you, it all starts with casting.

Here, Brian walks us through some of the ins and outs of casting your startup: what matters more than you know, what matters less than think, and why startup hiring is as much about who your company is as who your candidates are.

Rule #1: Don’t Be Thirsty

The first mistake to avoid when it comes to startup hiring, says Brian? Being so desperate to hire someone that you hire literally anyone.

“In today’s recruiting economy, there are so many companies who merely deal with ‘warm bodies,'” he says.

Startup Hiring

Recruiters and HR professionals sometimes talk about the “mirror test.” You put a mirror under someone’s nostrils, and if you see fog, that means they’re alive, and you hire them.

In the startup world, the pressure to hire somebody right now can be extra intense, because there’s just so much work to be done. Small teams get overwhelmed quickly. Burnout runs rampant. It’s easy to give into the temptation to put bodies in seats just to have them there. That’s why it’s so important to think carefully about how each hire helps build toward your company’s goals.

Resist the temptation to desperation-hire if you can. It’s a recipe for instant turnover. It creates more problems than it solves.

One solution if the right full-time hire isn’t materializing when you need it: tap into the freelance community instead. Freelance talent tends to be more affordable than a full-time hire, since you can leave out expenses like insurance and office space. And there are some insanely talented freelancers out there who may not be looking for a full-time job, but take real pride in getting results for their clients.

But here’s the thing: finding the right freelance fit can be as time-consuming as a full-time hiring process — and just as much of a crap-shoot. So an even better solve? Find an agency partner you trust who can fill in the talent gaps for you. An agency partner like Zirtual.

NEED HELP FOR YOUR TEAM RIGHT NOW?

With Zirtual, we’ve built an entire team of productivity all-stars who specialize in solving complex problems for over-extended startup teams.

Our VA’s do more than book plane flights and schedule haircuts. Zirtual assistants are smart, motivated and, best best of all, they’re seasoned pros at working with startups and all that comes with it.

Looking for an extension for your team? Head over to Zirtual to find out more about the difference a VA can make for your startup.

DON’T BE AN OVERZEALOUS GATEKEEPER

Being too trigger-happy with your hiring practices is one way to create HR headaches for your startup company. But as Brian points out, the opposite can be just as much of a problem.

Startup Hiring

When you’re evaluating a candidate, says Brian, think of it as a series of gates that they have to pass through:

Gate 1: Fundamentals

“Can the person type 50+ WPM? Do they have a car?”

Gate 2: Experience

“Has this person worked in this industry or specialty before?”

Gate 3: Knowledge

“How have they performed on a knowledge test? Does their knowledge seem proportionate to their experience?”

Gate 4: Lifestyle

“Do they travel to Rome for 3 months each year? Do they take care of a live-at-home relative? What factors might affect their ability to do the job well?”

Gate 5: Skills

“This is the easiest gate to train someone on. It’s the least important of all of them. If they have everything else, having relevant skills is frosting on the cake.”

You might be thinking that a candidate has to pass through all five of these gates to be worth bringing in for an interview. But think again.

“If you pass through these 5 gates, you’re an ideal candidate,” says Brian. “If you pass through 3-4 of them, you’re certainly worth my time and interest.”

Waiting for the literal perfect candidate to walk through your door is a pretty surefire way to ensure you never fill a position. But as Brian points out, it’s not about lowering your standards. It’s about changing how you frame what your standards are. Which brings us to our next point…

Want help choosing the best questions to ask during an interview? Check out our 46 Startup Interview Questions for Building an Amazing Team. 

HIRE FOR WHAT YOU CAN’T TRAIN FOR

You might be looking at the hiring gates listed above and thinking to yourself: are we really saying a candidate’s skills are the least important factor in deciding whether to hire someone or not?

Yep, that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

“If a candidate has the intelligence, experience, fundamentals, and lifestyle that would make them ideal for your startup, how crazy would you have to be to turn them down simply because it will take them a couple weeks to ramp up on the right skills?” says Brian.

To give a concrete example: If you’re hiring an email marketing manager, for example, and you find a candidate who has great energy and a writing style you love and a clear passion for your industry — are you really not going to hire that person because they haven’t worked with Hubspot before?

People who can stand the rigor, the uncertainty, and, let’s face it, the flat-out insanity of the startup life are few and far between. They’re the definition of diamonds in the rough. Would you throw away a diamond that you picked up on the street because it’s a square cut instead of a princess cut? No? Then don’t turn away smart, motivated, likable, capable people who are passionate about what you’re trying to build just because they don’t have the right keywords on their resume.

“You can’t train someone to be passionate, or to develop a passion,” says Brian. “But you can redirect passionate energy that already exists.”

ARE YOU HIRING EMPLOYEES OR TEAMMATES?

Brian’s final piece of advice about casting the right players for your startup team: think carefully about what you’re really looking for — an employee, or a teammate.

Brian explains it this way:

“When you hire someone, you can consider them an employee, in the sense that you issue directives, evaluate their work, and compensate them for their time. Or, you can consider them a member of your team, and treat them as someone who has chosen to dedicate their time making your vision a reality, including learning alongside you and experiencing the ups and downs of your startup.”

In our experience, the reason most people apply to work at startups in the first place is that they’re looking for the second kind of experience. They don’t want to take orders and follow protocols. They want to blaze trails, take ownership, and grow their skills and the company that they’ve chosen to work for.

And on that note, remember: you don’t just choose candidates — candidates have to choose you, too. So while you’re focusing on finding the right teammates for your team, make sure you’re keeping an eye on building the right team for your teammates.

Let’s circle back to our acting analogy: the Meryl Streep of startups doesn’t want to star in your artistically bankrupt action flick full of lazy dialogue and cheap CGI. So make sure you’re building the company that’s worthy of the talent you want to attract.

here’s MORE GOOD STUFF ABOUT HIRING

About the Author

The Startups Team

Startups is the world's largest startup platform, helping over 1 million startup companies find customers, funding, mentors, and world-class education.

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