How to hire A-players for your startup
11 min read

How to hire A-players for your startup

Hiring is the most important lever you have as a founder. Early hires especially have a massive influence in that regard and they set a trajectory for the company’s culture that is hard to change later. As a founder, you need to develop the skillset to recruit top talent to your company.

This post will help you set up a hiring process that ensures you hire an A player for every role.

Which roles should I hire for first?

When starting out you're doing everything from product development to marketing to sales. So what should you hire for first?

I think the main principle for first-time founders should be to hire for roles where you are strong. This is contradictory to what we intuitively think - most of us want to hire for roles we aren’t great at. The problem with that is that it's actually really hard evaluating and managing a role you've never done.

Instead, if you hire for a role you can do yourself you'll find it much easier to hire and coach the person.

Before you start interviewing candidates

Most people start off their recruitment process by writing a job description, posting it online and hoping for the best. This is a terrible approach because you haven’t yet figured out what you actually want or how you’ll evaluate candidates. Job descriptions aren’t meant to be a way to evaluate candidates - instead they are actually adverts used to attract candidates.

So where should you start?

Before you interview anyone, make a 1-pager that describes the role. This scorecard is an internal document for the hiring team that forms the foundation of their process. It describes the key outcomes this role needs to achieve and core competencies the candidate needs. The scorecard doesn’t need to sound appealing or be politically correct because this is an internal document.

For some reason founders often seem to resist spending time on this step, but it is the foundation of a good recruitment process.

My scorecards include:

  1. Mission: Description of what they will be doing
  2. Outcomes: What a successful candidate in this role will achieve
  3. Competencies: What skills they need to have
  4. Background & personality:  What type of person they are

Pro tip: As a first-time founder you’re often going to be hiring for roles that you don’t know all that much about. If you've never done the job you're hiring for then find someone who has. It is a game changer asking a friend (or even a friendly stranger on LinkedIn) who has done, hired and managed the role before to tell you what to look for.

How do you make a good scorecard?

It can actually be quite hard to figure out what you need to be looking for. Here are some techniques I use to get inspiration:

  • Braindump a list of all the tasks the person will need to do
  • Look at similar roles on LinkedIn or other job boards
  • Ask an advisor for a copy of their scorecard

When looking at competencies I have found the chart below to be quite helpful. It highlights how hard certain competencies are to change. For example, you could train someone to run meetings well but you should not bet on changing someone’s tenacity.

Assigning relative weight to the competencies

To take things further you can assign a relative weight to each competency. This step is not strictly necessary, but it does make it easier to assess candidates.

CompetencyRelative Weight
Coachability6
Curiosity5
Attention to detail4
Applied intelligence3
Work Ethic3

In the table above, Coachability is the most important competency and Applied Intelligence and Work Ethic are the least important. While it may seem that the purpose of this is to calculate a score for each candidate, I’ve found that to be overkill. Instead the weights help to focus the hiring team on what is critical and where they can compromise.

Create a hiring process

You should be skeptical of people who claim to be intuitive about hiring but who are unable to explain their views. Hiring isn’t quite a science, but it damn sure doesn’t need to be an art. With the right process you can drastically reduce your error rate and compensate for most of the biases that plague us during hiring.

When it comes to hiring, a structured process is your friend! Yes, process is boring but it also saves time and effort in the long run. It’s worth investing in this early because once you understand the high-level process, hiring is a lot less stressful.

What makes a good process:

A good hiring process should:

  • Accurately evaluate candidates for the role
  • Give candidates a compelling (and accurate) view into the role and company
  • Not require insane amounts of your time
  • Not waste the candidate’s time

The best candidates in any profession have options available to them - so to hire these candidates it’s as much about attraction as it is about filtering.

How to design a hiring process for a role

The outline of a good hiring process might look something like this:

  1. CV Review
  2. Phone screen
  3. Interview
  4. Homework
  5. (Virtual) Onsite
  6. References

For some roles at OfferZen we sometimes add a questionnaire after the CV review.

With a rough outline in hand, you want to figure out where you’re going to be evaluating for the competencies on the scorecard. For instance, to evaluate written communication ability you’d probably want the candidate to do some writing as part of the process or review work they’ve done in the past.

Once you’ve gone through all the competencies you’ll end up with a table like this:

CompetencyCV ReviewPhone ScreenInterviewHomeworkOnsiteReferences
Hiring A playersxx
Written commsxxx
Coachabilityxxx
Industry knowledgexxxx

Instead of trying to evaluate the candidate on all competencies at all interview stages, you now know exactly what to evaluate them on at each stage.

Defining how you’ll evaluate each competency

Next we want to define the interview stages in detail and create standard methods for evaluating each competency.

CV Review: I’ve found the most effective way of parsing CVs is to try and tell their career story to myself. I start off by looking at their current role and employer, then skipping to education and work my way back up to their current employment. Over time you will develop an intuitive sense of what to expect from candidates based on their CV.


Customised, well-written cover letters are rare so take note when you get them.

Questionnaire: Questionnaires are great for administrative questions (notice period, salary expectations, location etc), but also work surprisingly well for quickly getting a sense of candidates. As a bonus, you get to see how they write! Be careful to not make the candidates jump through too many hoops at this stage - they haven’t yet spoken to someone from your team and aren’t necessarily that interested in the company yet.

Phone screen: This is an inexpensive step (20-30min) for both parties to see if it’s worth investing more in the process. You typically want to have a mix of:

  • high-level filtering questions (e.g. what do they know about the company, why did they apply, what makes them excited about the role, why are they looking for a new job)
  • Telling the candidate about the company and the role - and of course answering questions they have.

Interviews: you want to have the most important interview questions written down so you always ask them. This gives you an excellent basis of comparison between candidates.

To develop the questions, start by looking at the competencies and determining how you might uncover information that would let you evaluate the candidate. For example, to determine is someone has grit you might ask them about the most challenging time they went through at each of their previous jobs.

Homework: getting candidates to do a bit of work in the evening or over a weekend is an excellent way of seeing what they can do. It’s critical to have a good briefing document for the candidate and talk them through it on the phone before they start. The actual homework tasks can vary massively depending on the role and competencies being test: writing mock emails, giving feedback on copy, writing an article, coding a project etc

Onsite: You have two broad directions to go in with onsites, each with their own trade offs:

  • The standard approach that most companies take is a series of structured interviews. These typically include both technical interviews and culture fit interviews.
  • The alternative approach is to run a full simulation day where the candidate spends a day working with the team. This is far more time expensive both in preparation and on the day, but it’s definitely worthwhile for early hires.

The end of the onsite is also a great chance for founders who haven’t been involved in the

Recruitment Metrics

There are a few key recruitment metrics worth knowing about:

  • Time-to-hire: How long it takes the candidate you hire to go through the entire interview process
  • Time-to-fill: How long it takes you to fill the role you’re hiring for
  • Candidate experience: How successful and unsuccessful candidates rate their experience

Time-to-hire is especially important and should be a focus. A faster process is almost always better because it means you don’t lose out on candidates to other companies. Larger companies typically have more bureaucracy and a slower process. As an early-stage startup you can have a really fast process and I’d recommend you aim to get time-to-hire down to 14 days, if not faster when possible.

Interviewing

Don’t get too attached to scripted questions

You’re using a script for interviewing, but remember that blandly reading questions off a script will come across as disinterested. When genuine curiosity and a bit of practice interviewing, you’ll find it becomes easy to naturally ask the structured questions.

Don't be a dick!

Interviews are a chance for the candidate to prove to an interviewer that they’ll be good at the job. Don't use them to prove to the candidate how smart you are.

  • Help them to do well
  • Don't ask brain teasers

An indicator of a good interview process is that even candidates who don’t get the job they still refer their friends to work there. Remember top candidates are in-demand and they are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them.

Make room for questions

People should know what they're in for before they join. Be open about where the business is, what your plans are and the risks. Importantly, also explain why you believe in the mission and why you think the company has a good chance to win.

It’s generally considered a red flag if a candidate doesn’t have questions about the role or company, but don’t rule them out. It could just be that they’re shy. So if they don’t have questions you should nudge them to ask and if you’re still not getting much then just suggest you talk about the company vision a little.

Early stage startups are not for everyone and you do not want to hire someone who doesn’t know what they are in for. So make sure they leave the interview process knowing what the role, culture and expectations really are.

Taking notes

Write down the facts (i.e. what the candidate is saying) rather than your opinions of them. Opinions are static and don’t provide more information over time - but by writing down facts you give yourself the opportunity to gain more insights when you review your notes.

Reference checks

References serve a dual purpose: they help you to check your assessment of the candidate and they are an opportunity to learn how to set the candidate up for success if they join.

  • Don’t just ask the standard questions - get information to assess the candidate again.
  • Don’t only ask for their opinion - spend most of the time getting facts about the candidate’s past performance and behavior.

Making the hiring decision

Here are a few heuristics to keep in mind when making the actual decision to hire:

  • When you’re undecided it’s a no: It’s better to make the mistake of passing on a great candidate than hiring a terrible candidate.
  • Hire for strengths, not lack of weaknesses: If you filter out candidates because they have weaknesses you'll end up making lukewarm hires. The best candidates often have big shortcomings. Set up your interview process to identify strengths, rather than seeking only flaws
  • Never hire brilliant jerks: You will find some candidates that are smarter than everyone else and acutely aware of it. They’ll tell you stories about how their colleagues screwed up, how their boss didn’t appreciate them and how they repeatedly saved the day. Never hire these people.

Offers

When you are ready to make the candidate an offer, give them a call and explain your intentions on the phone. If they aren’t obviously excited, then dig into that before proceeding with the actual offer. You never want to blindly send an offer to a candidate and just hope for the best.

Some founders feel hurt when candidates have doubts about joining. They believe that the right candidates don't need convincing. This is just their ego getting in the way. You need to hustle to get the best!

Protip: Hiring is not done until the day they start! Their current employer has their entire notice period to convince them to stay. Give your new hire a weekly call or email with updates until they start.

Sourcing

Recruitment is a combination of sales and marketing

  • Marketing: Attracting candidates to your company
  • Sales: Seeing if there is a fit and convincing candidates to join

Careers page and job descriptions

Have a careers page on your website. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but explain why you guys are doing meaningful work and what the culture is like. A common hack with careers pages is to use a tool like Notion to build the page. Here’s a good example: Mighty Careers

Do not have boring job descriptions. Linkedin, careers24 and Pnet are filled with thousands of jobs - so you need to differentiate your jobs in some way.

Build personal LinkedIn networks

Don’t think of LinkedIn connections as interesting people you might want to speak to one day rather than Facebook friends. You can add up to 200 connections a day, so whenever you find anyone interesting on LinkedIn just connect with them. Over time this also gives some people the perception that you’re super connected, which increases the chances they accept your connections.

There are tools to automate mass-connections: https://www.linkedhelper.com/. These are mainly useful for lead gen, but there are use cases for recruiting too. For instance, compile a list of all SA-based companies in your industry in and connect with all their employees.

Build in Public

Building in public is a great way of building a following and increases your credibility. Linkedin and Twitter are good places to do this. It’s a long-term benefit so don’t expect results too quickly.

Examples of people that do this quite well:

Have a company blog where you write updates about what you’re doing. These both serve to attract candidates and are useful for candidates in the pipeline to find out more about the company and founders. Here are some posts from the early OfferZen days:

Press

It’s surprisingly easy to get press for your startup in South Africa. You don’t need a PR agency - in fact you don’t want one. Journalists like it when the founders reach out directly to them.

Press has two main benefits when it comes to recruiting:

  1. Attracting more candidates - they now know you exist and are doing cool things
  2. Converting potential candidates - most competent candidates will Google you and see the press

Sites like Ventureburn, Disrupt Africa, TechCentral are obvious targets because they are keen to report on startups.

Obvious things to get press on is funding and achieving milestones (e.g. 100 customers).

Direct Outreach

Some tips:

  • Connect with everyone you want to speak to so you get their email address. Only send paid inmails after a few days of them not accepting your invite.
  • Don’t do a hard sell on working at your startup - you’re reaching out to passive candidates, so sell having a quick conversation. “Do you want to change jobs?” is a much more scary thought for people than “Do you want to have a quick chat about our company and the opportunities there?”

For more senior roles I sometimes go in with asking for advice. For instance, if I want to hire someone to lead a team, I’d reach out to other leaders and ask them for advice on what I should be looking for.

Nobody knows who you are at this stage, so most of the work will need to be done with direct outreach to candidates. You have no idea if someone is looking for a new job on LinkedIn. So similar to prospecting, this is a numbers game to some degree.

Further reading