Most entrepreneurs underestimate the challenge of hiring someone for a founding role. I know I did. The roles that end up becoming some of the most influential in a startup often stay in the hands of those who come onboard as founders. So it’s important to get the makeup of that core team right. Whether it’s a sales director, customer success head, or lead engineer you’re looking for, there are a few principles that can help you make the right decisions for the long haul.
Conventional hiring wisdom says to look for people who’ve had past successes. However, it’s one thing to operate in your field successfully, and another to truly create–to be someone who can really build something new and innovative. Your founding team members need to be creators. After all, they’ll be tasked with designing your departments from scratch.
For example, let’s say you’ve spent the first nine months building your product and now need customers. Your first marketing hire will be your founding marketer–who will in turn make subsequent marketing hires. She’ll need a vastly different skill set from someone who’s only had experience running an already successful marketing program. Deciding what analytics program to use, which channels to pursue first, and how to estimate customer lifetime value–all those might be major leaps for even a talented operator to make.
Much has been written about the challenges founders face as they make the transition to CEO, but the opposite is also true: taking someone who’s accustomed to structure and turning them into a high-performing “creator.”
There are only two paths: Either the founder sets up the department beforehand then hires someone to run it, or else looks for someone with entrepreneurial tendencies to do that on their own. You just need to make sure you know which path you’re on, and that will determine the kind of founding team you assemble.
Most founders choose to do things themselves, and early on, that’s often the best approach. Scaling up quickly isn’t always the best path to success. As long as you have the skills in the given area, it’s sometimes smart for founders to lay important groundwork themselves.
Some argue that founders’ main focus should be on fundraising and hiring, but I tend to disagree. Almost every founder I’ve met has had to reckon with some element of hubris in this regard. When we finally had a paid marketing budget here at Blank Label, I hired someone to run it. Even though they’d worked previously in both startup and agency environments, they weren’t able to build a program from scratch. They were always faced with the question, “Where do I even start?” We later outsourced those major marketing functions to an agency, but they weren’t quite in sync with the our brand.
Ultimately, I did what I should’ve done from the start: I rolled up my sleeves and did the work. I designed my days so I could be running the business while also getting deep into creating content, executing campaigns, and mapping out the analytics. Over the last two years, we’ve been able to hire great operators and have built a six-person marketing team. But all that required setting up shop, so to speak, on my own–then bringing in the right people to run it. And in this case, that turned out to be the right move.
In other cases, it isn’t. If a founder isn’t strong in a certain area, it’s important to bring someone onto the founding team who is. But that means being clear about the company vision, strategy, and value proposition in the marketplace–in essence, pitching the company itself to potential cofounders, not just the role you want them to fill. (Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business is an excellent guide to this very problem.)
Whatever role you need a founding member to perform, look for someone with a maker mentality, design thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Is this person a creator? Can they make decisions with limited information? Then once they’re on the team, let your founders make mistakes. There’s no better instructor than bruising experiences, as long as you’ve got the right people with you.
Fan Bi is the CEO of Blank Label, an award-winning custom menswear brand, which was founded in 2010 and has shipped over 100,000 custom garments to customers all over the world. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.