Mistakes to avoid while recruiting for your startup

Sandeep Panda




This is not an essay, but a note to myself that I can refer to later.

When I first started Hashnode, I made quite a few mistakes like any other inexperienced startup founder. But the most expensive mistake was bad hiring. Everyone says your team makes or breaks your company. But I never understood that fully, until I started hiring well. You see when you hire the wrong set of employees, it's almost always going to be energy-draining for you. But when you hire right, it can create magic. You'll notice that suddenly you can reclaim your time, focus on things that matter, and move towards achieving your vision. You cannot do all of these when you are busy (micro)managing your team.

Everyone makes mistakes when hiring. Even seasoned founders do. But over the years, I have learned enough the hard way. Let me summarize my learnings here for the future me (and perhaps yourself!).

Hire people who think like you

As a founder, ask yourself what your core beliefs are, and look for those qualities when recruiting. For example, if you are someone who believes in the speed of execution, invite your potential candidate to your slack or discord as a guest, and try to gauge their speed. If they are not able to move fast, likely, they are not going to move fast after they join your company. If you compromise here and hire them anyway then you'll spend a major chunk of your time aligning them with your way of working. When I was chatting with Guillermo Rauch of Vercel, I got similar feedback. He told me one should never compromise on their core tenets, and this is one the most important things he looks for when recruiting. We all can see the result. Vercel is one of the fastest growing companies making a real impact on developers.

Now I have written down my core values and always refer to those when evaluating any candidate. This is so helpful when making a hiring decision.

If it's not a 100% yes, it's a no

After your raise your seed round, you're always in rush and get into hiring mode quickly. As time passes, you realize that you have not been able to fill some of the key positions. Your investors ask you what you are doing to tackle that. Suddenly, you find that you are having sleepless nights because you have not been able to hire fast. So, what do you do now? Most inexperienced founders lower the bar and hire people even if they don't have a 100% yes. If you hire several such employees, you are suddenly in trouble. You start micro-managing them because they aren't fully aligned with your style of working, or maybe do not have the necessary skills to take calls independently. So, you end up firing them and start from 0.

After running Hashnode for several years, I have now realized that it's better to take it a bit slow but hire only the best. The cost of hiring the wrong people is more than hiring slowly. Each extra person in the team adds overhead. You need to onboard them, give them context, and in most cases train them as well. If you are an early-stage founder, you have to do it yourself. So, why compromise, and lower the bar? Instead spend more time finding the right people, and you'll notice that you'll spend considerably less effort aligning them towards your vision after they join.

Hire people who smile 😀

It might sound silly, but it works. Startups are hard. You want to surround yourself with people who bring positivity and good energy. In most cases, when it's a tie, I always go for the more likeable candidate.

Do not be swayed by their fancy titles, ask them what they got done previously

While this is a great question to ask yourself every week, it's also equally important to ask the very same question to your potential employees. If you are interviewing someone who used to be a "growth hacker at <insert high-growth startup>", don't assume that they are a great fit without asking relevant questions. I have seen that the best discussions happen when I ask questions like:

  • What has been your biggest impact at your current company that wouldn't have been possible without you?

  • What's the most important thing you got done in the last 6 months?

  • What do you do on a daily or weekly basis?

These questions help the candidates answer questions at a much deeper level. Otherwise, conversations are always superficial, and you don't get to know them well.

Do not hire people who have never done that

As founders, we always think skills can be taught. It's the attitude that matters. While this is true, it's not always a good idea. When you are recruiting your founding team, you must make every attempt to hire people who are experts in their domain. For example, do not hire a PM who has never been a PM. Do not hire a growth hacker, who has never led growth.

You may think you can hire someone who is learning, and train them to be successful. It may happen. They'll probably get better with time, and be successful. But it'll take time and significant hand-holding in most cases. However, as a startup, your single biggest strength is speed. So, why would you slow down by hiring someone who needs significant hand-holding from you? I am not saying one should never hire and train. Just don't do that when you are on a rocketship and are just getting off the ground. At this stage, you need experts!

As always exceptions do exist, and you shouldn't put a blanket ban on people with no experience. Instead, take decisions on a case-by-case basis, and be extra careful when hiring people who have less or no experience.

Create a culture doc

I always thought culture doc is probably not that important, and it's something companies should do to align everyone when they reach 100+ members. But I have never been so wrong.

As we started recruiting and became a 20+ member team I found it very hard to hire the right kind of people. Soon I realized it's much easier if I just put our values in the form of a culture doc, and share that with the candidates upfront. That instantly filters out candidates who are not a good fit. It also helps you set your expectations before recruiting. For example, if you think your startup needs a lot of commitment, and it's not a 9-5 job then the culture doc helps you communicate that with potential candidates. Some people might not be ready to offer that kind of commitment, which is completely fine. Your job is to recruit people who are ready for this, and the culture doc sets the expectations beforehand.

Sahil Lavingia of Gumroad also suggests a similar technique in his book "The Minimalist Entrepreneur". You should read it if you haven't already.

I fully agree with creating a culture doc on day 0, and it has been working so well for us. It also helps when things do not work out. You can grab the culture doc, and realign your employees easily by going through it together.

Give people time to perform

Matt Mochary(a top Silicon Valley founder coach) mentions that employee onboarding is one of the critical factors that influence their performance. He says:

Everyone I coach, I recommend getting a Chief of Staff, and almost all have. These Chiefs of Staff are usually young (<30) and therefore relatively inexperienced. They gain the trust of the CEO, perform well, and most end up running entire departments within the company. The success rate among them is close to 100%.

My coachees also hire new executives. These folks are usually much more experienced, and on paper, much more impressive. Logic dictates that their success rate should be higher than those of the CoS role. Instead, their success rate is about 50%.

Why is this? I have concluded that it is all about onboarding. We allow the CoS to shadow the CEO for months (gaining full context) before asking them to perform. On the other hand, the executives are usually air-dropped into a live fire (without context) and asked to perform Day 1.

I ask my CEOs, “If you could wait 30-60 days and bring your new executive success rate from 50% to 100%, would you?” They, of course, all answer, “Yes.” So, we are now implementing the above onboarding methodology.


Honestly, I have personally been guilty of expecting people to perform fast. But it's important to understand that it takes a while for them to gain full context, and start producing results. As per Matt, a technique called shadowing, and reverse shadowing works the best. When you hire someone new to perform a duty that you are performing, make them sit by you and observe you for 2-3 sessions. Then delegate the job to them, and then you watch them perform it. Give them feedback, and help them improve. Do it for 2-3 sessions, and you'll see improvements(if you have hired well). So, this is something amazing that I learned from Matt that I thought of documenting here.

Speed is everything

As I mentioned before, speed is the most important asset for a startup. Big companies and enterprises are slow. What takes them 6 months to build will probably take you 1 month. So, when you hire, look for speed. I am not asking to check how fast they write code. But look at their sense of urgency. For example, how fast do they reply to your messages? If you report a bug in their assignment, how fast it's fixed, or how fast do they acknowledge it? I have observed that people who move fast are usually great hires. They feel a sense of urgency in everything, and want to experiment, iterate, and get feedback from customers fast.

As Nat Friedman (ex GitHub CEO) says,

  • "Slow is fake",

  • "A week is 2% of the year" 🤯.

The above ☝️strongly resonates with me. I tell everyone on our team that nothing else matters more than launching, and getting real feedback from users. By moving fast, you'll incur some tech debt for sure, but it's better than spending months building only to find out that no one wants to use it. But if you move fast, launch quickly, and get user adoption, your tech debt becomes a good problem. Now that you have validated your idea, you can focus on doing things in the right way. But all of the above is possible when you hire people who feel a sense of urgency in everything and are willing to move fast.

Hire those who are smarter than you

As you may know already, you are an average of 5 people you hang out with. To get your startup off the ground, you need an incredibly talented set of folks who are willing to join you in the mission and help you make the right decisions. If you don't hire people who are smarter than you, it's always going to be you who is always two steps ahead of them. In reality, your most important hires must be ahead of you and think of solutions before you do. They should be freeing you up so you can reclaim your time to think about the big picture. If it's always you who gives them solutions and instructions, then you know you have not hired well. It's your employees who should give you potential solutions, and solve complex problems. Your job is to assemble a great team and set the vision. It took a while for me to understand this, but hopefully, someone who is reading this can understand the value of a really smart team.

However, one question that often arises is that if they are smarter than you why would they work for you? Well, I am fairly convinced that people join a mission. It doesn't matter if they are smarter than you. If you can convince them why your mission is unique and worth pursuing, you can attract highly driven, and smart people. You must get better at storytelling, and communicating your vision.

In case you have a spare 20 min, do watch this video:

Amazing talk where Simon Sinek talks about how you can inspire people to join in your mission.

Good communication skills matter more than you think

Post-COVID, most teams are now being built remotely in a geographically distributed manner. This means good communication skills, and clarity of thought is more important than ever. Because of remote work, you'll probably rely more on Slack/Discord and other written communication tools. You'll also document most of your work (which is great IMO) in written format. Due to this, it's crucial to evaluate a candidate based on how well and how timely they communicate. If you think someone isn't able to communicate their thoughts well over email or slack during recruitment discussions, it's most likely going to be a problem even after they join.

So, it's probably a good idea to invite the potential candidates to your Slack or Discord, and talk to them as if they work for you already. That'll help you assess their communication style, sense of urgency, and ability to move fast.

Do not hire people who have nothing to lose

Finally, make every attempt to hire people who have built a reputation, and are active in the community. As a startup founder, you are playing a long game. You need to do the right thing. Be it your investors, employees, or partners - you should always do the right thing. But if you work with someone who doesn't have a reputation to maintain or has nothing to lose, they don't have skin in the game. They have no incentive to do the right thing and can be very unpredictable in their actions. So, always hire people who are willing to play the long game. The easiest way to know this before hiring is by doing a refcheck. I recently learned from Kunal Shah, the founder of Cred (valued at $6B+), that as a startup founder you should be able to get a refcheck done on anyone within 15 mins. So, you need to build a strong network and rely on them to get feedback on any candidate fast.

I am going to refer to this checklist while hiring. If it helps you in some way, I am glad.

Add a comment