I saw a LinkedIn post this morning that resurfaced a recurring debate that startups have: how early on do you bring in a recruiter to the team to accelerate hiring? The recruiter example can be replaced with other specialists.
More broadly, in the early stages of evolution everyone in the company is stretched so thin - what’s the right strategy to get help?
There are two distinct strategies that a company can pursue:
1) We are under-resouced in x, and x is a critical activity. So lets go hire a specialist in x.
2) We are under-resourced in x, and x is a critical activity. Recognize that great talent is scarce, and figure out how to get leverage within the foundational team so that we can focus more on x.
1) is tempting and what most companies go for. And its true - in an ideal world you’d always bring in a functional specialist. This will allow expand the organization’s capabilities, and bring in an individual who can help grow the function as the company scales.
Unfortunately, startups typically don’t benefit from the good fortune of the right hire at the right time. So an expedient hiring decision is made, and focus moves to the next fire. When trying to create value over the long term, short-term relief causes pain down the line.
When it comes to talent, done is never better than perfect.
Here’s how it plays out, using the example of hiring a recruiter. The hire is made. The best salespeople in organization - founders, early employees, whoever played an important role in foundationally getting the business off the ground and the first few hires in the door - shift focus. A unique capability is replaced by a ‘good enough’ capability. And as a result, quality suffers.
If this happened quickly, recourse would be obvious. Fire the recruiter and find a new one. In practice its rarely that obvious unless performance is egregiously bad. The company’s brand, early employee reputation, etc. creates a multi-month or multi-year overhang that give the appearance of the new hire doing a good or great job. We’ve hit our hiring target, what’s the problem?
Every unique individual who comes in early on in the evolution of an organization has the potential to change its future course. If you are not the highly-engaged, context-deep ‘whisperer’ that can be found in early startup teams, you may not be sensitive or aware enough to see this potential. Or have the moral authority within the organization to take a flier on a high beta candidate.
And the person who could have driven inflection point outcomes in the business comes and goes, just another stat that gets reported on.
Marc Andreessen shared a quote from The Black Swan in one of his blog posts:
Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think…
The same goes for hires. The ones that can change outcomes are much rarer than you think.
So how do you create leverage for yourself in the event you want to wait for the best?
- Be super-specific about the things that you (and your team) can do that truly no one else can do. Hold on to those things, and get help for the others.
- Assess your meeting strategy
- Use lots of freelance / part time work to fill in gaps with the work that needs to get done
- Use tech & productivity hacks. Having an assistant (even as part of a pool) never worked for me, but tools like Calendly & inbox management strategies like Tiago Forte's One-Touch really changed my game.
- Have a great generalist program that brings on quick learners to support specialist work. In my experience, great generalists can beat all but the best functional specialists. And with the right development, you may build rather than buy the speciality the company needs.
The rule I follow: Every full time hire made should have the potential to change the outcome for the company, and not dilute the existing talent level.
Leaving hours in the day to the side, is this person going to extend our capability in a new direction? Are they going to be better at ‘x’ than the best person in the company is today? If not, don’t make the hire.
This doesn’t mean companies don’t need to hire to scale. It does mean that scaling is hard because hiring is hard, but this is what creates long-term value. Which is a hard thing to do!
Can this drive the early team a little crazy, and welcome sneers from investors about not moving quickly enough? Maybe. But its also how the game is won.