3 ways founders can avoid writing a hiring horror story [Founders’ Network Knowledge]

Sean Sankey, July 12, 2016 4 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Our Founders’ Network events might be exclusive to our hand-picked network of digital business founders in the North of England, but we’re keen to share the knowledge and insights from these events with you, our wider audience.

Here’s part 3 in our Founders’ Network Knowledge Series. Over to workshop leader Sean Sankey

It’s not easy to get a start-up off the ground, and there are a multitude of reasons for that.

At Form, we have worked with a whole range of founders of tech and creative businesses, and between my co-founder and I, we have successfully launched a few businesses and projects ourselves. In all of this, we’ve realised that there are at least five major draws on every founder’s attention. Realistically speaking, you’ve got to show (or at least grow!) competence for each realm.

Without a concept, you really don’t have much. Then there’s finding the cash to make it work. The drive to get customers engaged is crucial. Your marketplace and competition need to be weighed and kept a close eye on. And then there’s finding and supporting the colleagues to be around you, who ultimately will make or break the whole endeavour.

Without success in all five, not many entrepreneurs make it. But for now, let’s focus on people – the merry band of individuals who come together in the hope of smashing the other four problems out of the park to create something they can tell their grandkids about.

‘The ones worth suffering for’

As the founder, your first hire is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll make. What’s the skillset, the personality mix and the experience that’s needed to make this all work? How do I find them? Full-time or part-time? Staff or freelancer? Equity or cash? And at the end of the day, there’s the big elephant in the room of emotions and trust. Bob Marley was having an enlightened day when he said “The truth is that everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”

So there’s a lot that can go wrong, and even when it goes ‘right’, the truth is that sometimes your colleagues will drive you crazy, because that’s just the nature of being part of a team. But what are the absolute key things to avoid if you’re going to find those people that are worth suffering for and avoid going the way of founders with hiring horror stories?

1. Getting the ‘need’ wrong

Founders make the mistake of over- or under-shooting the next need of their business. What does that mean? Well, ironically, working out what skills your business needs next begins with a good, honest look at yourself. Where do you best play? Why would you hire a marketer if you’re the best and most able marketer out there but are just drowning in admin? Or are you best placed to build product, because being honest you’re most comfortable in dark rooms wearing headphones and you desperately need to get someone in for PR?

To avoid investing money you can’t afford to waste in a capability that isn’t 100 percent right for where you are, the first step is to map out what the specific needs are for the business. Then ruthlessly prioritise them (as there will be many!). Then figure out where you’re best to play and where others can add the most value in bringing their A-game.

2. Getting the timing wrong

This is crucial. Bringing someone in too soon without the cash or the planning to enable them to hit the ground running can topple the thing over. But more often what happens is that owners delay too long, which means energy fades and the project never really gets going. A sensible rule of thumb is when you can see how you’ll afford someone extra for at least three months with runway beyond that, then start the process.

One of the things we often do with founders is help owners through the process of building their hiring roadmap. This forms part of the workshop that we are running through Tech North’s Founders’ Network.

Essentially your organisation is going to be a bunch of people, and it makes a massive difference having an intentional, mapped out plan for exactly what kind people you’re aiming to bring on board at the different points in your company’s journey. Even more so when you couple that plan to your timescales for raising funding and launching product.

3. Getting the motivation wrong

So here’s the thing. This isn’t a theatrical luvvie’s question of “what’s my motivation here?” It’s much more important. When you think about it, you’re probably expending a huge amount of energy in figuring out and appealing to your customers. But your customers are only going to give you money. Which is nice. But a co-director or employee is effectively giving you a portion of their life!
Getting real at the outset about what both your motivations are for being part of the project is utterly vital if you want to avoid the horror of a swift divorce.

For the sake of space, let’s just focus on the motivation of the person you want to have join. Do their motivations align with your plan for the business? Until they’re prompted, few founders we’ve met dare to ask themselves the question “why would someone join me?” And the follow-on to that would be “what should I be offering?” What if someone is looking to be part of a wealth creation journey? What if they want to be creative but you just want someone to implement your ideas?

The point here is that, if you unwittingly take someone on who wants one thing but then figures out that being part of your team is quite the opposite then it’s going to get really messy, really quickly.

There’s lots more that’s part of the people equation that we’ll cover at the workshop and that we’ll also be giving away as free resources to Founders’ Network members. However, for now, why not stop to ask yourself which of these through would be your potential trap in falling into writing a hiring horror story? And then what you can do to write a different story instead…

Read next: The biggest mistake of your first funding round

Hiring, How to, Founders' Network