How To Attract and Keep People in Your Startup

Written by Alin Merches
Published on Aug 29, 2016
Read time 10 min
Category Business Strategy


In the companies where I was involved as a co-founder we have worked with many sorts of people and there are a few lessons I have learned regarding recruitment and culture fit. And I want to share these lessons here and how we put them into practice at Mobiversal.

1. Attitude and intelligence over skills

We value a good attitude over experience or skills. You can train smart people to do tasks, but it’s nearly impossible to instill the right attitudes and values in them if they don’t already possess them.

According to a LeadershipIQ study, only 11% of the new hires that failed in the first year and half, did so because of lack in technical skills.

I’m not stating that knowledge is not important, actually you need to have skilled people, but being an “A player” is defined especially by attitude and intelligence; the rest will follow.

Choose the people with an opinion, people who can honestly explain what they like and dislike. The kind of people who believe in missions and values. They care. Those are the people who will be telling the truth when you are talking about your startup’s vision or when you have an important decision to share with them.

A successful startup will quickly outgrow everyone’s current skills and roles.
If things are going well it’s going to grow and morph unpredictably. So will the demands on your employees. One of the most exhausting aspects of startups is this constant evolution so you need people that adapt quickly.

How do you test the attitude and potential?

While it can be fairly simple to assess a candidate’s current skills, rating their potential is less so. You can’t discover accurately in an interview or two and even if you have tests, you can notice only some types of personality and not too much the cultural fit, and so on.

What we do here, we propose a 3 months internship or limited employment contract. In this period you can actually know the person much better.

You have to like a candidate before you hire them. This sounds subjective and somehow unfair, especially when the context is strictly professional. But they need to blend into your team, get along with you and co-workers on a daily basis and be persistent in tough times.

There are opinions that argue about what and how fast a human being can learn but the reality is that specific human traits can’t be acquired beyond a certain stage in life. Focus on the fundamentals: diligence/attitude, intelligence, personality. You can’t train enthusiasm or a solid work ethic.

Make a strong attempt to never hire people with a bad attitude. That little problem you noticed in an interview will be magnified many times by six months of hard work in a small team. Don’t overlook it.

2. Rely more on recommendations and be creative in the recruitment process

Very good people are head-hunted all the time, that means you have a lot of competition when you are trying to attract them. First of all, if you are just a startup (that means not too much brand awareness) you can’t compete with the big names in the industry that automatically attract talents. You have to be more nimble and to rely on different things.
For example, having a boring recruitment ad in the newspaper or on jobs sites, places you on the “bottom of their searches”. You are no smarter or creative than any other company using this method. Try to use creative methods and rely heavily on recommendations. Start by knowing that person, see their habits, hobbies, what they are aiming for, and based on this mix of info you can personally address an invitation to join your organization. This increases the chances of having them on board.

In Mobiversal we practice this and we research a person heavily on social media and even in “real life” to be sure they are a culture fit.

We prefer to have quality versus quantity when referring to resumes.

It’s better to have a few resumes of people that you know many things about than to have too many resumes of people you know nothing or too little about them.

3. Start to create a good culture around co-founders from day one of your startup

Co-founders (and especially the CEO) are the responsible ones for the company culture. Why is this so important? And how do you create and emulate it?

It’s good to have some basics written down in a document so you can easily share with every team member. Those basic principles should be understood and actually lived and practiced daily by all the team members (OK, at least most of them)

How can founders hire for a culture that doesn’t yet exist?

You have to be very clear about your values. You need to sit down and say, “This is how I think business should be done, this is what’s really important to me, and this is what my company is going to stand for.” These are critical points that people need to identify but rarely do. As a founder, you have to determine what “right” looks like before you can build a team around it.

This can be hard to pin down but it’s very important. You have to see the “congruence” — the fit between personality and organization. It means that you need to assess people on their behavior, mentality and match to the values of your company.

If this is not happening you just talk about culture and is not really assumed. This is a continuous process because it’s not an easy thing to make it happen at every moment.

For example if you want to have a culture that nurtures creativity and flexibility, it is conspicuous that you can’t ban social media or have just a list of “approved” websites while at work. Or if you want people to have a tight schedule at the office, you can’t encourage people to work remotely or comes rarely at the office.

What is a good company culture?

A good company culture empowers every team member to give their best at work and to be satisfied and happy doing that. It also encourage transparency, pleasure of work, companionship and constant feedback.

4. Encourage and nurture innovation and entrepreneurship

Not everyone is an entrepreneur, we know that. But you can cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship as a state of mind. Or you can attract only those people that have already this state of mind.

They could be easy to attract if you find them in a big corporate organization and their system does not give them freedom for creativity. If you are good enough they will come to you if you can really offer them a proper field for their ideas and opinions, that of course, helps your company grow.

In your organization, especially in the very beginning, you need these people even if sometimes it’s harder to work with them. But without creativity and an entrepreneurial mindset, with the constant changes in your startup, they won’t adapt or they will have a mediocre outcome.

How do you attract those first employees before the cash starts flowing?

One of the methods we use is we do have internships for inexperienced people and we found it as a very good method to test attitudes, learning process, etc. This way you don’t have to spend a lot in wages. Even more than this, sometimes we test their loyalty to our values by offering them an internship period with the “no obligations clause” from both sides offering them no payment, just to come and learn from our mentors. This can be a very effective way to evaluate their reactions and mindset.

Also being an entrepreneurial company at the heart, we want for all our employees to become partners with the co-founders; that means if they come and are loyal, they become part of what we all create as organisation.

And another way is by internal natural recommendation: if our people are happy they will surely want some of their friends, colleagues to join where they are.

In conclusion, I argue that as a startup you really can attract talented people and keep them in the organisation. It’s not an easy process, we know this very well from our own experience, but with hard work and patience, eventually a handful of people will stay around you. You don’t need 100 employees in the first days, try to find your best fit in 3-5-10 people. They are your “commando troop” that can make miracles like the special trained army forces.

Photo credit: Rawpixel

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Written by Alin Merches
Alin is CEO and Co-founder of Mobiversal, a mobile app development company working with startups and established brands like Forbes to create unique mobile experiences. Mobiversal is also the maker of Appointfix and FieldVibe.

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