Article by Damian Wolfgram
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone in The Valley say the secret to success is “hiring world-class talent,” I’d be able to afford world-class talent!
Telling a startup founder to hire world-class talent is like telling a teen from the inner city that the secret to success is getting a world-class education. Sounds great! But now what?
It’s one of those all-too-common B+ comments that sound smart but leave you with zero practical steps – not to mention the subtle fact that if world-class talent were in abundance, it wouldn’t be world-class!
The fact is, in startup life, you’re constantly trying to move mountains with shovels. You have to figure out how to do more with less. Punch above your weight class. This is David and Goliath.
Usually, the “smart” entrepreneur or venture capitalist will follow up the “world-class talent” comment with a slightly more passable one about hiring people smarter than yourself. It’s true you should hire people who are smarter than you are, but not just smarter – you’ll need to hire people who complement you with knowledge in the domains of your most pressing needs.
Instead of hiring world-class talent, I want to encourage you to build world-class talent. You have to find the right people for your team, and you might have to look in unlikely places to find your diamonds in the rough. From there, you can grow aspiring talent into world-class talent.
I’d like to give you some practical steps that will help you do this. But first, a quick story:
The Story of Blueberry Home
Our humble little startup, Blueberry Home, is now two years in the making. We’ve been on death’s doorstep at least twice (a story for a different post). At every step of the way, we’ve been resource-constrained in every possible way – or so it seemed at the time.
But that was until we learned how to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Let me explain:
We did some things right. We assembled a strong founding team that was strong-willed, if not stubborn. We built a trust, mutual respect, and commitment to each other that will stand the test of time.
For the first 18 months, we didn’t have the engineering to advance our product development dramatically. It was a real issue for a supposed software company! To build our minimum viable product (MVP), we relied solely on a strong, healthy partnership with an outside development firm, but the arrangement on its own wasn’t a sustainable proposition. It meant we were burning through our limited runway.
Time and again, we struggled to find engineers interested in working for below market rates in a market salivating for their skill set. There were times when I was certain we were done because we simply couldn’t figure it out. To make matters worse, we had trouble raising funds. Who’s going to fund a startup without an in-house tech team?
It was during times like this that the aforementioned “just hire world-class talent” comment was possibly the least helpful advice I could imagine!
After trial and error – mostly error on my part – we were able to get one engineer to buy in, then two, and now three. Our team is now shipping code regularly and making a massive dent in our backlog. It is very exciting to see our vision come to life. We’ve managed to turn a weakness into a strength to the point that I now believe our ability to hire engineers is our secret sauce.
It is the stuff of legends. I’m so incredibly proud and excited for our team, customers, pros, investors, and families (whom we’ve put through a lot).
Put simply, I view us as aspiring talent building a world-class team from the inside out.
What Can You Learn From Our Story?
Here are three core tenets that helped us. I’m confident they’ll help you too:
1. Control Your Effort
The secret is to show up, do the work, and go home. Rinse and repeat. It’s boring, indomitable will that wins.
2. Create Value for Your Employees
Make a list of your company’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Then make a list of every single thing that you can give to your employees beyond financial compensation. In both cases, push yourself to go beyond the obvious low-hanging fruit. Use those strengths to attract the kind of people that value your unique offerings, and use your constraints to frame what you can and cannot give.
In a Fast Company article, tech-industry veteran Russ Laraway, cofounder of Candor, Inc., advocates for talking to your employees in terms of their hopes and dreams. Millennials in particular respond favorably to this type of career planning. Once they’re onboarded, it’s time to get to work, but it’s paramount that you keep your word on the value you’ve promised your new hires.
3. Build Culture
No matter where you stand now, rough waters are ahead. The real test comes when things get rough. Have you kept your end of the bargain? Will your employees stay? Did you create value? Have you demonstrated authentic and transparent leadership? If you did, your employees will feel a particular loyalty and stay the course.
Building a world-class team starts with building a world-class culture. You must establish core values and then model those values every day in good times and bad. We have found that the following culture-building exercises have worked well for us:
- Establish a Team Charter : Land mines are everywhere. Get the founding team together to form a charter that you can refer to when things don’t go perfectly. Here is an example template.
- StrengthsFinder : Have each team member take the 30-minute test and then assign someone to review the team’s overlapping and unique qualities. Bring everyone together to discuss how the team can leverage its collective intelligence and its members’ unique strengths.
- Ask the Right Questions: Start your all-hands meetings with one of the following questions: “Is there anything you need to say/acknowledge to fully arrive?” or “Is there anything you need to say or do to be 100 percent present today?”
Asking the question isn’t the hard part; the hard part is daring greatly and stepping into the unknown. This is about authentic leadership, and the buck stops with the CEO. They must be willing to be vulnerable when appropriate. That does not mean oversharing, but it does mean sensing the right moments to demonstrate your humanity.
If you do these things correctly, you’ll inspire a safe environment for people to show up as themselves. They’ll have a collective presence, intelligence, and passion for tackling whatever you put in front of them.
Let’s be honest: If you’re running a startup with audacious goals, you’re asking the impossible. It’s incumbent upon you to build your world-class team, provide your people with shovels, and step into the unknown right alongside them.
A version of this article originally appeared on 42Hire.com.