Common startup hiring mistakes: Here’s how to avoid them


A common aspect of startup success narratives is the focus on the founder/ CEO and his/her vision. Sure, it took a Steve Jobs to want to make computers a household appliance, and there is no denying all the ways in which his vision changed the world as we know it. But when it comes down to the actual, on-ground execution, it takes stellar business and technical skills for a startup to go from an ambitious vision to an actual, sustainable business.

It is not just a cliché that a business’s biggest strength is its workforce. But this becomes even more crucial in case of startups because hiring mistakes are not just far more expensive for them, but frequent churns and hiring and firing can mar their employer brand before it even takes off. Moreover, startup employees need to hit the ground running, and deeply relevant prior experience helps.

Here are some of the most common hiring mistakes startups, and sometimes even large corporations, are prone to. If you want to build a great business and product and a stellar employer brand, you will also find tips on how to do things right:

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Not knowing the specific skills the business needs

When building a startup business, it is easy to expect employees to hustle instead of hiring specialists who can dive in deep. This is a dangerous mindset, especially in skill-based roles. For example, if you are in the B2B technology space, your marketing person would need to do a fair bit of content writing. But not all marketers have a flair for the written word. So you should either account for a remote writer as well or look for a marketing person who can write. Another example is that of people management. Startup people managers need to grow teams from the ground up. So a hiring manager who is experienced in only managing large teams but not in hiring, training, and building teams may not work out.

Malcolm Forbes puts it succinctly, “Never hire someone who knows less than you do about what he’s hired to do.”

Hiring for brand names, not for attitude

It is a matter of conditioning that startups often believe that those with the right educational institutes or large corporations on their resume will be stellar at their work too. This is not always true – not to mention that such candidates are expensive for cash-crunched startup businesses. A college degree is rarely a measure of how resourceful, willing to do the thinking as well as the doing, or how much of a team player someone would turn out to be – all critical skills in a startup environment. According to renowned recruitment advisor and speaker Greg Savage, “Hire an attitude, not just qualification.”

Not asking the right questions in interviews

According to Richard Branson, “Hiring the right people takes time, the right questions, and a healthy dose of curiosity.” Startups too must get creative in their interviews. Their work environment is very different from those of large corporations. Naturally, their employees – especially in early stages – often need far more grit and resilience, integrity and the ability to go beyond their job descriptions. So run-of-the-mill questions on education, strengths, and weaknesses may not always work. Long-drawn conversations on exactly how the candidate has demonstrated the skills your business needs give a clearer picture of what he/she can bring to the table.

Not painting an honest picture during the hiring process

Startup jobs sound glamorous – employees have a chance to build something from the ground up. There is a lot of opportunities to learn and grow without jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of large corporations. Not to mention that the offices usually look cool, their policies sound flexible, and the founders are usually industry rockstars. However, those who are new to startup environments may not always understand the seriousness of their roles and that a small slip-up can cost business. They would know that startup jobs are hard work, but perhaps not the magnitude of this hard work.

New hires must understand not just the glamour but also the pain of being part of a fledgeling startup. It is up to hiring managers and HR to set the right expectations during the interview process so that candidates can make an informed decision about whether they are in the right frame of mind or life stage to be part of the startup hustle. As Oprah Winfrey puts it, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

For example, let’s say you have sleep pods in the office, but that is because your employees rarely gets to go home on time to get enough sleep. It is only fair that you tell your employees not only about the sleep pods but also why they are there.

Not paying right

This is perhaps a common mistake. Startup salaries fall in an incredibly large range. Having large funding does not mean lavish salaries far beyond industry standards. At the same time, bootstrapping should not mean paying less than what your employees’ work deserves. Finding the right balance, one that ensures that good talent stays but does not translate to wastage, is important.  

As Robert Bosch said, “I don’t pay good wages because I have a lot of money; I have a lot of money because I pay good wages.”

Hiring right is a crucial part of building a startup and both founders and hiring managers must take note of it in early stages. Not only does it shape the culture and the quality of talent that walks through the doors, it also seals the startup’s employer brand over time.


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