Finessing Key Start-up Hires

By Laura Huang, Assistant Professor of Management

It is often said that it is best to “surround yourself with the best people you can find, who are smarter than you are” when assembling a team.  While I don’t disagree with this, when founders try and assemble their management team (or even their founding team), they need to remember how the entrepreneurship context might necessitate a different way of executing on this sentiment.  What is different in entrepreneurship is that things are almost always in a state of flux, and what we find and hold to be true in more established organizations has but a slight resemblance in entrepreneurship. 

One of the things that I hear most often is that founders are struggling to find good people to join their team –most notably, a strong tech person and a strong sales person.  There are so many loose ends to grapple with in start-ups – thinking about business models, pricing models, revenue models (all very sexy things); positioning for exit, launch, disruption (sometimes in that order) – that how to hire good people often falls by the wayside because it is more mundane. 

The most difficult position to hire for (yet the most likely to provide the biggest payoff) is probably a strong technical lead.  So how might we find these technical people?  Other than the obvious suggestions, which include broadening your network and using a headhunter, here are a few other things to consider: 

–  Realize that the incentives of someone with a strong technical background may be different from what you expect.  Be creative in how you structure compensation and rewards.

–  They may also not be enamored with your vision for the future.  Rather than trying to sell them on your vision and your company, just set the context and tell your story.  Don’t try and sell them and be open to hearing their ideas.

–  And surprisingly, it’s possible that the best way to find your technical person is to just stop looking, as Alexey Komissarouk, founder of the PennApps Hackathon has asserted (

Another precarious position, and one that often goes wrong, is the VP of Sales.  In hiring this strong sales person, keep in mind:

–  The best person to make the first few sales is someone from the founding team (not someone hired into the team).  This helps with credibility, so your hired VP of Sales won’t be able to broadly assert that the founder just “can’t sell.”

–  The main requirement for a VP of Sales should be that the person can actually sell – not that they have a fancy title from their previous company that says they can sell (think: a VP of Sales at a large corporation is rarely the one who is regularly hopping on planes, and still aggressive about wanting to “nail the deal”).  Anyone who has a proven success record of selling, be it a regional manager or a sales rep, could be the ideal person for your startup.  

So when hiring in an entrepreneurial environment, it may be that you aim to “surround yourself with people smarter than you are.”  But it also may be that you rely on the smartest versions of yourself – by making those first couple of sales yourself and finding your technical person by “not looking.” In the process, you will improve your own skills as a founder and improve the viability of the start-up for the moment when the next generation of management team members does come on board. 


lauraHuangBio: Laura Huang is an Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.  Professor Huang’s research examines early-stage investment decisions, and how perceptions and cues influence an individuals’ ability to make important, high-stakes decisions.