What Do Startups Look For When Hiring?

By Karthik Sridharan W’07/ENG’07, Co-founder and CEO of Kinnek

“What do startups look for when hiring?” That’s a question that I get asked all the time, and unfortunately, there’s no simple, all-encompassing answer. It’s of course difficult to generalize across startups in different sectors and sub-sectors, and every team has their own preferences as to how they want to build their organization and culture. However, I think a very important thing to understand is how the hiring needs of a startup vary tremendously according to what lifecycle stage the company is in.

Pre-Seed Stage / Seed Stage (1-20 employees)

In this stage, the founders are the go-to people when it comes to hiring—they usually manage the entire search and interview process, and think about what they want to see in candidates.  When we brought on the first several team members at Kinnek, my co-founder and I looked for people who were extremely passionate about building a company from the ground-up, and who were excited about our space. We knew that our first employees would be our core inner circle, people that we would have to trust to make important decisions, help craft the strategy of the company, and go through all the trials and tribulations of startup life with us.  For that reason, we filtered out people who didn’t absolutely want to join us and were palpably excited about the opportunity (despite the risks).  A startup’s earliest hires tend to be the people who set the tone of the company’s culture, so this was also a big consideration for us when interviewing candidates.

At this stage, a startup’s hiring needs are very flexible and have few boundaries. Typically companies at this stage won’t be looking for people with very specific skillsets, and instead will be searching for those who are multi-skilled and able to adapt to changing business needs. This is because it’s expected that over its first few years a startup will experience many minor (or major) pivots, and could have a changing target audience, technology stack, and product focus. Their initial team needs to be able to handle those changes effectively. For example, a startup at this stage may not know what their optimal user acquisitional channel is, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to actively look for an outdoor advertising specialist or a search marketing specialist. Instead, it’s more intuitive to hire someone who is well-versed in many areas of marketing and business development, and is more of an all-rounder.  This person can then handle the acquisition function at the company during various phases of experimentation and discovery, until more specialization is needed.

Post-Series A Stage (21-75 employees)

Once a company reaches this stage, the founders are still very involved in building the team, although they usually start bringing on people to help them make hiring decisions, think about hiring goals, and manage the hiring process. The company’s hiring needs often become more specific and job descriptions tend to narrow in scope. At Kinnek, our company is currently at this stage, and we’ve begun looking for more focused roles such as “UX Designer” and “Search Engine Marketing Specialist”. In addition, some of the extreme variation in scope of earlier team members’ day-to-day responsibilities starts to reduce as people identify their areas of expertise and as specialization becomes more important to the growth of the company.

Despite this increased need for specialization, it’s important to note that at this stage the startup is still looking for people who can help lay the foundation for major organizational growth. It will be looking for people who can hire and manage teams of their own in the future, and who can help set goals and strategic direction of specific parts of the company, e.g. Acquisition, Technology, Marketing, etc. So even though companies are searching for fewer jack-of-all-trades, they still want people who crave a lot of responsibility and independence. With respect to culture, at this stage startups begin to look for people who can add diversity and character to the company.

Later Stage (76+ employees)

At this stage, a company usually devotes a lot of effort into retaining the soul of a scrappy/fun/creative startup, while still being cognizant of the realities of growing and managing a pretty large organization.  While such a company will still want to look for candidates that are passionate about their product and their space, it will be looking to fill much more narrowly defined roles than in previous stages. People who join the company are also not required to be as risk-loving, because there’s a certain element of stability that’s associated with startups at this stage of their lifecycle. The founders have at this point hired a team of people they trust to make hiring decisions on behalf of the company, so they have less of a direct impact on individual hires.

Ultimately, this means that as a job-seeker who’s interested in working at a tech startup it’s important to be cognizant of what lifecycle stage a startup is at when considering if it is a good fit for you.  Feel free to reach out to me at karthik@kinnek.com if you’d like to discuss more about life at a tech startup.  Also, if this has gotten you excited about what we’re building at Kinnek, check out our jobs page at www.kinnek.com/jointeam.

Karthik-headshot-smBio:  Karthik Sridharan is Co-founder and CEO of Kinnek, an online marketplace that provides small businesses a better way to find suppliers and make purchases.  He is a graduate of the M&T Program (Wharton ’07, SEAS ’07), and lives in New York City.