Holding yourself to a “hire” standard
Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. October's topic is hiring.
Hiring your first employees is one of the scariest propositions a startup founder will face. It's often tempting to go it alone and make do with the superhuman efforts of a startup's founders for much longer than is healthy.
The decision to build out your team is a huge responsibility and one not to be taken lightly, but it's probably the most essential thing you can do to lead to your startup's success.
On the other hand, hiring the wrong people can be the kiss of death for any business.
The team at Hatchlings
Being the sole driving force behind Hatchlings was a rut that I languished in for far too long. Hiring full-time employees was the biggest risk I've taken so far but it has also paid huge dividends.
In the last 9 months we've grown from two (me and my mom) to eight (me, my mom, a designer, a community manager, a developer, an illustrator, a marketing intern and a community builder).
Even though the decision was a scary one, it's been awesome so far. The product is currently in a place that it could never have been without the team and the future prospects of the company are much better than they were a year ago.
Why we didn't expand sooner
There are many reasons I didn't hire people sooner.
- The cost: Hatchlings was extremely profitable because the costs were so low. Hiring employees isn't a guaranteed investment and, for a 21-year-old college dropout, taking the "sure thing" was a shortsighted but understandable choice.
- The responsibility: being in control of your own destiny is one thing but being responsible for someone else's is quite another. If you fail it's not just your livelihood at risk but the financial stability of other people and their families, as well.
- Insecurity about the future: What if it was just a fad or some fleeting luck that had made Hatchlings a hit? Investing in the long-term future of a product that could potentially be a user-less wasteland in 6 months didn’t seem like a great idea.
- Bad advice: everyone from lawyers to financial planners to family friends told me what a logistical-nightmare hiring people was. There's the added burden of unemployment insurance, payroll taxes, workman’s compensation, office space, and the list goes on and on.
- Uncommitted founder: I personally wasn't committed to working on Hatchlings for the next several years so I was uncomfortable asking someone else to. I wanted the freedom to travel extensively and work odd hours, which didn't seem to jive with having full-time employees.
The aha moment
It took a long time to get past all of that but I think what really pushed me over the top was when Zynga went public last fall at a valuation of over $7 billion. This was a company that was started around the same time as Hatchlings and that we competed with over the years.
They were basically the antithesis of Hatchlings. We were bootstrapped; they took hundreds of millions in VC. We grew organically; they spent millions of dollars per day on advertising. I was our only engineer; they hired hundreds.
Realizing that, had I made some different decisions in the early days, Hatchlings could have been worth hundreds of times more made me rethink things and after a lot of contemplation I overcame the "uncommitted founder," "insecurity about the future," and "cost" hurdles. Those were just mental blocks I was imposing on myself.
Once those were out of the way it became obvious Hatchlings needed to hire people. All startups have the other hurdles.
Every business has the risk of failure (not just startups), and minor inconveniences, paperwork, and taxes are just an excuse.
Our philosophy in building out the team
Last fall I spoke to several people who helped me make some key decisions and helped me understand what sorts of things I should be conscious of when starting to build out a team. Talking to people like Charise Flynn and Mike Colwell was extremely helpful in avoiding some early mistakes and helping to shape the hiring strategy.
We are interested in finding people who are a fit for our company culture, curious, eager to learn, enthusiastic about startups, and willing to put the good of the entire team first. Loving what you do is contagious; we want people who are happy to come into work every day and are team players.
I'm a strong believer that if you're a curious person you can learn anything you put your mind to. Curiosity, work ethic, and the right attitude are by far and away the most important attributes to us in a prospective hire.
It's important that our community manager feels as much ownership in the product as our engineers. And it's important that our illustrators care as much about our users as they care about creating pretty pictures.
Unfortunately, this type of information is hard to glean from a resume. So far we've had the best luck hiring people based on recommendations of people we know and trust.
When another startup founder raves about their intern after having worked with them for 6 months and tells you they'd hire them in a second if they were able to support another full-time person it's a no--brainer to add that person to your team.
I see many startups in The Prairie that are in a similar place to where Hatchlings was a year ago.
I know it's cliché, but a good team really is greater than the sum of its parts. At Hatchlings we're only 4x bigger but we're 10x better and the bar keeps getting higher and "hire."
Credits: Photo by Michael Stacy.
About the author: Brad Dwyer founded Hatchlings, the world's largest Easter Egg Hunt, from his Iowa State University dorm room in 2008. It grew from 0 to 3.5 million users over the course of three years. He is now working on building out a team to launch Hatchlings 2 which is currently in public beta.
Find Dwyer on Twitter, @braddwyer.
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