Lonely Founder? Early Stage Hiring 101

I was recently approached by a CTO. He had a classic problem. He’s a CTO, not a recruiter and needed to find engineers quickly, but wasn’t having much luck.

He had no idea how to start this process and was about to start paying agencies some of his well earned cash. He was keen to learn how to find and engage with engineers, and it got me thinking about how this process is handled by early stage startups with no recruitment resource.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been approached about this, so I promised I would put together a set of simple steps from my experience to make life easier.

This advice is aimed at those founders of companies from seed investment through to Series-A. It’s a fairly basic way to approach the hiring process when you are resource (time) light.

1. Work out what you need

In any growth business, the requirements of a role can change rapidly and people add a lot to the cost base. The more you can think about the likely changes, the easier it will be to select a candidate that can grow with your business. This doesn’t mean building a matrix, but does mean you need to sit and think about what this person should achieve in the first six months. Following this, hazard a guess for what’s needed in the next six months and condense these into a combined plan. This will give you most the assessment criteria. From here you should also think about the intangible skills you would like someone to show in an interview and the questions you can use to judge them.

2. Write a great advert – not a job spec

Don’t tell people all the things THEY must have to work at your company. Right now, engineers get a lot of noise when it comes to jobs. Stand out!

Tell people the challenges you have, detail the problems you have and what the purpose of the business is. You could follow this up by explaining what they’ll get to be doing on a daily basis (Qubit did this to great effect below). Decide whether you are truly “language agnostic” and also make sure you explain the company goals. These hires REALLY need to believe in what they’re building.

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3. Target your market

Don’t put your money into posting to sites like StackOverflow just yet. Focus on free sites like AngelList and Unicorn Hunt where you often find people who are passionate about the idea of working in a startup. Angel List is still my ‘go to’ at Lyst, so build out your profile, take some nice pictures and explain why it’s going to be an exciting place to work. People will match to your company and you can browse engineers that have shown intent in joining your company, a far better use of time than Linkedin.

4. Get out the Rolodex

You likely worked somewhere else before you founded your startup, or maybe you went to uni, but know a lot of grads. You should be speaking to these contacts for recommendations, or even try to get them to join you. Ask your employees or friends who the best person was that they have worked with. Then ask if you could have a chat.

A lot of people won’t be interested, but if you trust your friends, then you will have pre-referenced candidates. This is not trawling Linkedin, but pulling in some favours from people you’ve helped in the past.

5. Go forth and speak to people!

Check out the meetups in the local area. EventHuntMeetup.com and Eventbrite are all great for suggesting events. Not only will you be able to chat to potential employees, but you’ll likely learn a lot from the talks. I also co-run a group of events on hiring if further advice is needed. A side note for this; don’t just face-to-face spam people at events, discuss the content and have a normal chat.

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6. Use the right tools

If you don’t have many hires to make, Google Docs can do a great job for you. Build out a quick pipeline and use it to track all the people you’re speaking to, manage all the next steps and the interviewer feedback. Bonus points for building a google form to track this feedback over time.

If you have 5+ hires to make, or foresee more coming in, it’s worth using Workable to help you out. It’s an applicant tracking system that means you can handle all applicants in one place, make a jobs page really quickly and ensure a quick, seamless process. It’s also well priced.

7. Build a simple process

To small startups, process can be a dirty word. Just because you are small doesn’t mean you can avoid doing things properly.

  • First, make sure you know the HR basics, such as protected characteristics.
  • Second, make sure you use the spec you built earlier to know the criteria you are assessing candidates by.
  • Third, construct a simple process and stick to it. Software like Workable makes this super easy to manage (see below). These are pretty simple steps, and if you like, you can see it more as a framework than a process, but ensure you are rigid in your assessment, to maintain as much objectivity as possible.
  • Finally, make sure you can collect feedback that’s quantitative and qualitative. I would suggest a quick google form, asking for a 1-4 score on things like coding skills, data structures and team fit, but this is really up to you.

8. Give them a great experience

You want to know a great place to get word of mouth marketing for free?

The candidates you interview.

They might come back to you in the future when they’re a better fit, they might recommend some friends, or they might tell everyone how awesome your product is.

The quickest way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to fail to communicate with them properly. Keep them abreast of the process from the start, tell them how long each stage will take and ALWAYS give them feedback. Remember all those companies you applied to and hated when they never got back to you? Don’t be that person on the other side.

Bonus points for setting up a Google form that tracking exit feedback. It’s easy to build a form with some simple questions, get a shareable link and let it roll in when you add the link to the last email you have with every candidate. We use these with a scale of 1-4:

  1. Would you recommend Lyst to a friend?
  2. Were the interviewers communicative and well informed?
  3. How was the speed of the process?
  4. How was the communication from the Talent team?

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We’re not perfect, but we learn from everyone that gets in touch with us to improve the process.

9. Judge them properly

You’ve got the plans and criteria from step 1, hopefully some quantitative and qualitative feedback from your process. Now, have a simple wash-up with the team (if you have a small team) where everyone gets their say and the majority decision rules. That quantitative feedback usually makes this a pretty slick process. If you have no team, make a decision that remains as objective as possible against the criteria you set, not just because the person likes Star Wars memorabilia just as much as you do! This love will not make them better at their job, unless you sell Star Wars memorabilia.

Either way, make this decision quickly in order to avoid the sands of time clouding your vision.

10. Welcome them aboard! 

Your dream hire has accepted the offer, you’ve worked out a start date, it’s all done right?


You need to make sure that you can give the employee a great experience when they join. Simple things you could do include sending out a card from the team welcoming them onboard to these creative GIFs from Lever! Aside from this, make sure you have plans to give them proper training, a company overview from the CEO and set their computer up in advance – maybe even ask them what hardware they would like. There’s plenty more material out there on this – but the key point is neglect the on-boarding at your peril!

These ten steps are by no means the golden rules, but hopefully a simple guide to help out early stage CEOs and CTOs looking to grow their teams.


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