How to Hire Your First 10 Startup Employees

Matt Preuss
Marketing Manager

6 strategies to hiring for startups

Hiring your first employees not only sets the tone for your company culture but also has a direct impact on business success and outcomes, which is why having a world class hiring strategy for early-stage startups is crucial.

Below we’ll cover the following topics to help you hire and attract top talent:

  • How to set a strategy to attract top talent
  • What to key traits you should look for in your first hires
  • Identifying whether a candidate has the right hard and soft skills
  • Leveraging onboarding to not only ramp but retain talent
  • Additional resources to help with your recruiting efforts

Check out how Malcolm Burenstam Linder, CEO and Co-Founder of Alva Labs, suggests that founders approach hiring their first employees below:

Attract Top Talent Through Storytelling

This should start at the candidate’s first touchpoint with your company, such as the careers page and job description. Crafting a story around why anyone should want to join your company should go beyond just the mission and vision, to feel more personal than what you might share with your customers or stakeholders. In the interview you can go even deeper and share why you specifically joined or started the company. Try to speak to the points which you think would personally resonate most with the candidate you’re interviewing.

Many startups are unable to be competitive in salary compared to other major players, but the key is to find the unique things within your company that you can leverage such as an inspiring mission or being a part of something bound to have success. This can be even more exciting and convincing than a larger paycheck. Other things to highlight as one of the perks of joining early could be job advancement and stock options.

Selling the vision. Selling the idea that their stock would be worth so much. Selling myself as an amazing leader that they definitely wanted to work with. Just being authentic. Helping them understand why I was doing what I was doing. Why I was passionate about it and why I would be a good human being for them to work with and call their colleague.” Source

Plan For and Attract Diverse Candidates

Having diversity within your team is only possible if you’re presenting your company in a way that attracts a wide range of profiles. Creating a diverse funnel requires you to craft your job descriptions and careers page in a way where the message, language, and images you choose speaks to a broader spectrum of candidates. Think through and analyze how your employees are being represented on your website, as well as if your perks and benefits are inclusive to the needs of all potential candidates regarding gender, sexual orientation, race, social class and background.

Hiring From Your Network

Social media (such as twitter and LinkedIn) is one way to leverage your personal network for trusted referrals. This can be a great resource when it comes to recruiting- especially when you have limited resources such as access to an inhouse or external recruiter. Often some of the best candidates are referrals, since you have more insight to how they work and there is already a certain level of trust and comfort established. Something to be aware of when sourcing this way is that you continue to keep diversity top of mind.

Hiring For a Fluid Organizational Structure and Changing Roles

Your company and organizational structure will likely be continuously changing, which is why it’s often advisable to only hire for the next 6-12 months rather than having a long term solution mindset.

Future proof roles by filling them with people who will be able to handle your current needs but are also able and willing to be flexible with new tasks and responsibilities, as the needs of the company change. This will make pivots and experimenting with new ideas and projects easier.

It is important to communicate this in the interview process to make sure that the candidate is prepared and hopefully excited by potential change. For those who haven’t worked in early-stage startups before, it’s good for them to know that this is normal for companies who grow quickly and is a sign of success, which provides a lot of opportunities for them to grow within and advance professionally.

Contract to Hire vs Project to Hire or Part-time

Hiring employees full time doesn’t need to be your only option, especially early on when your resources can be limited. Other options include Project to Hire and Part- Time employees.

If you only have a few one-off projects that you don’t want to add to the workload of your existing employees or hire full-time for, consider contracting other experts in the space. Even though this option might seem more costly than completing these tasks internally- it could actually save you in the long run and lead to better outcomes. For example if someone on your team had to learn a new process or skill set to complete this task, it would cost you more in the additional time it would take for them than someone with previous know how. Good resources for hiring contracted professionals are through websites such as Upwork and fiverr.


Having a formal interview process will not only benefit you but is important for your candidates as well.

  • Start by writing clear, transparent, personable, and honest job descriptions.
  • Know what you’re looking for- What are the must haves, important/ nice to haves, and bonus points.
  • Don’t go at it alone- Try to involve more team members, especially the ones who will be working directly with the applicant.

7 things to look for in your first hire

High Pain Tolerance and Grit

Working in a startup means there’s a lot of experimentation that includes failing, breaking things, and shots in the dark that need to happen until you can find solutions that work. This requires being risk averse and not fearing failure, but rather welcoming it (when needed) and seeing it as an opportunity that will lead you to succeed and solve problems. When failure occurs your ideal candidate would quickly recover from these situations, get back up, course correct, and keep running with their new learnings top of mind.

Look for someone who also wants to embrace or likes the start up company culture, which can have a lot of ups and downs. They should also be comfortable without having clear rules or ways of doing things and are ok to have the power to create these for the company as they go.

Cultural Fit

When deciding between candidates think- who would I rather be stuck in the car with? Your first hires are the ones you will likely be working with most closely and want to be onboard for a while. This means how well you get along with them vs how competent they are should be equally important.


Having a positive attitude is everything. A negative person on board can bring an entire team down and is something you don’t want your customers to associate your company with. Positivity is something that people inherently have or not. It’s not anything you can force upon, so it’s a perk to have someone whose common nature is to see situations in an optimistic light. This is also an important attribute for creative problem solving.

Entrepreneurial Mindset

Having employees that want/ are capable of growing your company and scaling internal processes can provide value in the short and long term.

Candidates with this mindset will often take more ownership of their projects and have an intrinsic drive to see the company succeed. To help them maximize their potential it’s important for the executive team to give trust and the freedom to drive their set initiatives forward.

  • Generalists & Potential > Skill Set

Having generalists on your team is crucial since working in a startup often means there’s a lot of work to be done with not much resources. So it’s advantageous to have people who are not only comfortable with but excited by the idea of wearing multiple hats.

As well, finding someone who has the desire to learn and confidence to execute is more important than having prior knowledge and experience in a given area. In a company of 10 people, each will have to take on projects outside of their realm of expertise. Look for candidates who are looking to learn from others and are capable of finding the needed resources to do this- internally and externally.

Hiring Candidates with Leadership Potential

Often your first hires will end up being your longest employees and will likely have the most knowledge about your product/ company. This makes them a natural fit to develop into a team lead in their division, or even a possible cofounder, as the company grows.

Look for attributes which would lend to good leadership such as a high EQ/ empathy, communication skills, decisiveness, and creativity. Another thing to look out for is the ability for the candidate to scale the company to where you want to be in the future.

Open to Feedback and Self Improvement

Situations and how we interact with one another can only improve when we are upfront with our expectations and clearly communicate this. Look for candidates who not only embrace feedback but want it. If people are defensive or have a hard time communicating what needs to be changed or done, it’s harder to move towards positive outcomes. Encourage a company culture which values clear, transparent, and empathetic communication. Suggest your employees to read Radical Candor to help with this.

How to hire your first 10 startup employees

Various roles require different skill sets and personality traits to help the candidate succeed. For instance someone working for a startup in a customer facing position will often encounter people telling them no, not respond to their emails, or have to endure negative product feedback. So you’ll want someone who is able to put out fires and keep pushing forward with the same motivation they had before their first no. Look out for those who can own their mistakes as well as know when and how to apologize. These traits can help customers empathize and move forward from a given problem.

A great way to test for how well a candidate in a given role might approach a problem or topic is through Work Product Interviews. By choosing a current project you’re able to see how each candidate would approach it and give you additional brainpower to work through it. When choosing this approach it’s advisable to pay candidates for their time. If you’re not willing to pay it is best to choose a project that will not be used as a best practice.

Related resource: 9 Signs It’s Time To Hire in a Startup


When hiring the earliest leaders for your startup it is vital to be diligent during the interview process. These early leaders will set the tone for the culture and future hires at your organization. On top of being a culture fit, you will want to ensure they are capable of scaling their business unit and being a sounding board for making strategic decisions.


Generally speaking the founder or CEO acts as the “product person” initially at a startup. As the company and product begin to mature, it is time to bring on product leaders and individuals to help take the product to next level. As with any of your first 10 hires you will want to make sure a product leader can work autonomously. As your time turns to supporting other parts of the organization, being able to have a product leader to lean on is essential.

Sales, Customer Success, and Marketing

Hiring for the business units begins to pickup after making your core hires. To learn more about hiring for customer success team members, check out our guide here. To learn more about making your first sales hires, check out this post.

Onboarding Tips to Ensure They Stay

A factor to consider if people aren’t succeeding in their role is a lack of active feedback and/ or clear expectations. They might not realize that the work they are producing isn’t meeting your standards if there is no clear and structured communication as well as KPI’s or goals set forth.

Make sure to include opportunities for active and regular feedback loops during their onboarding in the first few months. This will help shape the work they produce, how well they adjust to organizational needs, and give them assurance of where they stand. If you need to let someone go or if an employee isn’t satisfied- it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Having a Well Defined Training Plan During Onboarding

  • Setting clear expectations for the role- What are their responsibilities and what might you expect them to achieve and execute on.
  • Goal setting- Setting weekly goals for the first 3 weeks and then monthly for the first 3 months is a good way to start.
  • Giving ownership- Allowing someone to feel they have ownership gives them the motivation to take on responsibility and demonstrates trust.

The Buddy System

Being a new employee within a company, no matter how small it is, can feel daunting and sometimes isolating. Pairing new hires with an existing team member creates new social connections amongst your employees. This also helps with cross functional team work as well as employee happiness.

New hires should feel they can not only turn to their buddy for questions but is also someone they can have a (virtual) lunch or coffee with. This is also an opportunity for them to be filled in on company culture and other things that might not have been covered in the initial onboarding.

Startup Hiring Resources

Background checks

The things you might want to check for could vary on the role and the company. Besides calling, emailing or checking LinkedIn references, you could also use online background checks such as

Sourcing Services vs. Recruiters

Without having someone dedicated to HR it can be difficult to source talent which is why using websites that give you access to a curated pool of talent can be a good option. Owning recruiting for your 25+ hires, although difficult, is actually important as it allows you to shape your company culture which is created through the personality traits and profiles of your first employees. Possible websites to source tech talent in which you can apply to candidates directly are,, or

Recruiting Software is a great example of an end-to-end recruiting software that can help to manage things like sourcing, candidate pipeline, streamlining communication and interview scheduling.

At the end of the day startups are in a constant competition for top talent. By having a system in place to source, interview, hire, onboard, and retain employees your odds of success as a company will be higher. To learn more about hiring for your startup, check out our related posts here.

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