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Early-stage startups: How to find the best talent and build an A-team

Hiring a great team is essential for building an enduring startup, regardless of sector or market. However, in today’s world of lofty job-seeker expectations and fierce competition for skilled workers, hiring is no easy feat. It is even more difficult for resource-constrained, early-stage startups. This is one of the biggest areas in which founders in our portfolio seek guidance and support.

To help founders answer their burning questions about hiring, we recently hosted a hiring AMA & social with a special guest speaker, Bryan Pelz. Bryan is a software engineer turned 14-time entrepreneur with 1 public company, 1 unicorn, and multiple massive-scale products. In his 21+ years in Vietnam, Bryan has acquired extensive experience building and managing teams as founding CEO of VNG and past/current board members of FPT Software, VNG, Vietnamworks, and Pizza 4Ps. Below are the top 3 lessons shared by Bryan. 

Start with self-awareness

“Hiring starts with founders”, said Bryan as he began recalling his founder journey thus far. “If you are a startup CEO, you must understand your own strengths and weaknesses and identify the gaps you need your team to fill for you. That is how you can hire the right people to help you succeed.” 

Many founders make the mistake of hiring people just like them. However, business is a team sport, and building a homogeneous organization consisting of all attackers or all defenders, even when they are superstars, is not a good idea. Founders should be honest with themselves about where they need help because it allows them to better identify the qualities, experiences, and skillsets they look for in a candidate. In other words, it helps founders effectively determine “the right fit”. They know they have achieved it if everyone on the team is better than them in at least one area.

There is no magical “one-size-fits-all” hiring formula or a single type of person that can magically round up an A-team. However, there are common traits that great candidates share. 

Seek candidates who are problem solvers, flexible, and can span across domains

Bryan described the ideal candidates that he would go out of his way to employ. “In startups, we need people who are highly flexible problem solvers. For senior managers, I also look for those with experience in more than one domain and are able to span across functions within the company. These candidates are critical during business pivots.” 

By choice or by chance, all successful startups will have to pivot to ensure product-market fit. Whether it is a product feature tweak or a shift in target customers, pivots in business strategy or mission require the right people to carry out the new scope of work. However, resource-constrained startups often have a very small team and cannot immediately hire new staff to accommodate the change. “People who have that sort of intellectual flexibility can give us a lot of creativity in pivoting and open our eyes to things that we do not think we will see in the beginning”, said Bryan.

Do a little “stalking” and bring your A-game 

Great candidates need to be found and sold to. More often than not, by the time a startup begins hiring, the best candidates are working for someone else. In addition, with headhunters competing fiercely for them, chances are they were already hired before leaving their current roles. This means that founders cannot wait for the best candidates to apply to job postings. They must be ready to roll up their sleeves and “go hunt”. 

A sourcing tip Bryan shared is to proactively leverage LinkedIn and other platforms for sourcing and getting to know candidates. When looking at a potential hire’s profile, founders should know how to read between the lines and learn who they are as human beings – their passions, motivations, the kind of companies they have worked for, and even more personal things like hobbies and interests. Having prior knowledge of the candidates will come in handy when founders need to sell them the role. 

Founders’ vision and authenticity are two other vital elements of hiring. Bryan shared, “You have to compete with everyone out there, but not on money because startups just never have enough money. Compete on your vision and be sincere enough to share that you need help. Paint a lively and appealing picture of how they can work with you and how you plan to work with them. Get your little speech prepared and be ready to sell.” 

Hiring is only the beginning

A signed offer letter does not complete the mission for founders. 

Beyond hiring, founders need to think about how to build an environment with the right culture where employees can stay long-term and thrive. Even in the early days of the startup, it should not be overlooked, because if founders do not think about company culture, it will be formed anyway. And once it goes wrong, it is tough to undo. On the flip side, if culture is done right, it can be a hiring edge. Brian provided an example, “everyone is looking for a co-founder with a technical background, a CTO, or tech engineers these days. […] Having a strong engineering culture is a unique advantage that helps early-stage startups hire high-performing tech talent.”   

As actionable as Bryan’s pro tips may seem, building an A-team is easier said than done. Hiring the best people requires tons of work, end-to-end process. It takes practice to get it right. Once founders get the first steps right, the subsequent steps (e.g. candidate interviews, onboarding, and company culture building) are more likely to fall into place. Founders who know to start with self-awareness, are certain about the type of candidates they desire, and are not afraid to work hard to get the best people will have a better chance to build an A-team. 

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