The value of Start-up experience

Recruiting for many start-up businesses in the Technology sector over the years I’ve often been asked to find people with previous start-up experience when delivering a brief.  This may seem an obvious element of experience to seek when writing a job description for the next key leadership hire in your start-up business, however it is not always what it seems…

Firstly, most start-ups fail.  So, in seeking previous start-up experience we are immediately opening ourselves up to a talent pool who are highly likely to have had experience in a failing business. Depending on the responsibilities of a candidate in their previous role they may well have contributed to the down fall of the business. Of course, this may not be the case, many businesses fail while people perform highly within them in their given discipline, but there is risk involved in specifically seeking this type of start-up experience.

Searching for people with positive experience in growing a successful start-up is incredibly hard.  They are in the minority generally due to the high % of failed businesses, and if they have been successful, they are less likely to want to leave the business that they have helped to create.  These issues are heightened when you add the complications of the share/equity packages that are regularly involved and have tied these good people to their businesses financially.

We can look for someone who’s had success, is fully vested and is happy to leave and consider doing it all over again but these people are very few and far between and focusing on this type of profile can limit the talent pool as well as being time consuming.

The culture in start-ups can often be very different to corporate life.  Businesses can change strategy completely within the space of a couple of weeks and people need to be aware of, comfortable with and agile minded enough to cope with, understand and make a success of these changes.  Start-ups are fast paced, agile, dynamic, often highly changeable, evolving, sometimes even erratic places to work.  The leadership are often the founders of the business and can have increased levels of passion and drive for the business in comparison to corporate leaders.  In addition to this, start-up environments often mean you have to deliver things by hand, move office furniture around, wear several hats at the same time one day and then change them all the next day.  Some people will never want to do these things or be able to adjust to these kinds of environments and they are probably better suited to larger, more stable businesses where the teams focus on their niche and can concentrate on a specific job at hand.  Maybe these were the reasons that the candidate with start-up experience wasn’t successful in their previous start-up? However, some people were made for precisely these types of environments.

People from large corporate backgrounds or from businesses of any size for that matter can still be highly effective in a start-up environment and shouldn’t be discounted purely based on the size of company they have worked for.  Often candidates will have numerous examples of dealing with scenarios and situations that occur regularly in the start-up environment.  This may be due to some extra-curricular activities they are involved in or due to certain experiences within their corporate roles.  What’s important is that the people that you hire are the right cultural fit for your business.  It doesn’t matter where they have worked previously. It matters that they understand and share your company values, that they can demonstrate the ability to adapt in certain situations and believe in your company vision.  It matters that they have the required skills for the role or can demonstrate the hunger and desire to develop those skills in the business environment that you are creating and that you can see them being successful in your business because they share the ethos of the types of individual that you want to hire.

Don’t get hung up on previous start-up experience, it can be misleading, narrow your talent pool and cost you in time to hire as well as the effectiveness of the hire once completed.  We’re not saying avoid it by any means, of course it can be a great asset.  But focus on culture fit first.

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