When is the right time for startup founders to make their first hire?
Harriet O’Neill, October 16th 2023

Being a founder is tough. We work with startup founders every day, and one thing we get asked frequently is when they should make their first hire, and how to get the ball rolling. Now, if there was a simple answer to this, we’d give it to you. But the fact is, there isn’t. There are so many factors that contribute to knowing when to make a first hire, so it’s not the same for any two businesses.  

Although we can’t give you a magic formula for knowing at what point you should be taking the leap and hiring your first team member, one person that may well be able to give some answers is Gravitywell’s Founder and Director, Simon Bos. Gravitywell is Bristol’s Venture Studio, which exists purely to help founders of tech startups drive their businesses forward. They passionately support validation, investment, design, production and launch of PoC, prototypes and MVP software products.

We asked Simon some questions on the topic, and here’s what he had to say:

Where should I begin?

Perhaps the first and most obvious question to ask yourself is, "can we afford to hire?". This is sometimes quite a complex issue that depends on several factors:

  • What stage of investment are you at now? Do you have funds in the bank and how long will they last? Can you rely on a further round or is that uncertain?
  • When do you expect revenue to start to flow in? How reliable is that forecast?
  • Do you know enough about the requirements of a specific role to make an informed hiring decision?

Even if founders have multiple skills and expertise, they certainly don’t have unlimited time. A common mistake I witness is multi-talented founders assuming they can ‘do it all’ when what they need to do is delegate to someone who can work full time in a specific area even if that new hire is not as experienced as the founder themself.

Some roles are easier to hire for than others. Again, if you don’t have a strong technical background then interviewing and selecting an experienced software developer is going to be a serious challenge without some additional help. 

Clearly, you’ll need different skills at different stages of the business. It makes sense to plot roles out on a timeline, or organisational chart, partly to help with cash flow forecasts. If you're an early-stage tech startup, then you might have more options to consider than you realise. Ask yourself the question: What do we need to show investors?

  • Do they need to be convinced that the technology is even possible? Then perhaps you need to build a proof-of-concept which demonstrates the core functionality only.
  • Do they need to be convinced of the business model or market interest? Then perhaps a prototype or MVP build is required.
  • Do they need to be convinced of your vision? Are you proposing a future that significantly changes the way people behave? Is brand and experience essential for investor buy-in? Then you might need to spend time on mockups, brand assets, user testing, clickable prototypes and even video production.

How do I fill skills gaps?

It's important to be honest with yourself about any skills gaps that might exist in the business.

Skills gaps can be filled in different ways. Full-time hires are obviously a key consideration, but outsourcing to dedicated agencies like Gravitywell can get you where you need to be faster and with higher-quality output.

Maybe you need some C-suite input but you’re not ready for a full-time hire at that level. If so, consider a Fractional CTO or CFO — an expert you hire for a small number of hours, whose time is shared with other businesses.

It's not unusual for candidates who are attracted to working in a startup to have multiple skills and interests. There are huge opportunities to factor in when reviewing those early positions. When considering candidates to join you, asses:

  • What additional skills and experience do they bring? What hobbies or out-of-hours interests do they have?
  • Do they have a ‘startup personality’ and what energy do they bring to either the team or your customers?
  • What are their ambitions for the future and how do they map onto your business plans?
  • How big is their network and do they have a ‘voice’ in the industry (perhaps on social media)?

What about cultural fit and startup life?

The culture and environment in a startup can be very different from a typical workplace. Make sure that you’re hiring people that understand what that means and can cope with it. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean working 12 hours a day but, for example, candidates do need to be ready for:

  • Less support from management. Team members will need to be more autonomous and take on more responsibility. And they can’t expect fully staffed HR departments to be set up yet.

  • Working processes and structure have not been formed or, at best, are rapidly evolving.
  • Wearing multiple hats, they’ll need to be prepared to work across different areas of the business where needed.

If you’re trying to foster a certain type of atmosphere that you expect will appeal to the right kind of candidate, then consider whether you can maintain it as you grow. All the ping pong tables in the world will not distract a candidate that was expecting to have more of an input into key decisions in the early stages.

Hiring is hard and getting it right for a startup piles on further pressure. Above all, try to be transparent and look for people that understand both the risks and opportunities.

Get in touch  

As Simon explained, knowing when and how to make your first hire as a startup founder isn’t easy, but with the right planning and support in place, you’re a step closer to bringing your first ever employee on board.  

Get a step ahead of the game by utilising businesses like Gravitywell for support on discrete projects like proof-of-concept, prototype and MVP production as well as ongoing support, maintenance, R&D and consultancy input.

And when you’re a little further down the line, ISL Talent can support you with everything from planning your talent strategy to designing your organisational chart and helping you recruit your first hire. If you’d like any support or advice on anything you’ve read, or would like general advice on hiring, get in touch with our Startup Growth Guru Freya, here

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