Hiring the right people is a critical activity for any company, but especially for start-ups. Not only do those first waves of employees shape your product and profitably, their attitudes shape the company culture for a long time even after they’ve left. So how do you find the right people?
A common method is to hire impressive MBAs from prestigious schools with extensive work experience. This works in most cases when your goal is a predetermined course from Point A to Point B. However, teams run by ex-consultants and ex-bankers have a difficult time innovating because what they are taught in business school (and in subsequent years on the job) is how to apply the successful business models of the past to their current situations. The problem is that those fancy frameworks and formulas only offer limited guidance towards resolving the unknown.
Innovating within an industry requires doing something new that has never been done before. It is inherently a 0 to 1 problem (technology), not a 1 to n problem (globalization). If your start-up has already found product-market fit, and is looking now to scale, then consultants and bankers are a great asset. They are smart, and they work hard. In short, they are great for helping your company achieve sustaining innovation.
But if your company is still trying to figure out how to solve the big hairy problem for customers, then it’s not quite time for growth yet. Rather, this is the time to embrace being small, nimble and resource-constrained. The focus should be on rapid prototyping, quick iterations, and failing forward fast. For these companies, you need agile, resourceful folks who can be plugged anywhere into a system and still survive. They might not be the best at everything, but frankly at this point, you don’t know what your company is the best at doing yet either. In short, these people are great for helping your company achieve disrupting innovation.
A side note about the failing part – it is necessary and unavoidable. Trying to hold planning meetings to minimize the chance of failure isn’t going to solve anything. Instead, the culture should embrace the fact that there are many unknowns that could potentially ruin the business. Test to build knowledge. Then make decisions based on that knowledge – not on who has the loudest voice or the most tenure. Because at the end of the day, an executive can force a department to buy into a bad product decision, but they can’t force a consumer to buy a bad product.
In order to successfully innovate with an area with inherent unknowns, you must first ask yourself if you have the right people on the bus. Then you must ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to keep them on the bus. Ultimately, most companies will proclaim that their people are their greatest asset, but only a small handful will make the tough decisions to prove it. Perks like work-from-home policies, catered meals, flexible work hours, and access to equipment cost money to support, but if you’re not willing to invest in your employees, why would they invest in you?