Building Your Startup Clan: Three Traits to Look for in Early Employees

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, CLAN Issue, published September, 2015. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

Author: Hashim Bahbahani

5 min read.

“Would you take this job if you had a medical diagnosis that says you only have a year left to live?”

If you were asked that question during the job interview you attended for the job you currently hold, what would’ve been your truthful answer?

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of $20 billion lodging rental website AirBnB, directed the “one-year-to-live” question to candidates for the first few core job openings at AirBnB.

The question, while perhaps disturbing and extreme, aims to gauge the candidates’ passion and dedication for the company. It might be incomprehensible to expect that anyone would answer “yes” to that question given the miniscule size of AirBnB at that time. However, after four years of running a startup myself, I can understand the importance entailed in the answer to that question.

In the startup world, where there’s always a ceaseless debate on the validity of every step towards success, there is a rare consensus on founders hiring the first few employees: get it wrong and your startup will fail. It is that bluntly unforgiving. That is because the first batch of employees will have the biggest impact on the longevity and future success of any startup. At such an early stage, their contributions and shortcomings can make or break a company.

There are several factors to consider when hiring the first few members of your startup clan, mainly: domain expertise, education, professional background, and personality. But because startups are unique organisms with specific requirements for their survival and growth, there are other more fundamental character traits that early employees must possess. In my own startup experience, I progressively became more aware of which qualities in a candidate truly matter.

The following three traits are what a founder should look for in an early employee:

 

Dedication- belief in the startup’s mission

Think back to Chesky’s question. What he’s really asking is “do you believe in what we’re trying to do here passionately enough to dedicate your life to it?”

No matter how trivial or profound the purpose of your startup might seem, every member of the team must wholeheartedly believe in the venture’s ultimate objective. Often, founders are tempted to look for “hard working” employees. But I don’t believe that there is such a thing as innately hard working individuals. Rather, hard work is an organic result of pursuing a grand mission. Therefore, it is more fruitful for a founder to identify individuals who fully share their passion for the startup’s vision and goals.

Honesty- belonging to the clan

A startup is more than just a group of individuals working on a project. A startup is a family, with shared values, beliefs, and objectives. As it is true with any family, honesty is the backbone of collaboration and teamwork.

And while honesty in communication is imperative, there is an equally important form of honesty that cannot be understated: honesty in self assessing work-product. In a highly pressurized setting such a startup, it is easy and tempting for a team member to compromise the quality of their work because founders do not have time to check over every nook and cranny. Therefore, founders must hire individuals who share their standards of quality and excellence, and who have the integrity to autonomously hold their work to those standards.

That kind of honesty is what allows trust to thrive among members of a startup clan.

Curiosity- a willingness to learn

By the time I hired my sixth and last core employee at my e-commerce startup, I valued curiosity above all else in my team members.

True curiosity can often be mistaken for passing interest. There is a simple way to identify a sense of genuine and potent curiosity: look to see how much work and effort has been exerted in pursuit of an interest.

One of the people I was considering as a co-founder told me he was interested in becoming a triathlete. He had no experience whatsoever in the sport. He simply thought it was something he could do well. I was skeptical, and asked what he had done to pursue that interest. He told me he had already dedicated himself to a rigorous workout program, hired a personal running trainer, and had pinpointed a local triathlon in which to compete within a few months. I knew at the point that this person would not shy away from a challenge, and that he had the desire to constantly explore new opportunities.

Fortunately, I wasn’t mistaken. He led our business development team successfully, and has recently competed in an international triathlon competition.

In the ever-changing and dynamic world of startups, a willingness to learn new things becomes a team’s greatest asset. Founders must look for individuals who thrive beyond their comfort zone.

A founder is best advised to never compromise on any of the aforementioned traits when hiring, especially at the early stages of a startup. Those traits are always associated with highly motivated and talented individuals. A startup’s success hinges, above all else, on the core team; and a tightly knit team of dedicated, honest, and curious individuals is a force to be reckoned with.

Although it was spoken in completely different context, I can’t help but recall Margaret Mead’s famous quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, CLAN Issue, published September, 2015. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

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