Saba Gul

The Best of 2012: Hiring For My Startup : 4 Things I Wish I Had Done

Editor’s Note: As we wrap up 2012, NextBillion is republishing some of the most-read and most commented-articles of the year. These posts illuminated new modes of thinking and new practices for improving low-income peoples’ lives through market-based solutions. This post was originally published on Oct. 30.

“The difference between an A team and an A+ team is the difference between a million in revenue and a billion in revenue.” – Paul English, co- founder of

There’s no two ways about it. Startups that are extraordinarily good at executing, win! And the one indispensable ingredient for executing, and succeeding as a startup, is the team. So then the burning question is this: How do you build this dream team?

At my startup, BLISS, we create economic opportunities for marginalized women, while producing exquisitely embroidered, high fashion handbags for global markets. In the last four months, I’ve hired two people, fired one, read around a hundred resumes, interviewed at least a few dozen, and read all the conventional wisdom I could find on the Internet and in print on hiring for startups.

With two full-time employees, and two part-time ones, our team is still very far from where it needs to be, but the lessons I’ve learned along the way have been nothing short of eye-opening.

Here are the four things I wish someone had told me (and I had listened!) a year ago:

1. Understand that hiring is your most important task!

As the CEO, hiring the best is your most important task. This may seem obvious, but it takes many founders (myself included!) a terribly long time to act upon. From stressing about how to pay next month’s bills, to iterating on your product, to building customers, to engaging investors, it’s very easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day, to believe that all these things need your attention more urgently than hiring. Hiring your first full-time employee(s) can alternate between a daunting task that you never seem to find time for, to a crucial need you feel desperate about “finishing.”

For me, as soon as I came to the understanding that everything – literally, everything – could wait while I put my head down and figured out how to get rock stars on my team, that’s when hiring really began.

And I don’t mean a passive kind of hiring. You must be aggressive. Tell everyone you know you are hiring. You never know where the referrals may come from. Get your job posting on major sites. Write personal emails. Make phone calls. Reach out to colleges where you have connections. Meet people. Network. Always be recruiting.

This is time consuming. It can be frustrating. You may (you should!) interview dozens of people before you chance upon the right fit. But when you get a couple people on your team that can really push your mission forward, it will have been worth the pain.

2. Build your company culture.

The second thing I’ve come to believe is this: You cannot build and sustain an extraordinary team without building your company culture. Because once you do, to paraphrase Zappos CEO Tony Tsieh, you must hire for your culture and be willing to fire for it.

As this great article on Fast Company explains, culture is one of the most misunderstood and mismanaged concepts in the world of business. It’s not about the color of your office walls, and whether employees get free beverages. It’s not about touchy-feely things that only the HR department needs to worry about.

It’s about the shared values and stories that your team lives on a daily basis. It’s what guides employee behavior and lends cohesion to the team. The company values should not be something employees are introduced to on their first day, and that thereafter only see the light of day in company PowerPoints or on a plaque in your office. Instead, they must be lived by the team every single day. You must be able to feel them when you talk to anyone on the team. (Cartoon credit:

Two companies that do a spectacular job of defining their core values, and hiring people that fit them, are the aforementioned Zappos and The Unreasonable Institute, which recently announced another shift in their cultural ethos.

3. Think hard about desirable team traits

Someone once said that working at a startup is analogous to an ad placed by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton for his Arctic expedition:


You want to build a team that will be excited about getting on that arctic expedition!

There are hundreds of guidelines out there for what a solid startup team looks like, and while there is no exhaustive list you can check off, I’ve found the following traits to be vital:

  • A+ Player. There’s no shortcut around this one. You want people who work very hard, are intelligent and capable, and have a solid work ethic. They should have high standards for themselves and others. In short they should get sh*t done.

  • Relentlessly Resourceful: Got this one from Paul Graham. This is the opposite of being hapless, which implies passivity. “To be hapless is to be battered by circumstances, to let the world have its way with you instead of having your way with the world”. To be relentlessly resourceful means: 1) to be relentless: determined, persistent, not easily fazed/demoralized. 2) to be resourceful: keep trying new things till something works!

  • Cultural Fit/Startup Fit: They need to fit not only the culture of your organization, and live its values, but also be a good fit for the startup culture. What does this person look like? They wear many hats, work long hours, deliver quickly, are open to change, are creative and flexible, get more done with less, and are willing to constantly expand their job description as the need arises. Be wary of things that may seem good on paper but aren’t great ingredients for startup needs e.g. having worked with a huge, reputable corporation, large aid agencies etc.

Be sure you hire the right person at the right stage of your venture. In the early days, for your first few employees, you want to hire what John Greathouse calls “law-abiding Bank Robbers,” i.e. folks who will be thrilled about the long hours plotting and scheming, not fear the risk of failure (jail), because the reward is worth the risk. As the company matures, you need to shift your focus to hiring ‘ATM Operators’ i.e. people who thrive on security and predictability, who aren’t necessarily risk-takers. Read the full post here.

4. Test them out, and don’t be afraid to fire!

Once you think you have a potential rock star, actually test him or her. I can’t stress this enough. Interviews and phone calls just don’t cut it (even the best recruiters say they have a 50 percent hit rate). There is no better way to gauge how someone is going to perform on the job than to try it out with them.

I’ve started what I call the ’One-Day Trial’, which I traced back to a lesson from Boulder-based technology investor Seth Levine. In these trials, second-round interviews comprise spending one day at the office, working alongside myself and other team members, tackling real tasks alone as well as in groups, that are representative of the job and what it will entail. Usually, you will know within a few hours who is a complete misfit. And surprise, surprise, some of the misfits may have had stellar first-round interviews.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to fire quickly if someone is clearly not the right fit. Keeping them on board is not only wasting their time but also increasing the chances of you killing your company because you are burning cash (or time!) with people that are not moving your business in the right direction.

Currently, we’re hiring a COO at BLISS, and while it’s just as daunting hiring your second employee as it is your first, I’d like to think I’m a little bit wiser this time around!

Saba Gul is the founder & CEO of BLISS