Grit Over Grades: 5 Tips for Staffing Your Startup

Grit If you’re a startup founder, odds are you’re thinking of growing your team. Whether you’re looking for a co-founder, CFO, engineer, or accountant, this prospect probably scares the living daylights out of you (as it should).

I recently participated in an entrepreneur panel discussion at a national business competition in DC. The recurring theme both on and off the stage was the importance of finding the right team (especially when you’re first starting out). You team can serve as either the saving grace or brutal death of your company, depending on what you end up with. And you wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard. Everything from general laziness, lack of contribution, and inflated egos to complete dishonesty, stealing, and even cynically-planned sabotage of the organization.

 Are you starting to panic yet?

Perhaps questions such as these are running through your mind:

  • “Will their personality fit with the team over time?”
  • “Do they really have all the skills they claim to possess on their resume?”
  • “How do they perform under pressure?”
  • “Do they have the right work ethic and stress-tolerance for a startup environment?”
  • “How do I know they won’t just up and leave?”

Good questions, I say!

 Having grown a startup team from 2 to 8 people over the past few years, I have picked-up a few tips for selecting the right people. In hopes of easing your hiring-anxiety, I’ve selected my top 5 tips for hiring the right people for your startup:

  1. Don’t bother with resumes. Yep, I said it. Why? Mainly because the next 4 items on this list can’t be accurately portrayed on a resume. We have never asked for a resume when considering somebody for a position at our startup, and it hasn’t mattered a bit. Rather, we have relied on a collection of data from other sources including actual work-product, personal references, social media presence, and personality assessment (all detailed in the next few points).
  1. Hire passion. Every one of our employees has blown us away with their enthusiasm for our product (in fact, I think some are more excited about it that I am!). Unfortunately, passion can’t be taught or ‘encouraged’ through any form of reinforcement or incentive program. So you have to hire it. Luckily, passion hits you in the face (isn’t difficult to identify when you have a passionate candidate). To give an example: we had one of our first engineer-hires email and call us repeatedly (at least 5 times) until got back to him. He was just so excited about our idea, he wouldn’t rest until he had the job. So why is passion so important? Because passion endures hardship, disagreement, disappointment, and even failure. It’s an emotion (or feeling) that isn’t totally driven by logic and reason (important in startups…believe me, things get unreasonable sometimes).  If you’re concerned about retaining talent or ensuring your talent is working as hard as they can, you can rest at ease if you have a passionate person.
  1. Focus on real work. Two of our engineer-hires are actually students we worked with before on robotics projects. We hired them not just because we already knew we were compatible from a personality standpoint, but because we also understood their work ethic and saw their work-product first-hand. Some larger companies are even starting to adopt this in their hiring process. Example: when I interviewed with Space X, their application asked me to upload files from extracurricular projects I did on my own time. This included engineering design files, publications, news articles, conferences proceedings, code, you name it. The best way to tell if somebody has the talent you’re looking for is to look at his or her actual work (maybe this is obvious but it surprises me how many companies don’t do this).
  1. Hire a problem-solver, not a degree. My experience with my college education was this: the main point of the classes and work I was subjected to was to teach me how to solve problems. Education isn’t about memorizing and regurgitating facts, but rather strives to teach the critical-thinking process. A startup is just about the farthest you can get from a textbook (heck, nothing is textbook in a startup – otherwise, everybody would be wildly successful at it!). Therefore, focus on identifying problem-solving skills in your prospects. Ask them how they would solve a problem in a realistic way (yes, using Google or a calculator, which are all readily available to normal human beings). Starting a company is basically solving one problem after the next - therefore, rank this one highly in your considerations!
  1. Focus on grit, not grades. Ah finally, all other points have lead to this final conclusion: pay no attention to a candidate’s GPA. If I can go from a D- in Pre-Calc to an A in Calc I, do you really think my math skills improved that dramatically, or was the teaching, testing, and grading-style more well-suited for my skills as an individual? Exactly. GPA means very little (to nothing) as it relates to items 2, 3 and 4. In fact, (not to throw anybody under the bus but) I happen to know that some of our engineers are far below the “standard” 3.0 that many larger corporations enforce as a minimum criteria. They do this because they need something to help sort-through the piles of resumes they get. In a startup, you have the luxury of hand-selecting your team, so use your time wisely (this process is worth it!). Unfortunately for the large organizations that can’t follow these tips, they are missing out on some of the most motivated and talented people on the planet. These are the students that are up until 3am fixing a circuit board or working on their code just so they can go to competition the next day with a working robot. This is an example of what many now refer to as “grit” – it’s a relatively new buzzword in the startup community. I like to think of it as the marriage of passion and sustained action. If you want a rockstar team, you need to have a team with GRIT!