8 Traits of Top Startup Employees

And how to hire for them

The biggest decision you have to make as a founder is this: Who are the people you're going to choose to help you build your startup?

We'll talk about choosing a cofounder in a future post, but choosing your early employees correctly is critical as well.

I've hired early team members from great places including Stanford's graduate School of Business, Uber, Amazon, Y Combinator, and more but not everyone with a blue chip background is a good fit for a startup.

Here are some of the common traits that the best performers at startups have:

8 Traits of Top Performers at Startups

They Proactively Ask for Feedback

Startups require constant learning and growth. The best employees are the ones who are similarly constantly looking for opportunities to grow through direct feedback.

As a founder, you should have systems in place to give feedback to your direct reports but when team members proactively ask for more of it, you know you've found someone who cares about the contribution they're making.

They Don't Care About Their Title

One of the common mistakes founders make is "over-titling" — aka giving out senior-level titles to early employees before senior titles are warranted. A common instance of this is calling someone the "head of x" before there is a team to be the head of.

If title is something that potential early employees care about, they aren't seeing the bigger picture. If the startup is successful, and they perform well, their title and responsibilities will increase repeatedly.

The best early employees understand this and are solely focused on making an impact.

They Know Which Fires to Let Burn

Startups have more problems to solve than time to solve all of them, and focusing on the right ones is critical for success and avoiding team burnout.

It's your job to ensure your team is focused on the right things, but the best employees will have internalized your company goals so much that they can prioritize on their own.

You Can Learn From Them

Even better than internalizing your startup's goals, the truly top employees will be able to share subject matter expertise that improves your understanding of their area of the business.

This is one of the easier things to test for in an interview, too. Just start telling them about problems you're dealing with in the area of the business they'd be working on. If they can change your opinion about something without having much business context, it's a great sign.

They're Solution-Oriented

As a founder it's natural to want to solve everything for your startup, but if you've hired the right people you won't need to. Rather than bringing you problems to solve, the best team members are creative and capable of coming up with solutions on their own.

You already hired them, so you've already made the decision to trust them to do this. Make sure they're doing so.

They Have Genuine Passion

Startups will have good times and bad times. If an employee thinks of your startup as just a job, they're likely to get burned out or leave during challenging times.

Look for early team members who have believable, genuine passion to solve the problem you're solving by asking about what attracted them to the job when you're interviewing them.

They Hustle

There's no way around the fact that startups are hard, require long hours, and have limited resources to solve those hard problems with.

You want team members who look for scrappy solutions that embrace the "M" in MVP, and aren't afraid to learn new tools quickly to get something launched.

They Hold You Accountable

People who join your startup early are betting on YOU to deliver. Joining any startup is a big risk and a massive bet that they are making on future success.

Just as you want team members to ask for feedback about themselves, you also want them to provide feedback for you and hold you accountable when things don't go as planned.

💡 How I Can Help

Whenever you’re ready, here are 2 ways for us to work together:

  1. Grab time with me for a 1:1 session on fundraising, GTM and growth, hiring, finding PMF, or anything else

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Think about your early employees and identify what's missing from your team. Shoot me an email if you'd like to jam on how to improve that area.

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