Hiring the very first employees to join your startup is a nerve-wracking experience for any startup founder, especially since many think that the dream team is what makes the difference between a successful startup and a startup that will eventually fail. That is why the team of an early-stage startup is that much more important. To cite Sam Altman, founder of the Y Combinator accelerator, “mediocre people at a big company cause some problems, but they don’t usually kill the company. A single mediocre hire in the first five will kill a startup”.

But how do you find amazing people to hire? And more importantly, how do you convince them to join your startup?

If we were to take a look at other successful startups that are known for their amazing teams, we can easily see that the company culture plays an important role in attracting talent. Buffer, for example, is known for its fully remote team (yes, that is actually possible!), Coinbase reshapes the financial industry through yearly internal hackathons where everyone from new engineers to managers, executive assistants, recruiters, and even the CEO participates, while Moz has created its own Code, a set of company values known as TAGFEE.

To find out more about how the labor market has evolved in the few past years and how early-stage startups can attract talent, we’ve sat down for a chat with David Bizer, CEO of Talent Fountain and an ex-Googler. The insights in the interview below.

Q1: Nowadays, do you think we face a crisis in the labor market, or is it more like a change of paradigm, companies with organizational cultures that no longer match employees’ expectations? Are there any special perks that keep employees engaged and passionate for a longer period of time? 

I’d have to say maybe a bit of both. There has always been a “war for talent” when it comes to highly sought-after skills. Looking for Java Developers in the 90’s was just as difficult as hiring AI developers today. Whatever the “hot” positions are, there is always a lack of supply. This simply means that the companies who put into place strong and well-designed cultures will be the ones more capable of attracting and retaining the best talent.

As for the perks, I don’t think they are that relevant. Sure, a pool table can be fun, or a massage can be nice, but the best companies are the ones who create a “cult-like” atmosphere where the entire team is fully aligned behind the vision and has a certain intensity in the way they work toward achieving their goals. My personal favorites have always been the companies where we had lots of great people who worked (and played) extremely well together.

Q2: Attracting new talents, as a startup, may be the most challenging step. Scaling up your team when you’re on a fast-growth stage might be challenging. How do you do it? What’s your process and what’s your advice? And also, have you noticed a particular focus of tech companies to hire more women than in the past years?

This is a huge question 😊. Personally, I like to focus on the following: a clear understanding of what you really want, an exciting and inspirational pitch that will wow and seduce candidates, a well-defined recruitment process where the candidates feel engaged and come out with a positive experience (no matter the results), and the commitment of the leadership and hiring teams to devote as much time and energy as required to bringing on great people.

That being said, when it comes to diversity issues, unfortunately, I haven’t seen many initiatives in this direction. I speak from my experience in Europe and specifically with startups. My hypothesis is that early-stage startups are happy to find any good candidate and worry if they put diversity plans in place it would slow them down. It’s unfortunate as building a diverse team from the very beginning will be a huge asset as the company continues to grow and allows for further diversity.

Q3: What is the fundamental trait for a great hire in an early stage startup and why? And what is the number one quality that you look for in a candidate that has completely changed from 10 years ago? Do you have an explanation for that?

I think adaptability is an essential trait. An early-stage startup is going to require individuals who can wear many hats. They need to be hands-on and strategic at the same time. The startup’s business will change frequently, and they will need to be especially adept at adapting to new models and situations, particularly when faced with hyper-growth.

10 years ago, when I was still recruiting for Google, academic reputation was considered to be a key indicator of future performance – for all hires. However, today, Google has dropped that notion after studies proved there was no relevance. Now, I see more and more startups looking for proven expertise, and I wish they would look more broadly into candidates with high-potential but less relevant experience – they would broaden their candidate pools enormously and be quite surprised with some excellent individuals they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Q4: The future is barging in on us. Do you think the recruitment industry will change drastically in the next 5 years? Is it already happening?

Absolutely, it is and it will. There is already loads of new technology available which is going to make some parts of recruitment much simpler than ever before. Artificial Intelligence, for one, has already made its way into the HR industry, with more than 38% of companies already using it to streamline their recruiting efforts (according to a Deloitte report).

We will soon reach a point where sourcing won’t be difficult at all. What will need to change, however, is the personal attention that recruiters and hiring teams alike will need to shower over the selected candidates in order to have a chance to recruit the best.

Q5: And one of the questions we’ve heard a lot: who should do the hires in the first years? The CEO/CTO or a dedicated HR person?

I sincerely believe the entire leadership team should be deeply involved in hiring – certainly up to the first 100 employees if not beyond. A dedicated HR person will be able to help manage all of these processes in the background and be a great support to the leadership, but lack of engagement from the leadership will be extremely detrimental.


David Bizer is just one of the amazing speakers participating at our How to Web Conference lineup. If attracting talent for your startup is one of your most pressing challenges make sure you grab your ticket now (tickets are 60% off until October 4th) and come meet him on November 19 – 20 at the National Theater in Bucharest where he will be talking about connecting talent with innovative companies.

Don't miss out

Subscribe to receive updates about new interviews with entrepreneurs, investors and innovators and other conference news.