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Six essential steps when hiring your first employee

CNET@Work: Not every company founder can hit it out of the park on the first swing, but there are ways to minimize big misses.

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With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- from prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.


When Dax Craig decided it was time to expand his startup in 2004, his first hire was a software architect, a bit of a geek, sure, but the two men hit it off immediately.

"He 100 per cent shared my vision and was much more intelligent than me," said Craig, the CEO of Valen Analytics, which develops data and analytics products for insurance companies. "He turned out to be a rock star and single-handedly built 75 per cent of our first product by himself."

Hiring that first employee ranks as one of a small business's most important moments. If you're ready to start scaling up, that means the problem your startup or small business wants to solve has been validated, the product is proven in the market and there's a meaningful revenue stream.

Now it's time to do it right. Entrepreneurs invest their blood, sweat and tears into their companies and that first employee needs to be as in love with your vision as you are.

Though not every company founder can hit it out of the park on the first swing, there are ways to minimize big misses.

Your interview prep should begin by writing down clear criteria for the position. That will keep you and any co-founders on the same page while also ensuring that all candidates receive a fair shot. It also allows you to easily compare answers once the last interview is over. As you go about the process of interviewing that first employee, consider the following.

Spell out your vision

You need to identify the qualities you want your company culture to embody, and then hold every hire to that standard. A company's first hire will prove crucial to a company's success or failure, so defining expectations clearly during the vetting process can separate out candidates who buy into the vision and values you seek to instill.   

Craig says that defining that vision with clarity is crucial to ensuring your startup won't quickly fly off the rails when problems occur later on. "It's especially key when it comes to sharing your vision," he said. "A good example is the philosophical difference of waiting for the perfect product versus getting an MVP out to market as soon as possible. If your first hire does not share the entrepreneurial value of getting market feedback to make iterative improvements, you risk paralyzing stagnation."

Mind the gap

You're hiring to fill roles that you or your co-founders can't do. So if you need to build product quickly, bring on board an engineer. If you know little about marketing and that's your top need, find someone with that background for your first hire. Wash, rinse, repeat. "Keep in mind that every hire you make also takes away a little bit of your responsibilities," notes Al Karim Somji, founder and Group CEO of Zafin, a financial technology provider. "Which ones do you no longer feel you can effectively execute? Which ones do you not believe you're best at?"

Full-time versus part-time

If someone insists on a reasonable work-life balance, that's perfectly fine -- for a different company.  

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Is it more advantageous to make that first hire a permanent position? Answer that question by being clear about your company's basic competencies. Which positions are going to make the greatest initial impact and then prioritize their first hires from that point. If you do decide to start with a part-timer, know that freelancers end up costing you more over the long term.

"Any function that is core to your business should ideally be served by a permanent hire," said Alex Lassiter, co-founder and VP of customer service at software developer Gather. "For example, we're a software business, so it's very important for us to have a talented engineering team on site every day."

Blood, sweat and tears

Your early hires are all about finding the right cultural fit. If they don't fit those core values, you're going to have a tough time recruiting others that do. Also, long, grueling hours are par for the course in the beginning. Your first hire should understand the expectation that comes with that role since you're trying to trying to get a small company off the ground. At this stage, you won't have the luxury to hire someone who learns on the job. They need to hit the ground running. If someone insists on a reasonable work-life balance, that's perfectly fine -- for a different company.

Look for a bootstrapping attitude

Priorities and strategies change all the time. So an ideal candidate should possess an innate entrepreneurial spirit and be able to pivot at a moment's notice. You'll want someone who has initiative and intuition -- since you're not going to have time, or the desire, to micromanage.

Give priority to candidates who can roll with the changes and take the risks needed to make them work. "As a small company, you need to hire people that can grow and learn quickly on the job," said Lassiter. "You'll always be resource-constrained, but if you have smart people in the room who can adapt and change you'll always be ahead of the curve."    

Look for people who can talk truth to power

When it comes to cultural fits, Somji says hire someone who will bring a diversity of thoughts, opinion and skills. Ask them what they would change about the company. Somji recalled that one of the first executives he hired offered up "a laundry list of things that we should be doing differently. You should always hire for the attributes that you think are important to the team you're building."