Almost every early stage team I meet goes through a similar cycle:

  1. Raise money.
  2. Find early product market fit.
  3. Stress out. “We really need to hire!”
  4. 6 months goes by.
  5. Nobody is hired.

If this sounds familiar, don’t panic. You’re not alone. This happens. It often takes 6-10 months for the founding team to hire their first few employees. “Hiring” is best segmented into two problems:

Scouting. As a CEO you’re a college basketball scout, hunting for the next Kobe Bryant. You need to spend a lot of time proactively meeting athletes. Most won’t be good or won’t be immediately free to transfer to your team. But at some point this will pay off.

Screening. Systematically handling the inbound flow. Building a perfect water filter for qualifying talent.

You need to get great at both of these in order to win. Here’s how:

1. Build a time allocation system. You’re thinking a lot about hiring, but you’re spending your time fighting other fires. Look at last week’s calendar. What fraction of the events were interviews? If you’re the CEO, it should be at least half. Talent is always the important, but not urgent goal. If you don’t forcefully prioritize it, it will slip. The trick is not to rely on willpower. Build a system. Work with an external entity (executive assistant, a recruiter, etc) to drive your schedule and flood you with interviews.

2. Hero Interviews. Here’s a trick: you can interview anyone, even people you have no business hiring. Think to yourself: “Who are the top 10 people in the world I’d love to work with?”. Write those names down. Go meet them. Get a sense for what excellence is like. Once in a blue moon, you’ll be able to hire these “Heroes”. Even if not, you’ll properly calibrate yourself.

3. Don’t decide until you’ve built a dataset. A very common mistake is not interviewing enough great people. Interviewing has a second purpose: you’re enriching your dataset. You need many examples of what “great” feels like. It’s hard to get that from books and words. But the mind is great at “building indexes” from in-person interactions.

When you interview, you’ll often think: “This person reminds me of X”, which then prompts you to recall your experiences with X (this can lead to negative bias, too. It’s a powerful tool!). Increase the breadth of your search corpus by interviewing people, even if you can’t really hire them. This also free advertising for your company, and a great time to practice your pitch.

4. References. You might be introverted, preferring a small amount of strong ties to many weak ties. But nothing — nothing — is more effective for filtering than references. The best references are people that you know. My trick is to think about this almost as a market: honest critical feedback comes at social cost, and you won’t be able to afford it if you don’t have a prior relationship with the reference. This is another good reason to do “Hero Interviews”. You might not hire them, but you’ll find they become valuable references in time.

5. Take home projects. Resumes are generally useless for screening. Instead, develop take home projects that you can apply without taxing your time. These are usually multi-hour assignments or games that provide better information on the candidate’s ability. At Pioneer we have about 10 of these all with varying role types and difficulty. An example: pick a time, and we’ll email you a prompt: “Research the latest advances in quantum computing. Develop a coherent opinion on the market. Which companies would you invest in, if any? What are the immediate go-to-market products? You have 3 hours to send us back your thoughts.”

Once we get something back, we’ll reply with: “If you’re completely wrong about your hypothesis, why?”

This will give me a sense of the candidate’s critical thinking, writing and research abilities. You’ll want to customize this for your domain, e.g. we do different projects for engineers.

6. Get a recruiter. Find a remote recruiter if you can’t find one locally. Try Upwork. You’ll want someone who you can give high level search queries to (“people who worked at X, Y, Z for N years”) and can give you back a spreadsheet of data. Send cold emails to all of them using MixMax. Schedule time to do this twice a week, if not more.

7. Do trial periods. Especially if you’re early stage, a trial period is a great way for you to realize what your culture is. You’ll get a sense for what clicks and what doesn’t. Some hires can’t do this (they’ll be looking to start immediately), but it’s always a good baseline to start with.

8. Work with feeders. KKR famously worked with dozens of financial consulting firms, then proceeded to hire the best consultants they worked with. Much like trial periods, this allows you to engage in a low-commitment fashion and progressively upgrade. A “hyperextended interview”. This doesn’t work for all industries. Startups shouldn’t hire software consultancies for this reason alone. But if you need a business operations role, consider the best associate at your law firm, as an example.

Hopefully these tips give you an actionable path towards ramping up hiring faster than your competition does.

- Daniel Gross