Finding and Hiring Talent at an Early Stage Startup

I was recently asked what I consider the hardest part of founding a startup. The answer, of course, is that it’s all hard: finding the right idea, prioritizing, executing, and evaluating when or if to change course.

But if I had to choose the hardest piece of all, it’s finding the right people to work with. It’s tempting to shelter your baby startup from all outside influences. As long as you and your cofounder(s) are the only ones working on it, you’re in control. Ceding some of that control to new hires can be terrifying, especially if you don’t know them well. But if you really want your baby to grow up and be a self-sustaining or, ideally, world-changing business, you need to allow others to help shape its development.

So the following are some tips which I hope might be helpful as you embark on your search for employees 1, 2, 3 and… well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten, so when I know more I’ll try and report on that.

Finding People Worth Hiring

AngelList is probably the best job board to find startup-minded talent, but there’s a lot of noise to sift through. I use AngelList the same way many people use Tinder: I ‘like’ anyone that looks vaguely interesting, and if they ‘like’ me back I delve into their profile and see if they’re actually worth pursuing.

– Use your trusted networks. People often overlook things like their facebook timeline, their college’s job board, their floor hockey league email circular, etc. It’s like they’re ashamed they’re hiring. There is nothing wrong with being in a position to hire talent. Shout it from the rooftops. Put it in your email signature line. You never know when your mom’s friend from church has a son who happens to be sick of his job at Zynga and wants to move back east. And connections, even loose ones, help ensure that you don’t get stuck with a psychopath (more on that later).

– Be visible in the community. Present your startup at meetups and conferences, or try and get press. If you can’t get on a panel somewhere, organize your own event. If you can’t get press, publish a blog post or an infographic others might pick up. Answer questions on Quora. Be active on social networks, especially Twitter. If you were a talented startup-person, would you rather work for a respected, contributing member of the tech community or an MBA who has never built a business before?

– Poach! The people you really want to hire probably aren’t on the market: they’re already doing good work at a successful company. But their souls might yearn to be at an early stage start up. Help them achieve inner peace. Look for startups that have really taken off in the last 2-3 years, and identify the people that have been there from the early days. They obviously had and probably still have interest in working at a smaller company. Also, just as importantly, they’ve vested into most if not all of their equity (assuming standard 4-year vesting), so have less reason to stay in their current job. Woo them. You have something in your arsenal that is, to the right person, more attractive than money: the opportunity to build something new and innovative, or at least have fun trying. 

The Interview Process

– Letting the interviewee talk, rather than badgering him or her with questions, can surface the most interesting responses. Without being too awkward about it, try and leave enough time after an interviewee gives an initial answer so that he or she can add more. Example of a conversation I had once:

Me: what do you consider a good work-life balance?
Him: I think if you’re really concentrating, you can pack a really good day’s work into about four hours. And if you’re producing good work you’re going to be concentrating so hard that it’s difficult to perform well for more than four hours. So I really try and optimize my time, and of course I’m on call for more than four hours a day, but that’s probably what’s sustainable to consistently put out really good code.
(at this point I’m thinking that he’s probably right and this is pretty reasonable, but I wait just in case he wants to say more)
He continues: also at the end of the day I’m really quite lazy. I like my free time. I basically want to work the minimum amount possible. Fortunately as a coder I can usually get things done pretty quickly and no one really knows how long they should take so I can kind of set my own hours.
Me: …….

Needless to say, I’m not sure why this guy thought that was going to make me want to hire him. But I’m glad I waited and got the full picture.

– for a startup it’s important to ask the question: ‘If the company hit hard times, what would you do?’ If they say ‘I have student debt and/or a family to support and couldn’t take a reduced salary’, or something along those lines, they shouldn’t be disqualified. Nevertheless, it’s important information to know, and better to have that kind of conversation up front rather than when you’re against the ropes. Startups are so sexy these days, and lots of people interview for jobs at startups without really appreciating what that means: low pay, low job security, little to no benefits, all for the sake of an upside that is 90% not going to pan out.

– always hire people smarter than you, as long as they respect you and aren’t earning such a high salary that they’ve got no skin in the game.

Closing the Deal

– So, psychopaths. They exist, and they can ruin your company. Do your due diligence. Try and find some connection in the network of the person you’re hiring. I don’t actually like asking candidates to volunteer a reference, as I’ve always found that to be a pain when I was interviewing for jobs. I usually inform a potential hire that I’m going to try and reach out to people in my network who might have worked with him or her (it’s important to mention this so he doesn’t feel violated if he hears you’ve been snooping, but he should also understand that this is completely reasonable thing to do). I search LinkedIn for the previous company, see if I have any first or second-degree connections there, and reach out. Blind hires probably have a greater likelihood of working out than your average blind date, but that’s not saying much.

– when hiring I’ve always started people on a 60 to 90 day contract at a fair price (usually above what ends up being their salary, to compensate them for the fact that they’re not yet getting equity or in a long-term position), then negotiated ongoing salary/equity a month or two into their contract. Locking in a salary or equity number before youve worked with the person for at least a few weeks is like raising a seed round at a valuation rather than a convertible note: okay if necessary but preferable to postpone the valuation till you have more data.

– have hires (if you follow the above they’re contractors to start) sign a standard contract and agreement off Docracy if you’re too early stage to afford a lawyer. If you have less than $100k in the bank you are too early stage to afford a lawyer. I like Gunderson Dettmer’s standard consulting agreement.

– Read Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman. So much wisdom.

In Conclusion

If we can learn one thing from Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, it might be this: that no matter how smart or dedicated you are, you probably need at least 54 other people to build a $19bn company in four years. Don’t let yourself become an overprotective, smothering parent to your baby startup. It takes a village to raise one of these things right. 
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The Complete Guide to NY Tech – ABRIDGED!

A few months ago, Steve Schlafman of RRE Ventures put together an exhaustive overview of the NYC tech landscape. It’s great, but at over 100 slides, it’s a lot to wade through, especially if most of the names are new to you.

So here’s a hopefully more digestible version, loosely modeled after Rob Go’s excellent ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Boston Tech Community‘.

New York has always been a center of innovation. But when it comes to the kind of internet-enabled, venture capital-fueled innovation we call ‘tech’, the Big Apple was long considered a bit of a backwater, the kind of place a good programmer would only move if his/her significant other was trying to be an actor. Less than ten years ago, people were more likely to consider Boston or Chicago America’s second tech city.

How things have changed. New York is now the world’s fastest-growing tech hub. We can’t compete with Silicon Valley for sheer scale yet. But Foursquare, AppNexus, Tumblr, Meetup, Makerbot, Shutterstock and Buzzfeed have shown the world that NY tech is more than just fashion and finance (though Gilt, Warby Parker, and Kickstarter are also great). If you don’t believe me, read Venrock partner Nick Beim’s fantastic, data-packed analysis of ‘The Rise and Future of NY Tech’.

If you’re new to town or new to tech, here are some places to kickstart your journey into the NYC innovation community.

Mailing lists/events listings

– NYC Startup Digest
Gary’s Guide: probably the most comprehensive, but it can be hard to figure out what’s really worth going to. On the upside, often has free goodies/discount codes
This week in NYC Innovation: well curated by VC Charlie O’Donnell
Bonnie Halper’s ‘SOSList’
Kate Kendall’s ‘The Fetch’

Coworking spaces (many also have good mailing lists)

WeWork (multiple locations): slick, professionally run, and affordable
AlleyNYC (37th and 7th): high traffic, good roster of events
Fueled Collective (SoHo): founders of the successful app development shop rented out a floor of Foursquare’s space and tricked it out like the set of a GQ shoot. Magnet for clever people who all seem too cool to really be in tech
Projective Space (SoHo): minimalist decor, solid events, mostly dudes
Wix Lounge (Chelsea): free! So often crowded. But free
New Work City (Chinatown)
Secret Clubhouse (Williamsburg): the hipster coworking space
– a more comprehensive list courtesy of Mark Birch here
– and the Complete Guide to Coworking from AlleyWatch


NY Tech Meetup: with close to a thousand attendees, it’s a madhouse and you’re not likely to run into a Big Dog (successful/famous founder or investor) in the audience like you used to in the old days. However, the presentations are usually high quality and it’s worth checking out at least once
Ultralight Startups, Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable: monthly event with 4 or 5 startups pitching a panel of VCs and getting feedback. Instructive.
PandoMonthly, Startup Grind: fireside chat-style talks with notable startup founders
House of Genius: amazing invite-only event (you can apply) where anonymous panelists give feedback to two growing companies
Amusemi: ‘dining club for entrepreneurs, designers, and friends’
NYC.js: smaller than the NYC Javascript meetup, but higher quality events. They aggressively screen for recruiters, so come only if you’re genuinely interested in learning about the tech
– generally, just comb through the mailing lists and search for things related to your specific domain (edtech, health, maps, design)
– as a general rule, things being hosted by General Assembly and at AppNexus tend to be quite good

If you’re starting a company

– Startup Weekend ($125), Lean Startup Machine: 54 hours to build a business. Pitch your idea, if it’s selected form a team, and present how far you’ve gotten two days later. Mentors—investors, experienced founders, etc — coach teams on best practices and award a winner
– Test Tube ($5): usability testing speed dating-style: spend five minutes with someone trying out your app and then do the same with theirs. Repeat ~6 times. Great way to get a real sense of your products’ appeal. You can go with just an idea and it’s a great way to get feedback from strangers, which is much more valuable than feedback from friends
Strategy Hack ($650): one day workshop to hone your marketing strategy
NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC): lots of government resources dedicated to helping small businesses grow, notably Take the HELM ($250k grants)
– accelerators: TechStars, AngelPad, DreamIt, and Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable: in exchange for 6-10% of your company, receive $20-40k investment, work out of a shared office space, and gain access to a community of mentors who help you accelerate your startup’s development. Competitive admission. More comprehensive overview from AlleyWatch.
– or try and pitch at Ultralight or Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable (free, see above)

If you might like to work at a startup

General Assembly‘s job boards (on the wall at 902 Broadway, 4th Floor… how retro)
The Muse
– Christina Cacioppo’s job board
Made in NY job map
– Jobs at Union Square Ventures-backed startups:

Educational resources – the last few years have seen an explosion in Tech Education. Some might argue that successful entrepreneurs learn by doing, not paying $12k for a coding course. But the paid schools below have built up impressive alumni networks and also help with job placement, which may justify the price depending on your own networking prowess.

General Assembly: everything from $20 evening classes to twelve week $11.5k web development immersives
Flatiron School: twelve weeks, $12k, and arguably the best coding education you can get outside of a good university. Competitive admission.
Startup Institute: $5250 for an 8 week course with a ‘core curriculum’ and optional specialization in different startup-centric tracks (web development, UX design, etc)
Codeacademy: it’s free. Online. Started by NYers. Bloomberg apparently uses it, bless his heart
Dash: a sexier but less developed competitor to Codeacademy, also free online. Made by the General Assembly folks


TechCrunch Disrupt (early May): the tech blog’s second conference gets an appearance from most of the current Hot People in Tech. Can be useful to try and rub shoulders, but don’t pay full price for a ticket
Maker Faire (late September): take Medieval Times and replace the jousting with robot jousting. Really!
NY Tech Day (late April): quite obviously not the World’s Largest Tech Event, as they bill themselves. Still a decent overview of who’s making what
– Capital On Stage (November): one day conference where venture capitalists ‘pitch’ to entrepreneurs
– Google search ‘NYC Hackathon’ (what is a hackathon?) as these are constantly changing
*these events are often pricey, but there are always hacks to get in for free or a reduced rate – participate in the Disrupt hackathon, for example, and you get two free tickets to the $1995-a-ticket conference

Scenesters – not the ‘best’ entrepreneurs and investors, but the people that go most out of their way to be accessible and welcoming to new startup-minded people + the ones that consistently generate good social media content. Sorted by descending sum of Twitter followers, more or less.

Arianna Huffington: no explanation needed
– Gary Vaynerchuk: prolific angel investor, just launched a seed fund
Mayor Emeritus Mike Bloomberg: presided over NY’s transition to tech powerhouse, continues to be a champion of the community
Jenna Wortham: NY Times tech reporter
Anil Dash: NY tech old guard. Serial founder, prolific tweeter. blog
– Fred Wilson: Godfather of Union Square Ventures. blog
Baratunde Thurston: seems to be a staple at tech events though it’s unclear why exactly
Chris Dixon: VC@ Andreesen Horowitz. blog
Joel Spolsky: founder of Stack Overflow, but best known for Joel on Software, his coder culture-defining blog since 2000. Blogging for 14 years!!
Alexis Ohanian: Reddit founder, Y Combinator’s east coast ambassador, angel investor, book writer
Kate Kendall: Melbourne transplant, media maven, founder of The Fetch
Esther Dyson: prolific angel investor
Rachel Sklar: founder of the, an email list for females in tech, ‘Change the Ratio‘ champion
Jonah Peretti: founder & CEO Buzzfeed
Jason Saltzman: founder & CEO, AlleyNYC
Bre Pettis: CEO Makerbot. blog
David Tisch: scion of the family with their name on half the buildings in NY. Formerly found of TechStars NY, now investor at Box Group
– Charlie O’Donnell: formerly of First Round Capital and Union Square Ventures, now leading his own $10m fund, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, which has had early successes in Tinybop and Canary. Often arranges lunches & dinners for the NY entrepreneurial community
Cindy Gallop: advertising exec turned founder of friendly porn site Force of nature
Trevor Owens: runs Lean Startup Machin
Andy Weissman: Union Square Ventures. blog
Howard Morgan: First Round Capital. Most active 60+ year old tweeter in tech?
Ben Lerer: Lerer Ventures, Thrillist founder
Christina Cacioppo: formerly USV, now building something?
– Phin Barnes: First Round Capital. blog
Courtney Boyd Meyers: The Next Web, Wired, Daily Beast writer
– Kathryn Minshew: founder of the Muse, WSJ contributor, poster woman for Women in Tech
Alyson Shontell: Business Insider
Erin Griffith: formerly PandoDaily, now Fortune
Joanne Wilson: ‘The Gotham Gal’ angel investor, blog
Kelly Hoey: founder Women Innovate Mobile accelerator
Steve Schlafman: formerly Lerer Ventures, now RRE
Shai Goldman: Managing Director at SVB, formerly heading up the NY branch of 500 Startups, Dave McClure’s global empire
– Matt Brimer: one of the founders of General Assembly, prolific party-hoster
Rameet Chawla: co-founder of Fueled, insanely well dressed
Ryan Matzner: co-founder of Fueled, insanely well dressed. Yes, both of them.
– Frank Denbow: curator of NY Startup Digest and founder of NY Startup Weekend, staple at hackathons. Knows everyone
Murat Aktihanoglu: founder Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable Accelerator
Chris Velazco: formerly @TechCrunch, now associate editor at Endgadget
Mark Birch: serial founder, blogger, man about town. blog
Niamh Hughes: former community director @General Assembly, now at Shutterstock; Sandbox network ambassador for NY
Tom Limongello: columnist @PandoDaily, abortive creator of fail whale pillows
David Teten – ff Venture Capital, HBS Alumni Angels, frequent judge at startup competitions
– Christina Wallace – director of NY Startup Institute, super connector

Getting investment

– SVB’s Shai Goldman has helpfully compiled a spreadsheet of funds raised in the last two years, which are by definition the most likely to be actively making investments today
15 NY-based Angel Groups for Your Startup to Consider from AlleyWatch

Big NY Startups

– Meetup
– Foursquare
– Thrillist
– Etsy
– AppNexus
– Fab
– Tumblr
– Stack Exchange
– Shapeways
– Return Path
– Kickstarter
– Buzzfeed
– RapGenius
– Warby Parker
– Gilt
– Artsy
– Squarespace
– Vice Media
– Sailthru
– Refinery29

Concluding Notes

– General Assembly runs a great free 1-hour ‘orientation’ class every few weeks that gives a good overview of things and people to know
– Is this comprehensive? Hell no. That’s the point. Still, please let me know of any glaring omissions or falsities in the comments, mail g at or via the social network of your choice.

Sources: Steve Schalfman’s ‘Guide to NYC tech’; SVB, CB Insights, and Orrick’s ‘Venture Capital Almanac’;  Brittany Laughlin @USV; anecdotes; hard won personal experience

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