How to Hire Your First Employee
11 min. read
Updated November 8, 2023
It’s easy to picture the journey to entrepreneurship as a solitary adventure.
The late-night brainstorming sessions, the planning, the research—I don’t know about you, but in my mind that’s one lone figure doing it all (fueled by a seemingly bottomless mug of coffee).
Hey, if it works, it works—innumerable companies have been started in just such a way.
But eventually, all successful businesses will have to start taking on employees, and that’s when the fun really begins.
Or at least, that’s the assumption. Before you get there, however, you have to actually complete the interviewing, hiring, and onboarding process.
For new entrepreneurs, this can be daunting.
How do you go from being a solo venture to one where you’re forced to find and rely on others to help you grow and run your business?
To answer this question, I turned to the Young Entrepreneur Council’s members, and asked for their advice. Their responses ranged from practical tips on hiring to what to look for in a first employee.
Before you grab that stack of resumes, check out their tips.
1. Hire someone that is passionate about your product or service
Joshua Dorkin of BiggerPockets stresses the importance of hiring employees who genuinely care about your product, your service, or your company mission.
“The single most important thing to look for in hiring a first employee—or any early employee—is that they love your product and buy into your mission,” he says.
“Any differences in intelligence, experience, and communication skills will always be overcome by passion.” – Joshua Dorkin
Joshua argues that hiring people with passion and dedication to your company will serve you better than hiring for other qualities alone.
“I don’t care how smart the next guy is, what his degree is in, if he’s better looking, or if he’s a pro golfer,” he says. “Any differences in intelligence, experience, and communication skills will always be overcome by passion.”
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After all, a passionate, teachable employee can be brought up to speed and can learn the ins and outs of the position once hired—but it’s hard to teach passion.
Having someone on your team who truly believes in your product or service will be an asset to your new business.
2. Favor potential over experience
In the same vein, hire your first employees based on the potential you see in them, rather than seeking out the most highly skilled and qualified candidates.
“If you only focus solely on experience, you are going to be disappointed,” says Jonathan Long of Market Domination Media. “Look for potential: Do they posses motivation and have that burning desire to be part of something amazing?”
Why does this count for more?
For a couple of reasons. First of all, it may be more difficult to attract the most highly-skilled employees when you’re just starting out; you lack that long-term sticking power that more established companies have.
But, more importantly, hiring someone with potential allows you to work with their motivation to do well. This symbiotic relationship of working with your new employee to help them grow into their potential will give you an employee that not only cares about your company, but is committed to trying their best and being a part of your new venture.
“That type of individual can be far more valuable to your company than someone that just looks good on paper,” says Jonathan. “I’ll take someone that shows potential over someone that only looks good on a resume any day.”
3. Take your time and don’t rush
Don’t let your desire to find help fast lead you to rush into any unwise hiring decisions.
“Your first employee is going to be absolutely instrumental in the development of your company and it is critical that you take the time needed to bring in the right employee,” says Reza Chowdhury of AlleyWatch. “Carefully vet and screen all candidates.”
Murray Newlands of Due.com agrees. “Desperate to find help, founders may find themselves rushing to hire an employee, but it’s one of the worst things an employer can do, especially when hiring the first employee.”
This is because your first employees will help shape the future of your company. They are going to set the tone when it comes to company culture, and be instrumental to your success—or failure. It’s therefore vitally important that you choose employees that fit well with your vision for your new business.
“Fit is an important thing when it comes to workplace culture,” says Murray. “Make sure they fit the company’s needs and that they mesh with your personality, because imbalance just leads to lost productivity.”
4. Hire for your weaknesses
When you’re first starting your business, it’s easy to fall into the “jack-of-all-trades” role.
After all, when your business is merely an idea, it’s pretty much just on you. However, hiring your first employee is your opportunity to change that.
“Hire your first employee to balance out the things you don’t do very well, so it’s easier for you to learn to delegate.” -Nicole Munoz
“We each have strengths and weaknesses,” says Nicole Munoz of Start Ranking Now.
“Hire your first employee to balance out the things you don’t do very well, so it’s easier for you to learn to delegate.”
“Hate answering the phone? Find someone who’s a charming receptionist. Proposals take you hours every day? Look for a sales contract whiz,” advises Nicole.
5. Test for culture fit
More and more lately, the emphasis has shifted from hiring an employee with a specific skill set to hiring employees that mesh with your company culture.
Before you begin the hiring process, ask yourself: What kind of company culture do I hope to create?
Once you have a very clear idea of the type of company culture you would like to build, take this into account when proceeding with the hiring process, and get a sense of how well prospective employees will fit in with the type of culture you hope to foster in your new business.
“You obviously need to make sure a potential hire has the right skills, but equally as important, you need to make sure they have the right personality for your company,” says Jonny Simkin of Swyft. “Ask them questions about who they are as a person, not as an employee. Make sure they fit the culture you want to build.”
6. Hire someone with integrity
Know that while you’d like to hire someone who fits in well with your company now, you also need to think long term.
Is the person you’d like to hire someone you’d trust with difficult decisions?
“You’ll want to ensure that [your new employee] does the right thing rather than the easy thing,” says AJ Shankar of Everlaw. “Your first employee will have a huge impact on the company’s culture, and having integrity is a great first step.”
He adds: “No matter what role the person is going to fill, you’ll be working with [them] very closely, potentially for years.” So, while it can be hard to gauge this at the outset, make sure that you feel like your new employee is someone whose decisions you would be comfortable standing behind.
7. Establish a test period
That being said, it’s tricky to gauge abstract characteristics like “integrity” or “resourcefulness” after one quick meeting.
“It’s very difficult to judge character or performance after a few interviews,” says Marcela DeVivo of National Debt Relief.
Her solution? Trial periods for new employees.
“I quickly learned to establish a test/observation period before the hiring is official. This way you can get to know the person, see them in action, see how they work with you, and determine if they are the right fit,” she says. “If not, it’s easy to replace them with someone else without much loss.”
8. Know that they can’t be your best friend
Or, at the very least, make sure that you have plenty of the legal stuff set in stone before becoming too friendly.
“It’s very easy to slip into a peer relationship when it’s just you and one other employee,” says Basha Rubin of Priori Legal. “It’s important to get legal documentation in place early, both so your company is protected and expectations are set.”
Depending on your business, the legal documents will vary (Basha recommends setting up an employment agreement, proprietary inventions and innovation agreement, and an equity plan), so consult with your attorney before taking on someone new.
We’re not saying you can’t be friends, but make sure to establish the business side of the relationship first.
9. Discuss the hiring process with your stakeholders before you start
Don’t jump into the process of hiring alone if you’ve got outside investors; they’ll likely want to have some input, and it’s well within their rights to do so.
“Do a kickoff meeting with all stakeholders before starting the search,” suggests Joseph Walla of HelloSign. “Unless you get alignment from all stakeholders on the job description, responsibilities, interviewers, reporting structure, and other filters, you’ll likely hire the wrong person or get all the way to the end of the process and not end up hiring the right person due to misalignment.”
This is part of the preliminary dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s that might not be the most fun part of hiring, but you’ll be able to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
10. Do their job before hiring
Do you know how to do the job you are hiring for?
If it’s a specific technical position that you’re hiring for because you lack the skillset (see number five), then maybe not, but you likely have either done the job up until this point or are at least familiar with the duties you require.
Thomas Cullen of LaunchPad Lab recommends having a good sense of what the job entails so that you can be in the best position possible to set your new hire up for success.
This way, you’ll know what expectations are reasonable and what aren’t, and how best to help your new employee succeed.
“In order to manage the expectations for both yourself and your hire, you should do the job before any hiring decision is made,” he says. “During the onboarding process, be sure to work very closely with them so they really get to know what you built the business on. Your new hire will be set up for success and be able to take that job to new heights.”
11. Have clear expectations and training
On the same note, clearly define what you expect of your new employee, and communicate this from the start.
“Always clearly define roles and expectations,” says Michael Mogill of Crisp Video Group. Keeping your new employee in the dark about certain tasks you hope they can accomplish will not do you any favors, and may sour the relationship.
“Make sure they know the result you are looking to achieve with them, and take the time to properly train and onboard them,” says Michael.
12. Incentivize them like a founder
If you’re in a traditional startup-style business, you might want to consider treating your new talent more like a founder than an employee.
“When you hire your first employee, I recommend incentivizing them like a founder: low salary and high equity,” suggests Nanxi Liu of Enplug.
This can help you build a solid foundation, says Nanxi.
“Ensure that they have the right mentality of being in it for the long-run,” she says. “See whether they’re willing to make sacrifices and be uncomfortable, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride in the early stages of any startup.”
While ups and downs are inevitable, this strategy can pay dividends for both you and your employees. “Our first employees are now senior leaders who fully embody our culture,” says Nanxi.
13. Find someone with resourcefulness and tenacity
“Aside from experience, the main attribute to look for in your first hire, especially in a startup, is resourcefulness,” says Jayna Cooke of EVENTup.
“You want someone by your side that will be able to figure out situations and problem solve throughout the way. This will make your journey to success a little less stressful.”
An employee who can’t respond quickly to ever-changing situations—inevitable when starting a brand-new business—won’t fare well. Making sure that your new employee can problem solve and react quickly is essential.
“In the initial stages, you’ll need someone ready to hold on during the wild ride of building a company,” adds Shalyn Dever of Chatter Buzz Media. “If they’ve demonstrated a willingness to work hard in past positions, then you can feel secure that they can handle large, small, and unexpected tasks.”
Ultimately, hiring your first employee is going to be a little different than any hiring you do later on down the road.
Your first employees help set the tone for your business, for everything from company culture to how well your business pivots in response to a new situation.