Posted by: lrrp | July 18, 2013

Technology recruitment in an early start-up

So, you have an idea for a startup, but need a tech guy to build it… how should you find him? How do you make that first technical hire?

Of course, you want the company to sound personable and friendly, and that was probably the noble impulse that drove the poor anonymous job ad writer to write that awful ad. A formal, stiff job ad is indeed not going to attract good early employees – let alone a start-up CTO, which I believe is what they were trying to hire in this case.

First of all, let’s define our terms a little. Everyone has different terms for these things, but there’s two general stages to recruitment of technical guys in a really early start-up (one with fewer than 10 techs). Please note that when a company grows beyond that size, things shift and evolve. This applies to very small technology start-ups only and, as ever in the start-up world, there are and will always be exceptions.


The first person that needs to be recruited is what I call variously the start-up CTO, the technology director, or the technical co-founder. For a technology start-up whose bread and butter will be developing a technical product that people will want to pay money for, this “hire” is the most important that the founder can make in the entire history of the company. Here, I’m assuming that the first founder is non-technical or not technically strong enough.

Strong enough to do what? Well, to develop the whole product by himself! Wait a second… can anyone develop a whole product by themselves? It depends on the product. I’ve done it. My best friend is doing it now on his own start-up. My current start-up employs only two people to build our product. So yes, it is possible, if you’re using the right technologies and if you’re building the kind of product that is amenable to being built by a very small team.

You might decide to hire more than just this guy, even though he can build the whole product by himself, in order to speed things up a little. After all, if your cofounder can write the whole product by himself, but it will take him 3 years to get to version 1, that’s probably not good enough. But you won’t be struggling to hire his team – he’s more than capable of doing that himself. Ah yes, that’s another thing a start-up CTO needs to be capable of: finding and attracting other technically talented team members to joint the start-up.

What else? Well, he also needs to have a good head for business, to understand where the start-up is going and be able to pick the technologies to meet those goals. He needs to be capable of working with maniacal productivity despite the chaotic, highly constrained environment of an early start-up. He needs to have enough managerial skills to manage the early start-up team once it comes into existence. What you (as a business-minded founder) might be doing for the business, i.e. pulling the entire thing from a mere idea into existence out of your sweat and determination, he needs to do for the product.

It’s worth emphasizing here: I’m not saying this guy will build the whole product by himself, only that he needs to be able to do so if need be.

He’s a One-Man IT Department. He’s the person on top of which you’ll build your company. He’s not a rock star. He’s a rock, and on this rock you can build your company.

The early employees

Early (technical) employees also need to be very competent, flexible and driven, but less so than the technical co-founder. They can specialise a bit more, and can focus on getting things done without quite so many business distractions. It will be the CTO’s job to figure out what technical skills are needed to continue to grow the start-up, once there’s budget for other people, and to find and hire the right people to fill those holes.

Early employees do need to be willing to have a go at whatever needs to be done at the moment. If it’s network administration that you need to do today, so be it. But they don’t need to bring all those skills to the job – it’s something they can learn from their colleagues, from howto’s downloaded from the web, books, etc.

As a start-up CTO looking for early employees, you should look not for someone who can do your job, but for someone who is reasonably well rounded and flexible, but more importantly is better than you in one of the key areas that really matter to the start-up.

Where to find them

So, where do you find these rare and wond’rous creatures? Let’s start with the CTO. Most important hire in the company. Defines the product that you will build. Is a job site a good place to look for one of those?

Of course not. You find technical co-founders the same way you find any co-founder: through personal relationships. If you want to start a technology start-up and you’re not technical, you need to locate your technical co-founder amongst your network of friends, and if there isn’t one there, you need to expand that network until there is. Until you have found your technical cofounder, your company cannot be started (at least not with any reasonable chance of success). Maybe there are even better ways of finding co-founders, but I don’t know them. Paul Graham’s experience seems to agree: “Usually the founders have been friends for at least a year before starting the company.”

I’m sorry if you were expecting a simple, easy answer, like “Go on”. In my experience, the kind of people you want as technical cofounders are either doing it already, or productively employed. Finding your technical co-founder is hard work, but the pay-back from this work is huge.

What about early employees? Well, those are a little easier. At least, you can let your CTO do most of that job. He or she should have the network to find the people that he wants to hire. There, as well, I’d recommend networking as the primary means of finding great people to work with. However, for early employees, in some rare cases, you might use a carefully constructed job ad to fish for possible hires. Bear in mind, though, that at this stage, it’s usually better not to hire anyone than to hire the wrong person.

Taking on a cofounder: final note

One last note on cofounders: you can’t treat them as employees. They’re not employees, they’re cofounders. You want them to feel that it’s their company, and to do that, you have to give them equity – not options, not promises of options, but actual founder’s equity. Don’t feel like you’re giving stuff away here. If you’ve got the right person for the job, ensuring that they feel ownership of the company will ensure that your share is worth something. It’s better to own 70 or 80 or even 51% of something than 100% of nothing.

(Daniel Tenner)



  1. Great article the best I’ve read infact
    I am also cooking up what will be a game changer of technology in our lifetime. Kimzinto technology (a South African tech startup) is looking to build a mobile technology bar that is simply what the name suggests, a fully functional built technology bar that will be the back-bone of a media technology retail business in airports and shopping centres across the globe.

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