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What startups want in new hires

The Silicon Roundabout In Old StreetThe Silicon Roundabout In Old Street

Dear Annie: My employer, a ginormous global computer company, is sending me to SXSW this year to check out what’s new, and I am planning to do some job prospecting while I’m there. I’ve never really fit the big company mold, and the idea of moving to a small, fast-growing company really appeals to me. I read your column on what to find out before joining a startup, but I’m curious about what entrepreneurs look for when they interview candidates. So far, I only have big company experience. (Even my college internships were at Fortune 500 companies.) Do you think that will count against me? — Just Jason

Dear J.J.: Interesting question, especially since small businesses (those with 499 or fewer employees) account for over 80% of new hires in the U.S. right now. Your big company background won’t necessarily get in your way. After all, plenty of entrepreneurs came from huge organizations themselves.

Consider, for instance, Jeff Ball. He went to law school, worked for a while at a big law firm, and then moved on to JPMorgan, where he led the firm’s semiconductor device investment banking practice, with clients like Intel and Texas Instruments.

Ball now runs two Austin-based real estate investment firms, Econohomes and Visio Financial Services, launched in 2006 and 2011 respectively, where he’s hired about 40 people and plans to hire 20 more this year. Like most entrepreneurs, Ball interviews all job candidates himself and, he says, “I look for five essential qualities.” Previous experience at a startup isn’t on his checklist. Here’s what is:

“Tell me about a skill you’re working on improving.” Says Ball, “I don’t care what the answer is — but if the person doesn’t have an answer, that’s very telling.” Lots of employers want “leaders who are always trying to improve themselves and help others do the same,” he notes, but at a startup, this is an absolute requirement, partly because “people who are committed to continually improving tend also to be more willing to take risks. In a big company, mistakes can be fatal, so everyone is very risk-averse. This is different. We want people who can quickly try something and, if it doesn’t work, keep trying.“

“Who would be your ideal wingman (or woman)?” In other words, describe someone whose skills and strengths would complement your own. “What I’m looking for here is self-awareness. Do you know what you’re good at, and what you’re less good at?” says Ball. “The more thoughtful and specific your answer, the better.” He recently interviewed one candidate who replied, “Someone smart.” Ball considered that answer far too vague and “evasive,” and he turned thumbs-down on the hire.

“Tell me about a work situation where you solved a problem that was outside your usual role.” Ideally this should be something you took on without having it assigned (or even suggested) to you. Startups can’t afford “the common big company excuse, ‘It’s not my job,’” says Ball. “We need people who are super flexible and looking for ways to make themselves useful and have a positive impact, all the time — not just when it’s part of their job description.”

“What does your schedule look like on a typical day?” The obverse of Parkinson’s Law (which says, roughly, that any task will expand to fill the amount of time allotted to it) is that once people have taught themselves to work efficiently, they can accomplish the essentials of their job in very little time. “So I ask how a candidate usually structures his or her day,” says Ball. “I’m looking for people who understand the 80-20 rule, meaning that the most crucial responsibilities of a job are actually very few. In a startup, you need people who do great work fast, without wasting time.”

“How well can you deal with constant, unpredictable change?” Ball equates working at a startup with “building a plane while it’s in the air. In big companies, it’s hard to make change happen. At a startup, it’s impossible to avoid it. Some people who come from large companies really have trouble making the adjustment. In fact, some people can’t stand it.”

On that note, here’s another thought: Former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki — now a Silicon Valley startup guru — just came out with an updated version of an earlier book, The Art of the Start 2.0. You might want to take a look at the chapters about what entrepreneurs should look for (and avoid) in building a topnotch team.

From your point of view as a potential hire, especially coming from a big company, it could help to mention that you’re willing, as Kawasaki writes, to “fly coach, function without a secretary, and stay in cheap motels.”

Whatever you do, avoid any reference to certain erstwhile startups’ now-famous perks. “Start-ups are not about Ping-Pong, free food, fun parties, and a quick path to wealth,” notes Kawasaki. “A realistic description is that startups take four to five years of long hours at low pay with incredible highs and depressing lows, with the constant fear of running out of money.

“And this is if things go well.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you work at a start-up, how did you persuade the person who interviewed you that you could handle it? If you are a manager at a start-up, what do you look for in new hires? Leave a comment below.

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