Opinion Piece - 500 Startups Laila Hassan on how to retain the right talent for your startup

So you’ve managed to attract the best talent… now this is how to keep them!

8 out of 10 founders state that hiring the best talent is what keeps them up at night - even more than fundraising for the next round. As strange as this sounds it actually makes sense; a good team is what makes a great company, better yet, an investable one. Working on the opposite side as a Venture Capitalist (VC) that invests in startups, we do go deep into analysis of the product, market size and traction, but ultimately, the team is always the most pivotal metric that is often questioned. VCs understand that the business will change over time, so early-stage VCs are essentially betting on the team to get them through it.

In our ecosystem, we are starting to see a new wave of corporate professionals (5+ years of experience, business school degrees, clear organizational career paths) who are looking to move into startups and join as C-suite professionals. I've often heard from founders that while bringing on the right professional might be difficult, retaining him/her might be even harder. In an attempt to set the stage through my collective experience (personally and through close friends who made the switch), I will try to articulate the top 3 tips for founders looking to retain top talent, and for professionals looking for a smooth transition. This will be slightly controversial, but rarely have I seen good articles that are not…

Listen up founders, this may be hard to swallow but here goes…

1) You need to be likable; vision and likability “it’s important to bond outside the workplace setting as much as within it”

Put yourself in the professional’s shoes, we shall call him/her “Zein” - (clever, a gender-neutral name). Zein had a clear career path in his/her organization but instead he/she decided to take a leap of faith and join a (early?) startup. To this day, society and probably Zein’s mom still thinks he/she is crazy for taking a pay-cut in return for a virtual upside that, if it happens, will be 10 years down the line. Zein’s life conviction needs to be first and foremost in God, but quite close after it needs to be in this founder’s vision and his/her ability to deliver on it.

 As a founder, you were probably able to sell your vision if you’ve managed to bring Zein this far - the important part is to keep communicating your vision throughout. As companies scale, communication falls through the cracks. This is unfortunate because, aside from company retreats and better pay, communication is one of the forms that indicate you appreciate someone within your organization; you keep them in the loop and value their opinion. Zein needs to be aligned and aware of your vision and know exactly where this company is heading at all times.his is the only way he/she can truly deliver on what you hired him/her for. 

 A softer part to this perception, albeit still a significant aspect, is likability. Zein will be interacting with you day-in and day-out. He/she needs, scratch that, you both need to like each other on a personal level. Zein might think the world of you, but if he/she can’t really stand you then this really wouldn’t work out. Before bringing Zein on, you need to date him/her, treat them as family, go out for meals, drinks or any social activity - essentially, it’s important to bond outside the work setting as much as within it.  

2) You need to empower your professional; managing expectations “It’s what you do, not what you say”

I can’t stress this enough- during the interview process, as a founder you are eager to bring Zein on board, so you give them broad promises of autonomy and empowerment; the issue here is what sounds great in your head, and you are in agreement with theoretically, might be very difficult for you to implement. I've heard several stories from the Zein's of the world of how they were empowered in some respects but mostly empowered to agree with the founder on different points.

3) Make sure your professional is mentally stimulated; keep him engaged and motivated “he should be feeling the perks of working in a startup”

As a founder you have to experiment with a lot of roles in your business, at certain times you were the point person for sales, marketing or product. While you may have not enjoyed all these roles, I’m sure you have learnt a great deal. Zein needs to be stimulated too, you brought him/her in for a specific role which you know they will do a great job at.  But asking him/her to stick to a specific role, in a dynamic environment such as a startup, that’s similar to his/her prior job, and not rewarding to him/her. Professionals are likely confined to a narrow role previously at a bigger company, with more resources and better pay. They need to be offered a broader experience to stay motivated and engaged; experimenting in another area of interest that he/she wanted to explore could have a great impact both on the individual and the company. It doesn’t have to be set in stone from day one, but he/she should enjoy the flexibility of working in a startup. It’s key to be able to dive deeply in a role, where he/she feels they could add value and is of interest .

While this may seem like a lot of responsibility on the founder, the professional needs to also be aware of the 3 potential pitfalls:

1) Get your hands dirty early and often; leave your corporate coat at home “the petty stuff makes you more in touch with your product”

Working in a corporate environment, you may be used to being a part of a team and delegating smaller tasks to juniors. In a startup, no matter how much experience you have, you’re all pretty much doing everything. First, there isn’t really someone to delegate the work to and second, doing the “petty/small” stuff makes you more in touch with the product and aware of how stakeholders are perceiving it. I remember in one of my previous lives, I used to take on the role of a call center agent twice a week where I used to fill in basic data for blue collar labels. This ‘experience’ enabled me to optimize targets for our call center agent, quality control and pain points with the product.

Sticking to the corporate mindset will make you more of a bottleneck rather than a helping hand. This needs to be discussed early on and addressed to avoid fallout down the road.

2) Swallow your Ego; listen and learn from the founder “he has developed his own MBA”

You were probably the star of your organization, always the smart one in the room yet you suddenly realize that there is someone who is actually smarter or has more insight than you. While you may have gotten an MBA from an Ivy League business school, the founder has developed his own MBA in his startup space. So there will be times - a lot of times - where you will need to accept that, in specific situations, the founder will have the right to use his veto or singly advocate for a specific decision and in return you will need to take a leap of faith and believe that the founder in this situation probably knows what’s best for the company.

3) Fit In; adapt to your new surroundings “invest in personal relationships in and out of office”

Just as much as the founder needs to be friendly and approachable. You also need to fit in with the rest of the company. The company is in hiring mode and the organization is expanding by the minute. The startup that you are now part of is probably very different than the organization that you used to work for. Personal relationships become very important. Your colleagues are not walking around in suits and having lunch at fancy restaurants. It’s important that you adjust your lifestyle, at least around them, and invest in these relationships inside and outside of the office. If you let go of your stereotypes, you will find a lot of smart people around you that might not speak perfect English nor graduated from a top business school.

These are my two cents on hiring for startups. It hits close to home; I hope this is useful to both sides and good luck to all you career aspiring rock stars!