For a startup, the first few hires can be critical, and can either help your company scale or cause a terrible misstep. Be on the lookout for these qualities to assure every hire only benefits your business.

For a startup, the first few hires can be critical: Bringing on a new team member is a hefty financial and personal commitment, and only the right choices will allow a company to scale. On the flip side, the wrong hiring choices can be financially and emotionally devastating. Building a team is important, but building a competent team to help foot the bill is vital.

I used to pride myself on doing nearly everything at my startups, whether that was managing finances, handling information technology, or even cutting the grass. At one point, I actually believed I was better than anyone I could hire. This behavior continued even after mentors told me time and again that I’d be more productive if I relinquished control and asked for help.

It took several years before I finally started hiring individuals to take over tasks that consumed my time and stalled company growth. After the first few hires, I felt phenomenal: I won back several hours of my week, and I suddenly had more time to work on the business instead of in it.

If you’re also feeling the strain of stretching yourself too thin, it’s probably time to start collecting résumés. So, how can you single out the very best candidates for the positions you hope to fill?

What to Search for in Your First Hire

I’ve seen so many businesses stall after reaching a particular size because they refuse to scale their teams. Owners worry about making the wrong hire or losing control of the business they’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into. But due diligence in the hiring process yields competent employees who are passionate about your business. If you want to determine whether an eager candidate could help your business grow, use this checklist:

1. The candidate is a good culture fit

Although there’s no exact science behind this, I can tell fairly quickly whether someone is a good fit during the interview process. The first indicator is that the candidate can openly discuss his or her life, passions, and goals—and not just the position. Would my team be comfortable taking this person out for their regular Friday happy hour? Can this candidate contribute positive energy and a productive attitude to the workplace?

Your company is only as great as your team—if they fail, so will the business you built. Thus, cultural fit is critical when choosing your team’s newest players. Ensuring candidates jell with your current team also promises increased employee morale and productivity levels.
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In most traditional interviews, cultural fit is either ignored altogether or addressed through boilerplate questions. Unfortunately, prospects can answer these questions quickly by saying the things you want to hear—therefore “passing” your culture test. 

To avoid this, ask for their help in shaping your company culture. How might they transform or improve it? Then, using a behavior-based interview process, learn more about their character and values.

2. The candidate brings good ideas

Entrepreneurs might wish they had a clone—someone who’d make the same decisions, perform the same tasks, and make life easier. But when it comes to strategic growth, business planning, and business decisions, you don’t want a crew of yes-men. Different perspectives (and even disagreements) are healthy for a startup. It’s a good sign if your first hire has ideas you’d never generate on your own.

3. The candidate has a fluid skillset

The best team members will be comfortable performing tasks that could fit in multiple roles. After all, it’s hard to create a single job title that encompasses everything new startup hires need to do. In my current business, for instance, most of my employees don’t have job titles. To make sure our new hires are comfortable with this, we show job candidates the full scope of potential tasks during the interview process.

Admittedly, most team members at a young company must wear many hats. Although a candidate’s wheelhouse might be in sales, don’t hesitate to tell him that he might need to shoulder other duties for a time (such as account management or billing). If you expect a potential hire to be candid in his interview, give him the same courtesy.

4. The candidate can handle chaos

As a founder, you know “routine” is just a word—you live and learn every day, and there’s no 9-to-5 schedule. Your first hire should be able to thrive in this type of environment, which can be challenging. Fortunately, most people looking to join young companies are already aware of the associated risk and chaos. Still, be sure to check for that awareness during the interview process.

Gauging understanding also depends on the questions you ask. Everyone’s familiar with common interview questions—think “Why should we hire you?” or “What are your weaknesses?” Which means that most of those answers are canned. Thus, you’re not getting a real sense of whether candidates can actually handle the frenetic energy of a new startup.

To find people who can support your fledgling company with grace, design interviews to uncover the true character behind those who apply. It’s important to discern how they plan to tackle a role, and not just that they can. To glean these insights, consider different interviewing techniques. One example could be creating a hiring team made up of peers or conducting a job simulation.

5. The candidate wants to be part of something greater

The best person to hire is a spark plug. This kind of employee believes she’s accountable to her team and the greater good of the business, and she’ll go above and beyond to maintain excellence. You can look for the traits of a spark plug-style team member during the hiring process by asking about past roles and greatest accomplishments.

Making that first hire can be a tough pill to swallow for entrepreneurs. It means giving up control, sacrificing funding, and placing your business in other people’s hands. In truth, nobody will complete a task exactly like you, and that’s OK—in fact, that’s great. Your company will grow only if you have other people to help it along.

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AvatarDaniel Pigg

Daniel Pigg is the director of business engagement and an instructor at Indiana State University. As an executive-level business consultant, Daniel has helped hundreds of founders and entrepreneurs grow their companies, including through the Sycamore Innovation Lab that he created on ISU’s campus. A serial entrepreneur, Daniel has started businesses in real estate, insurance, and food and beverage. Those ventures include The Sycamore Winery, which he runs with his wife.