When building a team for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1908, Ernest Shackleton wanted to hire men for a hazardous journey. His recruiting ad read: “Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in the event of success.” Shackleton was not necessarily looking for the best sailors, but folks with the best attitude who believed in his mission.
The similarities with an early-stage startup team are huge. Members of our team have been a part of setting up teams at multiple companies at the earliest stages, and these are the attributes we are looking for in early teammates.
There are always more things to do in the early stages of a company than resources to do them. We want to hire folks who are problem-solvers and doers — not process folks, not organization folks, but doers.
We look for someone who doesn’t say, “What is wrong with this?” but instead says, “What can I do to make the situation a little better on my own?”. That problem-solving mindset is how we filter talent in the early stages.
To assess this mindset, we ask questions including: “When is a time you achieved a lot with limited resources?”, or “What would you do if you found that the codebase you were supposed to inherit was very poor quality?”. These and similar questions are meant to focus on the resourcefulness and problem-solving attitude of an individual.
In the early stages, things break a lot. There is no quality assurance function. In this environment, you need engineers and teammates who can think on behalf of the customer and question the specifications given to them. This leads to iterative development and building process and also gets more heads on the customer experience.
To assess this trait, we ask questions such as: “In your role, what do you do to understand the customer pain point we are solving?” or “How do you question the underlying assumptions of your work?”. Being in touch with the customer pain point the company is solving is critical for all employees. If this seems like an unnecessary burden to the candidate, they would not be a fit for working at Level AI.
The Right Motivations
Putting your finger on the motivation of a new hire to join our startup is perhaps one of the key determinants of setting them up for success once they join. Some employees are looking to join a startup to get a title bump compared to a larger organization. Others are looking to check out the “startup thing,” while others are using working for a startup as a backup if they don’t get into Google.
In our interview process, we filter for these folks upfront as much as possible. Asking a candidate about the other companies and roles to which they are applying can give you a sense of the kind of roles they are looking for.
The other way is to understand is the reasoning behind the last few job changes they made. Masking inconsistent career moves with a story is very hard to do and often puts a spotlight on how a person thinks of career decisions and the experiences they have valued in the past.
Every employee in the early stage ends up contributing significantly to the culture of their company. Positive and negative attitudes have a way of being infectious. You can use these questions to assess culture fit at an early stage:
“How do you process feedback?”
“How do you take people along with your work?”
“How would you think of the impact on your career if we fail?”
“Who are your heroes and why?”
Improving thanks to the feedback of your colleagues is critical, as is the ability to take people along with your thinking and being able to clearly communicate the reasoning behind your work. The first two questions address that. Failure big and small is a daily feature in a startup journey. For an employee to be comfortable with failure and maintain a sense of optimism about themselves and the venture is a key cultural trait. Finally, we ask everyone about their heroes because it is a window into the values and ambitions that our teammates possess.
These qualities are, of course, in addition to the raw technical competence of an individual in terms of evaluating fit. This is what makes early hiring so critical and time-consuming. However, the upfront effort in recruiting the early team at Level AI makes it an amazing place to work at every day.
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