How to Hire for a Unicorn Startup

You only really come to appreciate how important hiring is for an early stage startup once:

  • You need to fire someone (trust me, it sucks for everyone involved)
  • Shit hits the fan with a co-founder
  • When an investor won’t commit because of your team’s poor dynamic (and you cofounders have each invested years at this point).

Have you learned the hard way someone wasn’t a good fit?

I genuinely wish I could’ve avoided the hard way because it’s so time consumptive. That time is so much better spent working on actual projects. It also puts valuable, early-stage equity at risk.

A Failed Hire is a Lose-lose for Everyone Involved

It ends up costing us all money out of pocket.

I concede, there are valuable lessons from learning the hard way – but it’s MUCH faster to just hire / partner up with the right people FIRST.

Ideally, we only learn these lessons once. For my startup, which now has 11 team members – I definitely didn’t learn the “valuable lessons” I just spoke of the first time. Or second.

In fact, even team members I thought were awesome people and great teammates ended up not working out.

Not because they suck, but because we had a disagreement, or simply lost momentum and let things fall into a negative or lukewarm state. I ended up going through 3 different cofounders before finding the perfect fit.

When you’re talking about a business that runs on passion, and pretty much nothing else – you can’t ever let your momentum fade.

Sidebar: This often derives from a lack of clear direction and vision for the company (another story for another day).

So How Do I Avoid a Bad Fit?

With all the headhunters, recruiters, staffing firms, websites like Glassdoor & Craigslist – you’d think capturing great talent is a breeze. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Using conventional tools doesn’t work well. Period. Yes, I said it. If we’re all honest with ourselves, the hiring/recruiting industry sucks.

But it’s particularly bad for startups and small companies on a shoestring budget.

4 Unconventional Methods I Used to Build My Startup Team

For me, the Vea Fitness team is finally in a place where I would consider it “world class”. But to achieve this, I didn’t use ANY of the traditional tools for acquiring talent. Here’s what I found works best.


  1. MeetUps (for startups, tech, design)

MeetUps are where people are people go when they have a yearning so strong, they can’t resist any longer. And now they’re following their passions into new areas like tech, startups, development, design and more.

So you already have 2 wins just by picking from this group – drive and initiative.

Plus – they know what they getting into with startups: craziness. So the concept of managing expectations is much simpler for you, as a hiring manager.

The MeetUp I currently attend and highly recommend is LaunchNJ.

Launch NJ is a non-profit volunteer group created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. They bring a network of relentlessly driver developers, designers, angels and venture capitalists. I understand not everyone is going to be located in the Northeast, but if you can – try to find a similar one near you.

As told by Chris Down from their team “We realize that being an entrepreneur is tough, and doing it alone is even tougher, so our focus is to bring the community together to address the needs of entrepreneurs. Through big events, workshops, content, education, and an upcoming website we are able to create a community of entrepreneurs, developers, innovators, and much more. This allows us to bring people together who can learn from one another, exchange resources, and support each other through the entrepreneurial journey.” Their mission is to create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem within New Jersey.

In addition, there are some other NYC, NJ-area awesome groups in the area I recommend

Google Developer Group

Princeton Tech

Morris Tech

LaunchNJ also partners up with Google Developer Group. So, needless-to-say have some really brilliant engineers that would make a killer asset for most tech startups. 

We have the pleasure of demoing Vea Fitness for their event on June 22, for anyone who can make it out that Wednesday at 6PM. If you’re interested, go here for registration (it’s free).


2) (Angel List)

Honestly, I don’t know what startups did before Angel List. Angel List is a social platform for startup nerds: founders, VCs, angels and really anyone looking to get into the startup space. So many are there looking for awesome startup gigs.

It’s really easy to see candidate’s startups or work history and check out their past projects. And candidate’s qualifications are ridiculously high – Stanford, Penn, Columbia, you name it. Masters of CS, top-tier consultants, etc..

I’ve hired 5 people (3 interns, 2 co-founders) in 2016 from Angel List. I was lucky enough to get a VP from a 10k+ employee healthcare firm as my CTO, and the #20 employee from GrubHub to lead my sales team. I currently have 3 intern positions posted there as well.

I didn’t have to pay for my job listings and got way more applicants than I could ever actually interview. I think it goes without saying, but I’m really happy with the outcome. It was very quick and painless.


3) Facebook Communities / Groups

Facebook groups have grown dramatically in popularity and engagement. Seemingly passing LinkedIn.

kermit frog
Facebook Group’s Face When Passing LinkedIn Groups

I’m part of the Next Gen Summit community on Facebook. It’s a very lean, but amazingly talented group of ~750 millennial entrepreneurs. This is a low-pressure group, where people are there for a genuine interest in entrepreneurship, and each other’s endeavors. You won’t feel any hard selling going on.

Sidebar: I believe NGS is invite only, but you can reach out to me or anyone you know in the group if you’re interested and we’ll make sure to take care of you.

Like MeetUps, the group is full of people overflowing with passion and drive. Often times, they’re also looking for co-founders or team members as well – so the relationship becomes symbiotic.

A Few More Key Learnings

Based on my hiring mistakes in the past:

  • Do 3-4 week trial period with any equity-holding hire
  • Make sure everyone on the equity table is on the same vesting schedule (1-year cliff, 4-year vest is ideal)
  • Don’t hire the first person you interview (try to have 3 desirable candidates)
  • Try to keep your equity table to <5 people pre-investment, with 2-3 co-founders as majority shareholders

Your New Hires Have a Different Set of Expectations

Traditional job seekers vet salary, benefits, and work-life balance.

Startups/small business job seekers are quite the opposite.

They have much different (and often lower) salary expectations because they have equity in mind, are OK with minimal benefits due to their risk-prone nature, and aren’t as sensitive to work-life balance, as they’re following a passion that feels less like “work” and more like “life”.

So here’s the idea: tap into those who don’t prioritize traditional work benefits, and are in it for the long haul: seeking ownership of both their work, but also a portion of the company (equity).

By having people who want to own part of the company, you have a truly committed team – because the business success is heavily reliant on their contribution.

Steal It From Google

The underpinning of all of these methods that make them so effective is called “Searcher Intent.”

Google harps on searcher intent to no end (duh, they make a lot of money on search marketing). But you can use it for hiring too.

Everyone who is at a MeetUp, or in a specialized group – is there because they’re genuinely passionate about the work type (tech, startups, etc.) and are intent-fully searching for a startup or tech job. So you get the benefit of pull versus push approach when approaching these prospects. Prospects will often approach you first.

So finding someone who’s passionately seeking out your particular business makes hiring them [dare I say] easy.


Thanks for reading. Ciao!


Talk Back:

What is the one hiring tip you’d give other business owners/startups?

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