By Dipanjan Sengupta and Swati Khanna

The founder of an early stage startup recently came to our Human Capital team for help after a disastrous experience with a moonshot CTO they’d recently brought on board. The star CTO hire, while a great strategist, was used to running large teams and had quickly grown frustrated by the fact he had to spend so much time back in the trenches again. 

When he came on board there was a small team of young functional leads, each with three to four years of experience, already in place and he didn’t have the budget to hire top engineers. He had long lost touch with coding and architecture, and it soon became clear he missed working as a manager’s manager. The young team, meanwhile, sensing his irritation and discomfort, were losing confidence after repeat cycles of negative feedback. Afraid to challenge him, the team had started playing it safe. A few had even resigned. Nobody, fretted the founder, was surfacing fresh ideas.

It’s easy to over scope a role in the quest for a moonshot hire, which can lead to frustrations among your team and the new hire, too. It’s also easy to under scope job descriptions where you need a leader who can grow their remit over time. Making the wrong C-suite hire can cost a company five times their salary, or more, through the impact on team morale and attrition, as well as recruitment and replacement costs. This can take a steep toll on execution. For many early stage startups, the wrong senior hire can set them back weeks, if not months.

Candidate success starts by aligning your startup’s goals with potential hires, with both your current stage and your broader vision in mind. Our Human Capital team has worked closely with more than 300 startups over the last decade and placed more than 600 CXOs within our portfolio companies. Drawing on those experiences, we’ve put together this step-by-step guide to creating a job spec, or job description (JD), that will align the hiring process to your startup’s goals. 

Focus on the desired outcomes 

When founders talk to us about what they want in a new hire, they often have a title in mind (like a CTO). We ask them to move from the what to the why.  The process of fleshing out a great JD shouldn’t start with the title or role; it starts by focussing on the organisational outcomes you desire. 

What are your startup’s most important outcomes in the next 6-18 months? Where does your organisation currently stand? What’s the size of each function, the maturity of the function and the quality of current talent in the functions within your org? 

Which of the job profiles do you need now, absolutely now, to help you take your company from point A to point B? (And eventually to a point C which might be undefined right now, but comes in the next 18-24 months). For example, if you’re the founder of a seed stage SaaS startup you probably want to focus on developing a prototype, finding the right product market fit and onboarding your first five customers, rather than investing in a brand marketing team. If your startup is a growth stage company looking to open up multiple business channels and start experimenting with different Go-To-Market strategies, you’re probably looking for leaders who can help build both 0-1 and 1-10 teams.

The first step is to map your startup’s short and medium term goals, strategy and outcomes against your hiring needs. Once you have clear goals, define the deliverables for the first quarter, as well as some medium and long term objectives. Turn these goals and measurable deliverables into Key Result Areas (KRAs) which you then fix with a job role. 

Always choose role fit over title 

You don’t necessarily need someone with a resume filled with decades of work at Silicon Valley’s top ventures, and a degree from India’s top B-schools. You need someone who is the right fit for your startup’s needs. You’re looking for a candidate who has an immense amount of grit, an ability to think on their feet, hustle, adapt and not just be able to start running from the get go – but also avoid all potholes that come along the way.

Work on building the right candidate persona by focussing on the role and goals for the short and medium term. What are the key deliverables expected from this person? Ensure you are aligning your hires with the overall objectives of the company.

Say you’re looking for a hire who would be very strong in content strategies and branding, and will also provide leadership to the performance marketing team, and will bring in a strong data analytics into the quotient. You can potentially think of a senior marketing leader who has exposure in all the above areas. But if you are at an early stage and you don’t want to commit to that kind of compensation at this stage, then it’s better to focus on hiring a strong branding person at mid or senior-level. Someone who might not be able to immediately provide oversight to the entire growth team, but can grow into the role of a marketing leader in the coming quarters. 

Write down the must-haves and define the trade-offs

Other than the vision of the company, the key results expected from the role, an essential part of a job description is the candidate’s profile. Focus on the specific set of experiences and technical skills you need. Which sector would the person be from? What background, experience and seniority do you need for this role? When defining this person, think diversity and cultural fit given the stage of your company. Both are important as you need to make sure that you hire someone who is not too senior a person to fit into your team or doesn’t shape your company’s culture in a toxic direction. 

List down five essentials for this role. Now pick three out of the five which are absolutely essential and put the rest in the ‘desirable’ category or the qualities you’re willing to trade-off on. You can also create a weightage for each of these essentials to mark candidates. If you can think of it, attach three to five benchmark candidates you can see in the industry who will be the perfect people for this role.

Believe us, this exercise of building a candidate profile will give you clarity and help your sourcing team find the right candidates for the hiring process, saving you time, resources, energy and avoiding bad hires.

Map out where the hire fits in your organization’s structure

You have limited resources to offer. When you design  an offer to attach to a job specification, it’s essential to go back to the structure of your organisation and see where this potential hire fits in. There are certain functions that are a core to the organisation, while certain functions are functional or tactical. Is the new hire a core hire (long term, essential to the company), a functional hire (medium term, essential for a technical function) or a tactical one (delivers short term desirable outcomes). All are equally important, but if the person is of absolutely essential to the core of your organisation in the long run, your offer should have more of an equity component as you cannot afford to lose this person at any stage. If the potential hire is a functional or tactical hire, you can lower the equity component and up the cash one. We have a table for you to refer to:

Where does the new hire fit? 

 

Definition 

Design an offer with

Core Hire

  1. Critical for long-term success 
  2. Performance is linked to long-term company goals.
  3. You want this person to be highly aligned with the success of the company.

Higher equity with a lower percentage of cash

Skill Based Hire

  1. Skill-leader for an essential function of the company. 
  2. Function impacts multiple areas and on the long run (example, engineering or product) 
  3. Leader with a larger impact on the company on the longer run

A good balance of equity and cash

Tactical hire

  1. Aligns to your company’s short-term goals (example: performance marketing)
  2. Delivers quick, narrowly defined measurable results (example: sales)

Performance linked bonuses, higher cash component. Less focus on equity.

 

A company is only as good as the talent they hire. The best founders spend up to a third of their time, or more, on recruiting. By approaching hiring in a structured manner, you can save time, money, energy and a lot of potential heartache. If you do make the wrong hire, learn and rebound quickly. 

Remember the example of our early stage startup founder and their frustrated CTO? They quickly agreed that the job was not consuming enough of his creative energies, and he transitioned to an advisory role. The founder agreed that what he needed right now was a hands-on tech leader who can help architect his vision. We created a new JD for a VP of Engineering with 10 years of experience who A) had seen a 1-10  tech platform build through before; B) was a passionate coder; and C) could build and develop skilled teams to scale with the startup.  A few months after the new VP joined, the team was back on track and moving in sync toward a common mission and goal. 

Stay tuned for the next article in this series on hiring, where we’ll talk about assessing candidates.