When attitude trumps experience – lessons on hiring your first employee

When attitude trumps experience – lessons on hiring your first employee


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Curators Coffee founder Catherine Seay took a chance with staff with great attitudes rather than skills: ‘I trusted my gut and ended up recruiting two incredible people who stayed with the business for three and five years.’
Photograph: Simon Forsythe

“There’s no magic wand or one single channel to find the right candidate,” reckons Anthony Sherick, managing director of IT recruitment firm Technojobs. “Word of mouth, jobs sites and social media are the best starting points, but be aware that other entrepreneurs will probably be looking for the same talent as you.”

Hiring that first member of staff is a major milestone for any startup founder. It’s an encouraging sign that their fledgling company has potential, but it comes with added risks and responsibilities. The key to getting it right is knowing when to hire, who to hire, what their role will be, and where to find the right candidate in the first place.

The first hire of a new business is difficult as the founder is selling a dream, not a reality. Unless the newbie buys into the founder’s vision and has the passion to grow the company, they won’t last long.

“They’ll need to get their hands dirty and get involved in tasks beyond their job title,” says Sherick. “If they’re not the type of person who thrives in this type of environment, then they might not be the best hire for you.”

Catherine Seay, co-founder of Curators Coffee, a speciality coffee house that opened in London in 2012, admits that the process is far from easy.

“Effectively, you are asking someone to apply for a role in a business that is unproven and in its infancy,” she says. “Likewise, you are putting your brand-new business in the hands of a stranger when it is in the most critical stages of its operation.”

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Curators Coffee in London

Seay reckons that sometimes attitude trumps experience. She initially hired two people, and neither had strong barista skills at the time. One of them didn’t even have hospitality experience. “However, they both had great positive attitudes and a drive to learn new skills, so I trusted my gut and ended up recruiting two incredible people who stayed with the business for three and five years,” she says.

Having made the first hire, a business owner needs to decide how much to delegate. Startups tend to operate on a task-based culture, so it’s less about whose role it is to do something, and more about someone volunteering to get things done. Services like Square’s Employee Management tool help your employees clock in and out, can assist with staff scheduling and even give you insights into who’s performing best and who might need some coaching.

Will Bowler is managing director of snack maker Popchips, which he launched in 2012. His early approach was to split the responsibilities in the business and give clear areas of ownership so that new hires could crack on and get things done.

“It meant letting go of a fair amount, but if you trust your hires and they understand the business well, it normally works out,” he says. Popchips now employs 28 people.

Even the most carefully thought out recruitment strategy can go wrong, and when it does, the founder needs to know how to deal with it.

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Square’s technology isn’t just for payments – it can also be used for your employees to clock in and out, and help with scheduling. Photograph: Simon Forsythe

Dave Chaplin launched online advice site ContractorCalculator in 1999. While the hiring of his first two programmers worked out well, integrating his first business development manager didn’t.

“He was a nice person but he couldn’t close sales and just didn’t work hard enough,” says Chaplin, who acted decisively. “I dealt with that situation by explaining why, in a diplomatic way, and then simply asking them to leave, but paying him the probation period. It’s important to draw a line under it, and then try again.”

What many founders ultimately discover is that they need to take into consideration both personality and qualifications. Jem Fawcus, co-founder and CEO of research consultancy Firefish, recalls its first official hire – a graduate whose main qualification was that he was someone’s brother and was available to start the next week.

“He turned out to be a wonderful guy and hard-working, but he never quite developed the strategic thinking we needed and only lasted a few months. The next hire was eminently capable, but a definite cultural mismatch, and left even sooner,” says Fawcus. “What I learned from this – and from many hires since – is that getting both a cultural fit and the right skill set is essential, especially in the early hires. If either is missing, it will not work out.”

Startup recruitment tips

Alex Lawrance, head of recruitment advertising at ThatRecruit.com, which specialises in helping small and micro businesses, offers the following advice.


  • Promote your job as widely as possible. There are hundreds of online recruitment sites, and many suitable candidates won’t even be actively looking, so you need to reach them via CV libraries and networking.
  • Assess candidates thoroughly. Don’t appoint based on a warm chat, especially if appointing someone from your social circle. Test them with some practical exercises, question them thoroughly about their experience, and invite a trusted person to sit in on the second interview for a second perspective.
  • Look for the tools that make it easier to manage employees. If you work in retail then the likes of Square’s Employee Management can save both you and your new recruits a lot of admin.


  • Appoint someone “who is the best of a bad bunch”. Avoid this situation by having plenty of choice and making the job as appealing as possible.
  • Forget that good recruits need a good boss. Even the best new starter will flounder without support and direction from you.

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