Recruiting the DNA of your company

The people you recruit in the early days of your business will define its DNA, writes Jos White, serial entrepreneur and founding partner at venture capital firm Notion Capital.


The people you recruit in the early days of your business will define its DNA, writes Jos White, serial entrepreneur and founding partner at venture capital firm Notion Capital.

The people you recruit in the early days of your business will define its DNA, determining its look, feel and culture as it grows, writes Jos White, serial entrepreneur and founding partner at venture capital firm Notion Capital.

That’s why it’s doubly important you make the right choices. But in the early stages of a business, it’s all too easy to make a quick decision and there will be times when it feels like you have to recruit someone. Here are my tips for making sure you don’t hire in haste and repent at leisure.

Network for references
The first thing I would be wary of is implicitly trusting references as, in my experience, their bias means that they carry little value. If you have a network of contacts, use that to put you in touch with people who have worked with your potential recruit. Finding out first hand what they are actually like as an employee will save a lot of time and frustration later.

Will they fight for you?
Another factor to take into account is experience – has your candidate worked at small or large companies? People who have a background in large companies will often expect to have a lot of resources available to them, while those coming in from smaller companies will be used to having to fight to get things done. When we set up MessageLabs in the US, we were a small emerging company and didn’t have a huge level of resources. Employees coming from larger companies sometimes revealed a lack of drive and self-sufficiency. You often need a balance of both types of employee in a business, but at this early stage you need to recruit people who have the commitment and ability to make the most out of what is available.

Letting go

One of the biggest traps that you can fall into when going through a recruitment process is trusting smooth-talking corporate people who have the ‘business speak’ down pat and dress and interview very well. There were a number of times in the early days of MessageLabs when we fell for the charms of a polished communicator who appeared to be perfect during the recruitment process. A few months down the line we discovered that there was a lack of substance behind the smooth talk.

With 20-20 hindsight it is clear that we should have been braver; once we realised that these people couldn’t back up their talk, we should have let them go quickly. The temptation to let people prove themselves and give them another chance, especially after investing a lot of time and recruitment fees in them, meant that we let them continue for far too long.

On a personal level, I cannot give one example of one of these polished communicators turning it around and becoming a great employee. There has only been a sense of relief after they have gone. You need the guts to let people go early on if they aren’t pulling their weight.

Choosing the best

There are three areas which I focus on during recruitment: attitude, natural talent and experience.

At a senior level, it is absolutely essential for a prospective employee to have all three – good attitude, business skills and a great track record. When recruiting for a junior position I would take someone with a great attitude and less natural talent rather then the other way around any day.

An effective way of getting under the skin of an interviewee is to give them an assignment to present to an expanded panel – especially at senior level. This will you give you valuable insight into how they work and if they are the right fit for you and your company.

Trust your gut instinct
First impressions and gut feeling are incredibly important in recruitment. It is very easy to over think a decision, but I find that you can usually tell if someone is right for your company fairly quickly. The recruitment mistakes I have made in the past were often down to doubting my instincts and being persuaded by others into making a decision I wouldn’t have otherwise made. Ultimately, if you have doubts about a hire, it is probably going to be a mistake.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for growthbusiness.co.uk when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...