Hiring Employees

How can you convince the best people to join your startup?

This lesson walks through hiring employees for your startup. It covers what great employees have in common and how to find, pitch, and vet them.

A warning: You should be hiring people who are actually curious about the job they're taking. Hirers still don't realize this and hire mismatches constantly.

The best teammates are rabidly curious to devour everything and experiment.

Why is curiosity critical? It doesn't apply to every job, I'll admit, but it applies to many. It's because curious people take advantage of a role to "selfishly" further mastery of their skills.

This is a good thing. In the pursuit of their self-interest, everyone wins.

Incentive alignment lets you hire above your pay grade and determines employee performance. Specifically, figure out how to redesign roles that allow employees to use your job to selfishly master the things they want to master when they no longer work with you.

For example, if my Julian.capital fund associates eventually want to start their own VC funds, I’ll spend 30 minutes per week training them on how fund formation and LP fundraising works. Or if they want to build an audience online, I will let them repurpose their memo writing at the fund for their own newsletters.

Or if I’m hiring a Director of Product who wants to start their own startup one day but lacks growth skills, I’ll give them increasing ownership over the intersection of product and growth as they prove their formidability.

A curious employee is someone who tests new tools and techniques without being told to do so. They study the competition to learn pick up divergent ideas. They independently read the latest blog posts in the industry to gleam insights.

Because they want to.

Do right by employees by putting them in roles that stoke this curiosity. It not only keeps them and your company on the cutting edge of your field, but it is incredibly infectious for the whole team.

When others see someone actually giving a shit, it reminds them that their own self-mastery matters too.

The net effect is that employees will outgrow their role. Curious employees have growth curves that leapfrog them over non-curious hires very quickly.

Good. Empower them. Getting 2-4 years of a curious person's most enthusiastic effort is a huge win. No one owes you their lifelong journey. And getting just two years with a force of nature does more than most of your employees will do in a lifetime.

Not only that, but curious employees are less likely to quit when the going gets tough: because they're still learning a lot.

And here's the very counterintuitive part about hiring for curiosity: Curiosity is even more important than hiring someone who's "passionate" about your mission. Because passion for a mission fails you when you’re bored out of your mind in your role.

Consider how we’ve all felt that excitement of being part of an important mission only to realize that the day-to-day is so dry we'd rather watch others pursue the mission from afar.

Meanwhile, curiosity empowers people to have inward-facing missions. Sidequests. They don't get as boring.

Hiring principle #1: Hire people who are curious

Now, this is all fine and sensible, but how do you actually figure out whether someone is curious?

Simple. I customize roles to maximize my best candidates' curiosities that overlap with business goals.

Meaning, I ask questions to uncover what they want to learn:

By meeting a candidate's curiosities where they are and not forcing them into a box, you become a much more compelling job for them. This lets you hire talent away from other companies with greater ease.

Now, to assess whether a candidate is curious, I might ask them:

That said, indexing on curiosity doesn’t work for every role.

You want the most experienced—not the most curious—pilot to fly you, for example.

But, in my experience, this philosophy works spectacularly well for early software startups and creative roles in particular.

Why? Because startups and creativity are driven by innovation, experimentation, and resourcefulness, and that requires a team of curious people who are sponges.

Curiosity compels mastery. And its infectious.

Stepping back from curiosity to look at the full picture: when vetting candidates, below are the qualities I personally prioritize.

Finding people with all these qualities is hard. That's why many $1B+ startup founders spend up to half their time on recruiting.

Hiring principle #2: Make the job description a pitch

Treat your job description (JD) like a pitch deck that you’d use for fundraising. Do not just write plain JDs requiring “5 years of SQL experience” and “a self-motivated contributor” and expect A+ talent to find your job more interesting than the millions of others available. Here are some ideas:

Hiring principle #3: To hire the best, go outbound

Here's my final principle for hiring: most great talent is still employed, not searching, and is unlikely to come to you. This means you must go outbound.

The biggest recruiting mistake I see even great founders make: hiring from too small of a sample size—typically the people they already know. This works in some cases and often with cofounders, but it’s suboptimal when scaling and leaves you with a team of all B-players.

Always run an exhaustive recruiting process to find the global maximum hire. When hiring researchers for our fund, I had to talk to 500 applicants to find 1 who was a killer that would increase the bar for the team. That ratio held true until our final, 2000th application.

Therefore, had I only looked through <500 applications, I likely would have never found a killer.

Sanity check: How many candidates did you interview for each role you hired? For many roles, if it’s not at least 50:1, that’s a bad sign—and you’re being lazy.

I search for great candidates in three ways:

  1. Identify other companies that are exceptional at the skill you’re hiring for, e.g. engineering, product, sales, partnerships, design, and so on. Then find the person at that company responsible for that company’s success in that skill. Offer them a huge amount of money to join you. And show them the memo on why your company is amazing.
  2. My own customers: Among my own customers are future employees. Happy customers are more likely to join because they already trust in the product and know how to improve it. Therefore, enrich customers in your CRM—using a tool like Clearbit to find their LinkedIn profiles—and periodically browse them to see who matches your open job roles.
  3. LinkedIn: I use LinkedIn Sales Navigator to find candidates with precisely the background I’m looking for, e.g. senior paid acquisition at a CPG company. Then I reach out via LinkedIn InMail.

Let’s dive into this process step-by-step.

My hiring process

1. Candidate pitching

I source candidates via LinkedIn Sales Navigator (to find people with the appropriate background) or I search my enriched customer base.

Then I message each candidate as the CEO (not a recruiter). The message looks like this:

  1. I surprise them with a salary that’s at least 25% above market. Visit Pave and Levels for market salary data. (No, this doesn’t preferentially attract job-hoppers who just want more money. I’ve done this many times and it’s simply needed to get candidates to pay attention and overcome their fear of leaving their current employer.)
  2. The next sentence explains why it's fun and rewarding to work at my startup. This generally comes down to autonomy and experimentation. Those qualities let them explore their curiosity.
  3. I then point out what their LinkedIn resumé has in common with our company or with me personally. This shows them my message isn’t copy-and-paste outreach spam.
  4. I keep the message to 5-6 sentences. I’ll only go longer if I have a lot more to say that’s authentically specific to their resumé.

When I receive a response, I proceed to the next step.

2. Call screening

1. I use my first phone call with a candidate to get them excited—not to grill them. They’re often employed, so they hold the cards and I’m the one who needs to sell. When doing so, I’ll get a feel for their personality and whether they’re someone I’d want to work with: Do they provide short, uninspired responses or do they play ball and ask good questions?

2. If we both like the interaction, I’ll ask them to sleep on the opportunity for a couple nights before emailing me their answers to these two questions:

  1. What has to be true for joining our company to be a no-brainer? (This helps me pitch them more effectively on subsequent calls.)
  2. If you were to leave six months after joining us, what do you think are the most likely reasons why? (This gives me a roadmap for ensuring they’re a fit and for retaining them.)

This exercise is necessary to give them peace of mind—because if they’re leaving an employer for you, they're facing financial and career risk.

3. When they respond with their concerns, address those truthfully via email.

4. Do a second call where you ask all your vetting questions. As a reminder, I generally look for people who are curious, intentional, ethical, and resourceful. I also use this second call to see if I can dissuade them from joining by pointing out the sucky things about the role and business. I make sure they understand the tradeoffs so they don’t prematurely quit.

If they pass the calls, I proceed to vetting their talent.

3. Candidate vetting

Never hire someone without having them complete a sample project. If that’s not realistic, have them join on a 90 day trial period. Most people are bad at what they do, even the ones with great resumes. And the wrong hire can set you back badly enough that the competition beats you.

Resumés just help you filter who to talk to; they don’t predict company fit. Once hired, fire  quickly if they turn out to be a poor fit—especially for any role whose performance is directly and quickly measurable, such as marketing and sales.

Do not assign senior-most titles until you’re sure someone isn’t going be fired. By assigning one hierarchy lower (e.g. Director of Marketing instead of CMO) , you avoid prematurely cementing the org’s hierarchy, which is crazy to do in an early-stage startup with evolving org structures that reflect a wildly evolving product. Retain your ability to ruthlessly prune even your senior-most talent.

I give top candidates a brief paid project to assess their strategic thinking (e.g. prioritization, planning) and the tactical skills needed for the role (e.g. copywriting, data analysis). The project also assesses whether they move fast and get things done.

The projects look like this:

1. To assess their strategic thinking, I have them write out how they’d approach a big problem that arises on the job: How would they scope the problem, reverse engineer it, generate experiments to test their hypotheses, execute those experiments, and act based on the results? I have them map out a decision tree for how they’d proceed based on the different outcomes.

For strategic roles at tech startups, this project is necessary: hires must be deliberate, framework-driven thinkers—not people who reflexively make decisions.

2. To assess a candidate's tactical skills, I pay for a brief deliverable. If they’re making ads, for example, I’ll ask them to make ads for the business. If they’re writing for the blog, they’ll write a sample blog post.

The tactical project also serves to confirm they’re willing to do the work they’re applying for. I’ve had candidates quit during tactical projects, which showed me they were merely being opportunistic and didn’t truly care for the role.

3. Finally, I do reference checks. I try to talk to at least one person who worked above them, beside them, and below them. I ask references to compare the candidate to other folks they’ve worked with in the same position: Is this candidate in the top 10%, 35%, or 50% of folks they’ve worked with?

Most references don't fully divulge negative things about a candidate, so I look for what percentage of references go out of their way to say something amazing about the candidate. That’s a good signal.


My hiring process looks like this:

  1. Identify candidates via LinkedIn Sales Navigator and my own audience.
  2. Have the CEO message each candidate with a compelling salary range, why the company is worth joining, and why they're a good fit.
  3. Use the first call to sell to candidates. Get them excited.
  4. Ask them to email you what would make joining a no-brainer and the most likely reasons they'd quit. Address those concerns if you can.
  5. Vet the candidates with strategic and tactical projects. With a strategic project, have them walk through a decision-making process. With a tactical project, have them do the actual work they'd do on the job.
  6. When doing reference checks, look for how many people go out of their way to say the candidate is among the best they've ever known.
See the menu at the bottom of your screen for navigation links. I have a dedicated resource for hiring growth teams.

After you've hired killers

Once you've hired the best, make use of them. Specifically, know that the course-corrections you need to guarantee your success are often trapped in the heads of coworkers who won’t proactively tell you about them.

Why? Because it’s uncomfortable for them to correct you or because they aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing.

What you must do: Find everyone relevant who you respect and periodically schedule meetings where you compel them to point out what you’re doing wrong. Unless you create time for people to tell you what’s wrong, they won’t tell you. When Elon Musk walks into an engineering discussion, the first thing he requests is that everyone divulges what’s going wrong, and likeliest reason they’ll fail. Nothing else matters.

You might be thinking: “But I’m gracious when receiving feedback, and my team is comfortable approaching me.” That doesn’t matter. They still won’t do it enough because once they proactively give you criticism, they wait a long time before they do it again so as to not seem combative.

Sanity check: Answer this question: When’s the last time you received feedback from a colleague that fundamentally altered your direction? If you cannot think of a time, you’ve failed to build a constructive criticism engine. Get a dopamine hit from being proven wrong because it means you’re now closer to the truth.

Next — Startup Fundraising

Learn how to raise money from VCs.