How YC Companies Found Employee #1

When YesGraph’s founder, Ivan Kirigin, was looking to make the first hire, he asked YC founders on how they did it. The responses were diverse and fascinating. We pulled some quotes, but they aren’t attributed.

Hiring doesn’t happen overnight

y-combinatorThere’s a strong chance that the person you want to to hire is not actively looking, which means it will take time and significant effort to convince them to join you. Expect to meet with them on numerous occasions, and seek to understand what they would look for in a career move. Even if they aren’t interested, you may be able to assist them with their next career move.

I have spent a lot of time looking for a first hire and it took a while to find him. When I did he was working for another company nearby and we did a little “dating” – meeting up for lunch, “bumping into each other” at events and really got on. When I felt my company was in the right spot and that he was in a receptive place I then “asked him out formally” and proposed that he joined me.

So, I know that you’re seasoned and have heard all the same advice I have a million times but from my own experience: believe the wisdom around hiring extremely carefully and slowly. Give your potential hires significant and real projects and see how they do. And most of all, stay objective. Don’t get excited that you found someone good and excuse them for not being as great as you really need that first hire to be.

Start with a Trial Period

The trial period is a popular hiring tactic at many startups. When implemented correctly this benefits both parties – the employer has an opportunity to evaluate the candidate, and likewise, the candidate can determine if they actually want to work at the startup.

Make sure you are fair with your compensation, and be explicit about the length of the trial period. Have a weekly (or bi-weekly) one-on-one to discuss progress and any concerns. Three quotes:

In a nutshell, I tried hiring two people – one for one month, and the other for two months. The first, I made the mistake of falling in love with them over the phone and not sufficiently vetting them. The second was better, but not sufficiently independent or driven enough to excel without a lot of direction. The two things I did correctly: 1. hire on a contract basis first and 2. get rid of people that aren’t working quickly.

With my favorite hire we extended the one month contract a few times and then finally asked if he wanted to join full time. It went splendidly since we had that time to try each other out.

It’s when we hired full time employees immediately without that trial period where I’ve really regretted things. You go through so much extra work to figure out insurance and stock plans, only to want to fire the person in a couple months.

Hire a Generalist

In the early stages of the company, you need people who are willing to do a variety of tasks. If you’re looking for an engineer, it’s important to find someone who understands the entire stack. Likewise, a business hire should be comfortable doing sales, support, and marketing.

Are they comfortable with uncertainty? At a young company, life can change very quickly in a short period of time. That’s why it’s important to hire someone who is comfortable with ambiguity, and willing to change at a moment’s notice.

How can this be evaluated? A good place to start is by looking at past work history. If someone has worked at a single role in a corporate setting for the past ten years, they may not comfortable in an unstructured work environment. On the other hand, if this individual has started a company or worked at a startup, they may be more comfortable blazing a path without additional supervision.

You need to dig in: for someone with a long tenure at a large company, maybe they managed evolving roles well, which is a good sign. On the other hand, a startup founder might be successful because they made all the decisions, which could lead to inflexibility if they aren’t the boss.

YesGraph’s Employee #1

YesGraph isn’t in YC, but here is the story of our first employee, Vincent Driessen. When Ivan was building YesGraph, he started using RQ as a simple task management queue. He found that the docs were really clean and first noticed Vincent in the high quality responses to pull requests on the project. He was doing consulting, and they started working together.

Vincent is in the Netherlands but YesGraph HQ is in Palo Alto, California. It turns out that the skills required to be an effective engineer on a remote team correlate well with running a distributed open source project. You need to be independent and communicate effectively with contributors on other continents.

What’s Your Story?

We’d love to hear about your story of your first hire in the comments. If you were the first employee at a company, we’d love to hear that side of the story too!

  • Peter Chee

    I’ve seen some #1’s
    start as an advisor. This is similar to getting a trial period but after having spent some time working together they both find it’s a good fit.