Finding and hiring that first employee is challenging. There’s the confidence thing — can I convince anyone good to join my motley band of fools? Not to mention the pressure to make sure the fit is perfect. Bring the wrong person on board and it can set you back months and maybe even cost you (read about my own costly mistake, A $5000 Chair). This is the story of how we found a great first employee for Distil.
We had a founding team of 3, myself as CTO, Steve as VP of Business Development, and Jonathan as CEO. We had our first funding and were looking for someone to build and lead our engineering team. We started with our own personal networks. Jonathan lined up a heavy engineering hitter from his previous startup adventures.
That meeting wasn’t great. He was a grizzled veteran and I could tell that he was doing this as a favor for Jonathan, not because he was genuinely interested. My description of our engineering challenges didn’t do much to excite him. I got a lukewarm proposal — he would try it out as a consultant for 6 months and then decide.
I consulted with Jonathan. He was confident that he could convince him. But convincing people was not the right approach. Our first hire needed to be as excited by Distil as we were. After going around the subject for a few days, I decided to pass.
Next I got a great lead through one of my academic connections, who had a previous Master’s student that recently began looking for a new job. He had the right technical background — artificial intelligence and machine learning — and was working in the video games space. He sounded perfect.
I had several phone calls with him. He was interested in what we were trying to do. Our engineering problems excited him. And best of all I enjoyed talking with him. After a few weeks the choice for him was between us and a job at BioWare. It was going to be tough decision for him.
Again I consulted with Jonathan. If I really wanted this individual, we could pull out all the stops and sell him on Distil. We could offer a nicer salary with more equity. Make it really hard for him to say no. But I wasn’t sure those were his top priorities.
I spoke with him a final time. And I asked him pointedly what he really wanted. Equity? Salary? What he wanted was to work in the video games industry. If that was true, the BioWare job was the better option. Even if Distil succeeded, it would only be peripherary to the video games field. While I wanted this individual very badly, again it wasn’t right. I suggested he think about it but I would understand if he took the BioWare job. And that is what he did.
By this point I was getting a bit panicky. I had been working on finding that first employee for almost a month. Besides the two people I described above, I had met with dozens of others that had gone no where. Should I post to job boards? Hire a recruiter? We had the money. Each day that went by I started to lose confidence in myself and my ability to recruit the right individual.
Then a friend mentioned that he knew someone who might be interested. He was finishing up a consulting project and was looking for something else. “Great,” I thought. “He’s just looking for his next consulting gig.” But I was in no position to not meet with a potential lead.
Ghodrat surprised me. It wasn’t that he was looking for his next consulting gig. He had very steady work from a large software company. While his current project with them was wrapping up, they had another project already lined up for him. And another after that. He explained what he had been doing. I presented my engineering problems to him. He had interesting thoughts on how to solve them. And more, seemed genuinely interested in working on them.
I had Jonathan meet with Ghodrat. He was also impressed with him. We had found our perfect first employee. Getting him to join still took some courtship. Yes, there were discussions about salary and equity. But those took a back seat to team dynamics, how we were going to work together, and what we were going to build. One of the things we did right at Distil was adding Ghodrat to our team. He was a great hire, and one that I would have never found if I had relied on recruiters and job boards.
The lesson I took away from this: don’t be in a rush to hire. Be patient. The right person is out there, it is your job as Founder to find them. Don’t outsource this important task to recruiters or job boards. Finding employee #1 is just one of many tests of your mettle as an entrepreneur.