Typically, an early-stage startup that consists of founders and maybe a few engineers does not yet have a defined non-technical full-time role. Often, startups need someone to do a combination of customer support, sales, marketing, growth, office management, operations, finance and HR. This generalist role is unique to fast-growing startups, so there is not a deep pool of experienced talent out there, and people who have done it before may not necessarily want to do it again, as they likely specialized after doing it.
If your founding team is limited to those with engineering backgrounds, then making your first non-technical hire is critical. This person will have a significant impact on your company culture and success as you grow. The person will also be spending a lot of time with the founders and learning directly from them. This last point is in many ways the most important to keep in mind, as the person needs to be dynamic enough to take the opportunity to learn from founders and act as an extension of the founder in other areas of the company.
"The hire needs to be dynamic enough to take the opportunity to learn from founders and act as an extension of the founder in other areas of the company"
Assuming this is the type of hire you want to make, there are two broad characteristics to look for: a willingness to take on any task needed (“do whatever it takes”), which is key for any early stage company, and also the aptitude and drive to become essential to a particular area or function as fast as possible. Your first hire ideally will ultimately run a critical function in the medium-term.
The most natural place to search for your first general hire is among recent graduates of university programs, or someone who recently completed an investment banking / consulting program and has a broad business knowledge. Recent university graduates are typically eager to help and learn but given their inexperience they may need to be “taught how to work.” They may not know email or phone etiquette and may initially need more direction to complete tasks. The advantage of hiring a candidate who recently finished an investment banking or consulting program – often for two years – will have already “learned to work” and can likely get up to speed faster, but they may be less likely to eagerly complete any task at hand.
One important point to consider is that a first employee is unlikely to enjoy a formal training program at your startup of any kind. As a result, when making this hire, it is important to consider applicants who are proactive and can find ways to add value without being told exactly what to do. Good candidates will likely have had some of the following experiences: extracurricular leadership, successfully completed internships without formal structures (i.e. not at large, established company), organized large groups or events, or completed research projects.
"When making this hire, it is important to consider applicants who are proactive and can find ways to add value without being told exactly what to do"
Brex’s first non-technical hire was a recent university graduate with no full-time professional experience. Her role was a generalist who handled everything from support, sales, facilities, compliance research, and special projects. Ultimately, she specialized in support and after her first year at Brex, she recruited a group of university graduates to work on her newly-formed customer support team.