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Look for ‘Level 5’ leaders, and other hiring tips for a start-up

Look for ‘Level 5’ leaders, and other hiring tips for a start-up

So you’re looking to bring on a managing director, executive or important person into your startup?

You’ve had some initial success and now it’s time to build a management team to scale your company and reach new heights. As co-founder of Appster, I’ve been through this journey myself over the past few years and I’ve looked to attract the best people who share my vision.

Here are some lessons I’ve learnt on the way:


There’s a big difference between running a $100 million dollar business and building something from scratch, so it’s important to find someone who fits with your business model.

In my experience, large company executives will often focus on only a few priorities per quarter, they are primarily interested in developing strategy and typically manage via a layer of lieutenants. However, you don’t need a strategy specialist when your startup is still growing – that’s your job as the founder!

In the early stages, I always try to keep a look out for these few traits:

•Ask them: How do you think working in a big business would be different to a startup? Make sure they’re aware that they’ll be doing all the work and their role will be what we like to call “chief cook and bottle washer”.

•Ask them what they’ll do in the first 90 days: Avoid people who talk more about learning the business, strategic direction, organisational design and process optimisation. You need to hear about getting stuff done, generating immediate sales and low-cost wins in marketing. Remember, all management sins are forgiven when the first priority is growth, you can focus on the other stuff later.

•They have an intimate understanding of where your industry is going and the challenges your customers are facing. When you’re a startup, everyone in the company needs to know the customer regardless of what their role will be and if they don’t do their research then forget them.

•They don’t ask for a $300,000 salary, car package, the next stage of career advancement or whether they’ll get 40% of the company out of the gate. You want to hire what Jim Collins calls “Level 5” leaders – people who believe they will be rewarded only if and when the company they work for succeeds.


If you’re a young startup with inexperienced founders, once you start to gain some initial traction you’ll be surprised about the amount of con-artists that come out of the woods.

Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of people who try to “edge their way in” with huge promises of bringing networks and expertise and end up being full of air. Even recently, I’ve met candidates who have falsified their past to get a senior role, which led to some interesting interview rounds.

In my experience these people almost always have the following traits in common:

●They claim to have big networks and often name drop big companies, business people and celebrities but are careful to never introduce you to anyone or give references to “protect their network”

●They can never exactly remember a key contact’s name, and can become aggressive and emotional when you ask for any sort of proof of what they’ve achieved previously. High performers love to share references to back up everything they say

●Their previous jobs and business successes don’t have much of a Google footprint. Don’t believe it when they say that’s because they’re old fashioned and do business offline

●If they’ve worked in big businesses they’ll singularly take huge credit for closing big deals, increasing revenue and saving businesses. However they’ll have no real detail about how the mechanics of these things actually happened

Once these kinds of people are in your business, they’re very difficult to remove and can distract you from the company’s mission. My advice would be to turn away anyone you’re slightly wary of and do thorough reference checks. You don’t want any false positives, even if it means you suffer with false negatives.


Culture fit is such an important aspect of your hire, because you’ll spend many years with these people. The bonds you have with key leadership will be what propels you through the scary “oh my” moments.

When we first hired our CTO over Mexican food, he had spent a few weeks doing an audit on our operations to improve things and he also offered to work on a no-risk trial for us. He then spent a good deal of time telling us why we shouldn’t give him options until we were sure he was a good fit. Talk about somebody who was a great startup fit for Appster!

Fast forward a few years and he’s doing an incredible job, running nearly 150 developers with plans to scale to 1,000 in the next few years.

If you’re at the stage of hiring your first executive you’ve already proved you’re a clever business person – you’ve found your product’s market fit and are running a great business, so follow your gut. If you like this person and your team does as well then they’re already half way to being the right person for the role.

Execution is the name of the game and with somebody who is both smart and well respected then their job of growing your company becomes far easier!