With a recession on the horizon, tough times lie ahead for startups in the region. As investor sentiment turns cautious, startups in Southeast Asia are already recording a 20% drop in VC deal volume. More than ever, the right hiring decisions are crucial to keep your startup growing amidst the storm.
Steve Jobs famously said that the first ten people in a startup will determine whether the company succeeds or not. Every founder dreams of A-players who can propel your business forward. But when you’re a small team with an even leaner budget, every early hire represents a significant investment – one you can’t be certain will pay off. So exactly what kind of talent works best in an early-stage startup?
For first-time founders, early hiring decisions can seem like a maze of conundrums. Is it better to hire junior talent who offer energy and malleability, or invest in experienced seniors who offer decades of experience? Should you bring in a specialist or look for a generalist? In fact, it’s not always clear whether you’ve reached the right stage to hire at all.
To help make your startup’s first hires a success, we spoke to three early-stage founders:
Here, they share insights into their hiring journeys, and what they’ve learnt from their mistakes along the way.
Pivots are part and parcel of the entrepreneurial journey – 55% of startups pivot to avoid failure. But for Poko, this pivot was more radical than most.
CEO and co-founder Geoffrey See and his team entered Y Combinator’s W22 batch as a social commerce startup focusing on groceries. By the end of the three-month program, they had moved into the Web3 space, working to simplify the setup of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) for companies.
With a downturn in DAO adoption owing to the recent cryptocurrency market crash, Poko has now turned to building Web3 payment infrastructure. Specifically, they’re building an onramping solution that enables anyone to onramp from their local fiat currency to crypto in a few clicks.
While crypto adoption is growing rapidly, Geoffrey explains, true mass adoption calls for easy access to payment rails that allow people to move their money into crypto. Onramping into crypto is currently a challenge, as banks increasingly shy away from doing business with crypto exchanges. Right now, their target market is gamers in Southeast Asia and Latin America who are branching into Web3 games, since players are usually required to invest in the game’s cryptocurrency or NFTs.
Needless to say, these pivots demanded an extraordinary shift in skillsets from their lean early team. Geoffrey shares that one key piece of advice they picked up in Y-Combinator was to keep hiring to a minimum, until the point where they had their product-market fit figured out.
The founders took this advice to heart, hiring in just a few key areas where they felt they needed special expertise: operations, grocery retail, and training of micro-entrepreneurs. This nimbleness served them well when pivoting into Web3.
“We had specialists whose skills wouldn’t transition well, so we helped them move into other companies,” says Geoffrey. For the generalists who remained, building their knowledge in an all-new industry was essential to make the pivot a success. “We started doing things like giving everyone tokens to participate in DAOs, or giving crypto to trade and competing to see who makes the most gains. This helped us shape the culture and interest in the industry.”
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Geoffrey is no stranger to entrepreneurship. The visionary behind Choson Exchange – a social enterprise that empowers North Koreans with entrepreneurship training – he’s also co-founded co-working space CirCO in Vietnam.
Like many bootstrapped startups, Geoffrey has worked with his fair share of junior talent. He sums up three startup hiring lessons he’s learnt over the years. “Bring in people with more experience, don’t build very big teams, and make sure they’re comfortable that their roles will shift over time.”
‘More experience’ doesn’t necessarily mean experience in a sector, so much as work experience in a startup. Geoffrey observes that those with startup experience tend to have the maturity to adapt and problem-solve. “We’ve realized it’s much better to have a small team with more maturity. People with startup experience can figure out how to make things work on lean resources, they struggle less with doing totally different things from one day to another.”
Ultimately, at the early stage, being comfortable with adapting is a key attribute to look for. When your startup is still finding its product-market fit, it’s hard to predict how your needs for a particular specialization will change, especially in the fast-moving Web3 space.
“We’re working in areas without proven models. Having people with the willingness to experiment and a natural curiosity is so important,” Geoffrey explains. As Poko’s journey proves, your best idea might not be your first – and your people should be ready to pivot with you.
Vietnam-based edtech startup CoderSchool has been going strong for seven years, and just raised USD 2.6 million in pre-Series A funding. But for co-founder Charles Lee, the craziest thing to have happened in his startup journey is still the moment he hired his first employee. “It felt crazy that someone decided to spend their working hours caring about the same mission I care about,” he shares.
Amidst a tech talent crunch in Southeast Asia, especially engineers and developers, CoderSchool started with a dream of making coding education accessible to aspiring talent. Through its wide partner network of tech companies, it also guarantees students a job upon graduation. For Charles, the most crucial attribute he sought in his first hires was a passion to put in the necessary blood, sweat, and tears for this mission.
“It was important for our early hires to really buy into the founders and our vision,” he explains. “First off, we weren’t able to pay as much as other companies. Secondly, we were inexperienced leaders without much of a plan. Our early employees helped us explore and develop the plan – all while being underpaid, overworked, and constantly reassigned to new tasks.”
Like Geoffrey, Charles stresses the need to hire for flexibility over skills. “Skills are valuable, but an early-stage startup needs to adapt to customer needs – not to employee skills.” He recalls one memorable night where the team stayed late to assemble 200 chairs for the school. Or the many times he himself had to learn to troubleshoot a wifi network while classes went on.
Bringing on specialized talent prematurely before having a clear direction, he adds, comes with the risk of pigeonholing your startup too early. “If you hire a rockstar Google Ads marketer, you’ll likely wind up trying to find ways to make your product perform well on Google. But perhaps the real customers for your product lie elsewhere.”
Both Charles and his co-founder, Harley Trung, came from strong backgrounds in software engineering. With the technical side of things covered, they needed someone to keep business operations running smoothly. “Our first hire was an office manager, as none of us were very familiar with local business practices,” Charles recounts.
The team expanded prudently, only hiring further once they had started to earn revenue and had built a plan for how new hires would contribute to future revenue. Their next hires were engineers to build data systems and automate processes to drive growth.
But looking back now, he reflects, it might have been better to hire more slowly and explore ways to optimize their processes instead.
“It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve learnt hiring additional people can make your team feel more overworked,” he shares. “Often, the problem lies within the startup’s systems and processes. Making additional hires will only reinforce your existing system’s inefficiencies.” For founders feeling unsure about the necessity of hiring as yet, he sums up one parting piece of advice: “Stay lean.”
Back in 2017, Logan Tan was trying to persuade tech whiz Jasper Yap to come on board as a co-founder for his B2B procurement startup, Eezee. “Jasper came to me and said: ‘Before I join you, you have to think about what culture you want to set for the company,’” Logan recalls. “What kind of people do you want to bring in?”
As first-time founders, they began by reading up on organizational culture and figuring out what resonated with them. “We wanted A-players with a mindset of excellence,” Logan shares. “That mentality of ‘what you don’t know, you can learn’ and ‘when you do something, do your best’. If we got culture right, we’d be more scalable because we would hire the right candidates.”
Indeed, defining Eezee’s culture from day one has guided them well in growth and hiring. Dubbing itself an “Amazon for businesses”, Eezee has become a leading regional procurement marketplace that enables businesses to fulfill their complex procurement needs in a few clicks. From their first-ever operations hire – who’s still with them today – the Singapore-based startup now has remote talent across Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
But hiring for culture fit is only half the battle. To help hires succeed, taking the time to instill culture is a must – especially in the early days when a startup’s cultural foundations are shaky. For Eezee’s founders, this lesson was a hard-won one.
“Back when we’d just raised angel funding, we had a few hundred thousand in the bank and decided to mass-hire interns,” Logan recounts.
“But we didn’t realize that if your cultural foundation isn’t clear, if you don’t spend time training your hires on the right mentality, mass hiring will corrupt the culture. Little actions like coming in late influence others, and startup founders often don’t realize it.”
Following that experience, the team committed to two things: investing in full-time talent and putting in the work to properly onboard them. “We decided that one full-time employee is better than five interns,” shares Logan. “Interns come in knowing they’ll stay for a limited time. But if we get that one employee right, they’ll be a founding team member and build their next stage of expertise here.”
The next step to hiring success was shaping cultural mindsets – a process that took time and many uncomfortable conversations. Logan points out that first-time founders are often unprepared to correct new hires and give honest feedback.
“It’s easier to praise them and say it’s fine, but no one will win out of it,” he explains. “As a manager, I’ve learnt to come from a place of wanting my employees to improve. We might say brutal truths, because in the end we want them to succeed.” Having a heart for the other person, he believes, makes all the difference.
No two startup journeys are the same, and there’s no golden formula for early startup hiring either. But from these three founders’ experiences, we can sum up a few lessons in common:
Getting your first few hires right can be difficult, especially for a budding early-stage startup. However, you don’t have to walk the path alone.
As one of Southeast Asia’s leading talent recruitment platforms, we’ve helped over 50,000 organizations globally with their hiring needs. Partner with Glints and we’ll help you find the right talent for your startup – whether it’s a culture or a technical fit. Start your team-building journey with us today.
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