How do you recruit great employees to start-ups?


Writers, playwrights and film and television creators testify that one of the most complex challenges for them is in constructing the opening section of their work. The first chapter of a book, like the first scene in a movie, largely shapes the entire work. They include the initial characterization of the main character, the construction of the atmosphere and the positioning of the world in which the story takes place and the foundations of the plot that will develop and create momentum that sweeps the reader or viewer and causes him to dedicate himself to the work. Just as it is agreed that childhood shapes our personality and leaves us imprints, for better or worse, that will accompany us later in life, so the opening chord of a start-up company is usually the basis that will largely dictate its continued development.

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A start-up is a long and tortuous journey. Throughout the journey, companies often change product, business model, market focus, management, shareholders and every other aspect of their existence. But there is a solid foundation that takes shape at the beginning of a company’s path and that is difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to change. In two words it is called: “corporate culture”, or in three “DNA of a company”. In practice, this is a set of characteristics that make up the character and identity of the organization and largely dictate its character.

And it starts, first of all, with the choice of people. When I set up my previous company, Playbase, after typical birth cords that included many changes, a team of six people, including me, formed, leading the company in a year and a half of hard work. We worked from a small office on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, in the kitchen there were only dry biscuits and in raising the glass for Rosh Hashanah I wished us all that by Rosh Hashanah next year we will already be a great team and have a budget for real gifts, not just apple honey. We knew the statistics were against us and over ninety percent of startups failed, we had no guarantees or assurances that the product we were working on would ever be published, that anyone would be interested in or agree to invest money in the company and we would all occasionally receive tempting offers from other employers. For ourselves to pay for ourselves.

A year and a half later, this six-pack has led its startup’s website to become one of the top 20 most popular sites in the United States, winning awards, attracting top investors and growing into a successful company with offices in eight countries and hundreds of millions of users. We were very lucky, of course, that this is the overall name we give to the set of causes and circumstances over which we have no control and cannot isolate and diagnose them. But we also had something else, and it is this “something” that is difficult to define in words, the great whole of the sum of its parts, the special charm created in the days and nights of working together and in a sense of belonging and boundless motivation. In the end, the company was the product of the six people who made it up, and this special glue was created between us. For two of the six it was their first job, for me it was the first company I set up and run and one of the team in general came from a completely different industry. Even in the months leading up to the big break and the success that followed, the feeling was in the air.

We did not dare to say it out loud, we reminded ourselves that “the main thing is the way” and that “we always fail before success comes”, but we felt it with all our hearts. We were proud of the evolving product, we were willing to swear that if only they would give us a chance we would prove that this product works magic and we continued to work with complete dedication out of a feeling that it is Otto coming. These six people who went into the start-up company’s bubbling pot together gave all the flavor to the soup that was cooked in it. Then we grew up, and hundreds of more employees were added, we started to face huge challenges, we knew ups and downs and eventually three of the six were still in the company and three others (including me) were no longer, but the taste of the soup remained that gave it its first six ingredients. The touch of these people’s hand is evident in society for all its twists and turns, even from a distance of years. The experience they went through also gave them its signals, and each of them experienced personal empowerment in their careers and personal lives as a result of the experience of being a mainstay of a new society.

And here these days we are again making up the initial team of a start-up company, and this time too it will include six people. In recent weeks we’ve been writing job descriptions, posting posts on social media, calling friends and acquaintances in the industry to ask if they know anyone, and embarking on the but so fateful process of identifying the most appropriate. Those who will give the taste to the soup, who will dictate the corporate culture of the company, who will shape the spirit and the DNA. For the many years (so we hope) to come. Despite the particular slowdown in economic growth resulting from the economic crisis, the high-tech market is still hot.

Demand for workers is still high, salaries are unfounded relative to any other market segment, and each worker is torn between a large number of offers and inquiries. In this competitive reality, a start-up company that has only received initial funding does not have the means to offer the employee the same salaries that well-established and well-funded companies offer him. Nor the terms of employment that sometimes seem like a seduction scene from an imaginary movie and include meals from restaurants, gifts for hundreds of shekels every holiday, a pool table and ping pong at the entrance, an office designed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of shekels and other kinds of other treats.

We do not have the economic opportunity to compete with this wealth, and beyond that it also feels wrong to us. We are looking for the people who are willing to give up some of this convenience for a year or two, until the company grows and its resources are expanded, in favor of other things. For example – the feeling that you are part of a team of people who do not need smoked salmon for breakfast or an annual trip with the whole company for a week of entertainment in Cyprus to feel a sense of belonging. For example the ability to be one of the few people who make the decisions together in the crucial stages of the company and the product, and not just one of a huge team that is growing at a rate too fast for anyone to even remember everyone’s names. For example, the feeling that you believe in something and follow your heart, not following a few thousand shekels a month on the pay slip. It should be said immediately, in high-tech companies no one is hungry for bread. Even in the early stages, when the company is still limited in means, the terms of employment are considered excellent in relation to any other market segment. And yet – there is a big difference between a company that employs thousands of workers and a small commando team that includes a single-digit number of members.

In recent weeks Ilan and I have been meeting a lot of people, all of them talented, most of them experienced, and everyone can choose from a lot of options. More than once someone we met explains to us that he received an offer that could not be refused from a larger company and more than once someone explains to us that his wage demands are three times higher than our budget. “So let’s talk again for another two or three years,” we reply, “when we’re big enough.” It’s frustrating, but in the end it’s probably not the people we’re looking for who will give the taste to our soup.

Shaul Olmert, founder of the Flying Pigs Company Photo: Uriel Cohen

We are looking for people who are enthusiastic about the idea and vision, who are excited to be part of a team and get a chance to bring everyone into society, who understand that earning more in a month than the average Israeli earns in six months is cool, but more fun to do something wholeheartedly and feel really yours In the short term. For us it is obvious. Both Ilan and I could have gotten a senior management position at large corporations, but apparently we could not have been happy with it in the long run. We are looking for the fuel and energy in the creation of something new and wholeheartedly believe that the unconditional love that we and the members of the initial team we recruit is given to it, will turn the company into a huge success story. Our current challenge, in the opening stages so critical, is to identify the people who have this love and enthusiasm. It is a complex craft that requires a lot of concessions to very talented and experienced people who are simply not in the right position for this type of adventure, but our experience has taught us that when you insist on people who really come from love, the soup comes out much tastier.

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