The 3 Qualities of First-Wave Employees

There’s a lot of emphasis, rightfully so, on the significance of a startup’s first round of hires; these employees are often referred to as “first wavers,” but I prefer to think of them as the company’s “Navy SEALs.” These are the people whom you’re going to want around for a long time, whom you’re going to trust with significant assignments, and whom you’ll need to call upon and rely on in times of great need.

In order to understand what entrepreneurs should look for in their first wave of hires, I think it’s important to first define what I mean by a “startup,” and then to try to understand the psychology of individuals who are attracted to this kind of entity. The term “startup” is a very general one, so let’s refine it a bit: I’m using the term to mean a business that is literally just getting started. There is no or little revenue. There is the founder and maybe one other co-founder or employee. Often, there is no physical location for the business yet.

In my experience, I have found that the people who are willing to join these types of ventures are not “business people” in the typical sense of the word. (Side note: It’s important to keep in mind that these are general impressions and they don’t always apply.) They tend to be dreamers or idealists; they have almost artistic inclinations. I imagine they are the same types of people who would join a political revolt or new church or new club.

In my businesses, these people have often been college students or people waiting for graduate school admission, but they could also be scientists, engineers, or artists. Since they are not paid well, by necessity, the vision and mission of the company is much more important to them than compensation. This is not to say that they are naïve, but they are driven by things other than money. They tend to mirror, in a lot of ways, the entrepreneurial mindset. To borrow from Tolkien, they are a Took, not a Baggins; they are looking for an adventure. For this reason, the best entrepreneurs truly do have a strong vision and mission that they can communicate to their first employees.

Below I’ve listed what have been a few common “cuts” for my Navy SEALs over the years, the qualities I look for in first wavers; please keep in mind that these are personal preferences:

1. I have found that the best Navy Seals are people who are strong multi-taskers and less aware of what they cannot do. I prefer liberal arts majors because, in general, I believe they’re taught to think in non-linear ways. You need your Navy SEALs to be, in many ways, unreasonable in their expectations of themselves and those around them. In order to succeed in the early stages of entrepreneurship, you need people on your team who aren’t afraid to do exceptional things; you need people who are not aware of their own supposed limitations (or at least as unaware as possible).

2. I look for people who have worked very hard at one thing in their life. Maybe they have excelled at it, maybe they have not; that’s not particularly important to me. But, I look for something that they were really passionate about for an extended period of time. Passion is a learned attribute, in my opinion. When I played football as a young person, I was very passionate about it for an extended period of time (although, I missed the fine print that the University of Alabama wasn’t looking for receivers who ran a 40 yard dash in 4.9 seconds). I think you learn a lot from a singular commitment and vision, and these lessons are very valuable when working at a company that is trying to get off the ground.

3. I look for people who are very real, practical, and clear. This is a very difficult one to quantify, and it’s difficult to gauge this one by looking at a resume or past experience. I look for people who don’t rely on canned phrases, and who aren’t afraid to voice their opinion. Your Navy SEALs are going to play a crucial role, again by necessity, in virtually all aspects of your company, whether it’s operations or overall strategy. You need them to be not only smart and driven, but also vocal and unafraid to disagree with you. In this way, “yes” men and women are not the best first-wavers.

Interestingly enough, my ideal Navy SEAL might be someone who many “normal” people might view as a misfit. Trained business people often try to apply a fixed construct to the analysis of prospective employees; by doing this, I believe you might miss the kinds of people I’m describing, who are the necessary jewels to the development of the company. Over the past twenty years, as entrepreneurship has become more of a mainstream phenomenon, it seems as if more MBAs are starting businesses. I wonder how effective it would be to apply hiring principles learned through an MBA curriculum to the hiring process for a start-up. As someone who received an MBA, I doubt these tactics would be particularly effective. Now this isn’t to say that you should list “misfit” as a criterion for a first wave hire. However, I would definitely look for idealistic, passionate individuals as my Navy Seals, and I’d place this passion and non-linear way of thinking at a higher premium than some of the more traditional qualities one might look for in a hire.