How to Hire People Who Will Thrive at a Startup

Building a team of employees who will perform well in the unstructured and constantly evolving startup environment is one of the most important and difficult tasks facing a founder. While many people love the idea of working at a startup, few are cut out for the reality of it.

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“A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable and scalable business model.” - Steve Blank

Building a team of employees who will perform well in the unstructured and constantly evolving startup environment is one of the most important and difficult tasks facing a founder. While many people love the idea of working at a startup, few are cut out for the reality of it. 

Startups need employees who can handle ambiguity, set their own direction and are self-motivated to get things done. Unfortunately, this combination of traits exists in the minority of workers. As mentioned in this article from the Harvard Business Review, few people understand how much easier it is to build a four-lane highway when you already have a two-lane road than it is to carve out a path in the middle of an unexplored jungle. 

Startups need trail blazers and to find undiscovered talent. We’ve put together some tips to help you build a team of people who thrive in early stage environments.

Traits you want


Marco Rogers, a recruiter who has hired 100s of engineers, advises startups to remember that you’re still figuring out what you need at your company. Hire people who are comfortable shifting directions midcourse. Ask potential hires about a time when they were required to shift their approach mid-project or had the scope changed to a completely different goal. In particular, people who are willing to assume new roles and responsibilities - especially outside of the normal scope for their role - demonstrate the flexibility you’re looking for. 

Low ego

Hire people who want to get it right, not be right. Ask candidates to walk you through how they approached a disagreement with another engineer, and pay special attention to how they considered input or differing opinions from their colleagues. 

In addition, ask or note when someone was willing to do work that was beneath their experience level. Startups are full of grunt work. Sooner or later, everyone is going to have to take out the trash, manually enter a bunch of data or do really basic tasks you’d normally give to an intern.

Communication & understanding

Ask a candidate to teach or explain a complex concept that is core to their role and you will not only find out how well they understand a topic, but you will also discover how well they communicate. Startups are hiring to bring expertise your company doesn’t have, and the ability to clearly share ideas with the rest of your team is invaluable. “If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer,” is still great advice from the team at Basecamp.

Overcoming obstacles / dissatisfaction

Fundamentally, you’re looking for folks who innately like to solve challenges or make things better. These people take initiative. Candidates that can demonstrate how they overcame an obstacle without support or who have examples of how their dissatisfaction with something at a prior company lead them to go about changing it exhibit the self-motivation that translates well to a startup. 

Enthusiasm for your company

“How did you prepare for this interview today? Tell me about the research you performed on the company prior to our interview today?” Enthusiasm is often what gets people through the ups and downs of startup life and great candidates will talk your ear off about your company or industry. Worst case, they aren’t that enthusiastic, but they are really diligent. 

Areas of caution

  • Compensation: Talk money as soon as possible. If a candidate is too focused on benefits, gym subsidies and free lunches, they’re not right for you. People join startups because they’re passionate about the product, they want to grow or they love to build things, but they don’t join for the comp plan (maybe for the potential money). 
  • Brand names: You probably have a list of sexy companies with great teams from which you’d love to hire. However, be cautious of the halo effect that that can cloud your judgement. Many of these employees are surrounded by great people, and they may not realize how much of their success relies upon huge support networks or company inertia. 
  • Offer shopping: If you’re getting pressure to send terms in writing or someone is trying to drive a hardball negotiation, be careful that you’re not being used by someone who is offer shopping. 
  • Complainers: dissatisfaction is a great source of inspiration, but it can also be a moniker of people who always have excuses handy. Know the difference.

We’ve compiled some of our best interview questions into a template which you can get emailed to you by entering your work email in the "Get the Interview Questions" form in this article.

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Published on
February 17, 2023

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