Your team needs to scale with your company.
8 min read
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More than 100 million startups are created worldwide every year, and failure rates are high. Of course, survival (and eventual IPO) is the goal for most, but longevity depends on more than a good idea and product market fit. It requires hiring an exceptional team that's suited to each stage of your growth, and getting that right is critical.
Not only are you competing in a war for talent, but the profile of your ideal candidate changes over time. Requirements evolve depending on the size of the organization; what worked with 20 people won't work with 200.
In this article, I'll dive into the four phases of startup growth and what you need to know about whom to hire to scale your team successfully.
Childhood (1-50 employees)
State of the union: You've got limitless energy and ideas, and no one's asking you to focus … yet.
Who to hire: The Imagineer
These are creative people who embody the energy and enthusiasm of childhood. They ask more questions than they have answers to. They color outside the lines. They don't care for the attention and focus it takes to do one job well; they want to experiment with many diverse projects. At this stage, it's okay to mess up — most mistakes can be covered with a Band-Aid, unlike later stages where mistakes become newsworthy.
Hiring pro tip: Don't hire people as "head of X" unless you're sure they will scale with you. Lots of early stage companies run into problems when it's time for the team to grow up. The hungry imagineer is likely to be topped by a director or VP, and the "head of" title will no longer fit. Imagineers struggle with the influx of policy and process that comes with a maturing company, and changing their title will only add to the tension. Instead, give them a title like "X Lead," and in the event they do scale with the company, give them the "head of" title when the time is right.
Where Childhood turns into Tween: Whether you've just raised a Series B or are seeing great traction with a few customers, it's time to rev the engine. You're looking to expand into new markets and launch new products. Imagineers are creative and scrappy, but ruthless prioritization doesn't come naturally to them. They can still add a ton of value, but you need to hire people who can build out functional areas and merge the creative, one-off wins into something that scales.
Tweens (50-150 employees)
State of the union: Think back to that hormonal time in life — the braces, the acne, the constant embarrassment and confusion mixed with the desire to be a full-on teen. This is where your company is now. You're (sort of) becoming a real company, but you're missing the wisdom and key corporate functions to flawlessly execute on your potential. You're still at the kids' table, but you can see the adults are eating filet mignon, and you want in.
Who to hire: The Up-and-Comer
At this stage, you know what you need to succeed but lack the people and processes to get there. You need people who can roll up their sleeves and build with the Imagineers, but also create the strategic, foundational processes that will allow your company to scale. These are not yet seasoned directors and VPs, but they don't yet need to be. Hire them into that position, and they will grow into that role through wisdom and experience gained in the trenches. Hire managers as directors, hire directors as VPs. But, don't hire these folks as C-level, because, like with the "head of X," you need to leave room to top them out when the business requires a different type of leadership.
Hiring pro tip: Don't be afraid to pay for recruiting services at this point to get diverse and qualified talent. Most companies rely heavily on referrals, but you're likely to tap out your network quickly, and you'll probably see very little diversity.
Where Tween turns into Teen: Something interesting happens when a company hits 150 people. It's known as Dunbar's Number, when organizations can no longer maintain the single, coherent culture they once had. Wires get crossed and companies are forced to introduce the all the policies and processes they've been avoiding. This is the enemy of the Imagineers, and the Up-and-Comers will slow progress as they attempt to navigate this new world. You now need people who can optimize new initiatives in a way that allows company veterans to continue to do what they do best. Without introducing the right initiatives in the right way, business outcomes will decline and early team members will leave.
Teens (150-500 employees)
State of the union: Put gently, your company is a hormonal beast. This is the roughest time in a startup's life. You're proven yourself to be a viable candidate for full, grown-up company and the pressure is on — but your team is full of people who've neither been there nor done that. Think SAT score pressure, and being told by your parents (board of directors) that you aren't good enough unless you hit certain metrics. The countdown is on for when you're expected to graduate into a functioning (profitable) member of society who no longer gets an allowance (funding).
Who to hire: The Optimizer
Optimizers are data-driven process people who look at that thing you built and threw at the wall (which seemed to stick?), and find ways to get the maximum ROI through efficiency. They are motivated by taking the bones of an existing process or product and making it better. These people tend to clash with the Imagineers — and if the Imagineers haven't left yet, they're likely to once the Optimizers come on board (especially an Optimizer as manager).
Hiring pro tip: People don't need an MBA from a Tier 1 school or two years at McKinsey to fit the profile of Optimizer. You should invest in a data-driven recruiting process to find these qualities amid the diverse set of candidates.
Where Teen turns into Basically a Grown-Up: You've kind of done it! All the essential functions of the business are starting to hum, and while the pressure hasn't subsided (spoiler alert: it never goes away), you've entered a flow state where you know the inputs you need to generate the outputs you want. It's no longer about hiring people who keep the machine working, it's about strategic and directed investments that take your business to new heights.
Basically a Grown-Up (500+ employees)
State of the union: If you've made it this far, congrats; you're out of your parents' house and technically no longer a startup. You may still feel like an adolescent, and you may need outside support from time to time, but your chances of success are now much greater. You're still working to become the company you always dreamed you could be, but you've got the stuff to make it happen.
Who to hire: The Expert
With 500 people, one person no longer has to cover five jobs. This is a luxury, but you still have some legacy Imagineers and Up-and-Comers who want to keep growing with you. The solution? Hire experts. Experts doesn't mean executives — you should already have those mostly figured out. It means hiring people with expertise and technical savvy who can mentor your more generalist team members.
Hiring pro tip: At this stage, people join your brand, not your team. To stand out, ensure your company brand is 100 percent aligned with your employment brand, and be sure you have a compelling story for both.
These stages aren't set in stone, and every type can thrive in any sized organization if given the right role and context. Imagineers can be successful in a 500-person company, if they find a role where building things is still valued (think: a new project or department). It's important to hire for your context. Recognize the stage of development you're at, and hire the skills you need to get to the next level. This is the key to organizational success.