How to build the initial team at your startup?

Published • By Neeraj Pal

When you start up, finding your first 5 customers is important. But equally critical is to find your first 20 employees.

Why the first 20? Well, these are the people who will traverse the zero-to-one journey with the founders and will form the foundation of the company.

Be it the product architecture, communication strategy, or sales, the foundation is laid by the first 20 hires. And equally important is that the first 20 people also set the culture that will define the company for years to come.

How do companies find their first 20 team members?

At Cutshort, in our work with thousands of employers and founders, we have noticed many approaches. For instance, some founders prefer to personally interview people in their close network. Meanwhile, other founders tend to hire recruiters or agencies believing it is a job best done by specialists.

To this end, here are certain best practices and hiring heuristics. These aren’t rules written in stone but rather guidelines that work best when molded to each founder and company’s style of working and preferences.

Even if you decide to ignore these steps, we’d love for you to read this as a checklist. After all, the A-team needs no less than superheroes.

Excited? Let’s dive in.

Think of the initial team as a tribe, not as employees

What’s the difference? Well, a tribe has common values and a sense of ownership while just “employees” work on their assigned responsibilities.

  • The idea is to bet on people who are in for the long term, have the ability to lead, and show bias for action.
  • Build a culture that strengthens your tribe’s happiness: It’s important to treat the first few employees as partners rather than your suboridantes.

Also read: How to give great feedback to interview candidates?

Compromise on proven skills but not attitude

For the first twenty people, it might be fine to settle for lesser experienced candidates or to pay extra for skill. But, it’s not often advisable to settle for mediocre candidates – you want nothing less than people who honestly want to work with you and are ready to give you their 100%. These 20 people will define the organization, and there’s no room for mediocrity in great organizations.

Stay true to your mission.

Quite often, founders trim around their founding principles and mission to fit people in. Be bold about why somebody didn’t fit in – the more openly you communicate fitment, the better placed you are for hiring the right fits. Don’t dilute the ambitions you’ve decided on: speak about these with clarity.

This will clarify any blurry areas and get you the people who resonate with your idea at the truest level – it will also help weed out people who don’t align with your style of thinking or working.

Hustle in private, celebrate in public

It doesn’t matter if you have investors or not, don’t hold back from displaying your successes, no matter how small they might seem to you. In your job descriptions, blogs, and social media – write about your velocity and success. Write about your vision and culture. Of course, if you’re funded, loop in the cred your investors bring in as well. But make sure you show the world what you’ve been up to – you never know who clicks with you.

Branding doesn’t always have to be about fancy budgets and PR articles: for a startup, it can be something as simple as sharing insights about your niche on Twitter or LinkedIn. Use blogs to expand on your ideas and other channels to build an audience that is invested in you. The key here is not to get impatient when things immediately don’t blow up. Keep it consistent, and build on it.

Also read: Mistakes to avoid after raising funds

Share rewards to help them create even more value

If you’re of the idea that the money in your startup is meant to be saved, get rid of it. Don’t be afraid to compensate people according to the value they bring if you see a great fit in them.

Once you find the right people, you want to retain them and build the company with them. Find ways in which you can give them what they need, and get on with it. Great employees will pay their salaries back exponentially in no time, while mediocre ones will reduce the company’s existing and future value gradually.


At the end of the day, trusting the process and being patient goes a long way. Many founders are impatient to start; some are obsessed with reaching success at all costs.

When you’re building a company, it’s important to know that any person who joins the mission will mold it in some way. There’s no way to keep it exactly as you envisioned it but as you grow, ensure that the molding is more chiseling for finesse rather than disruption of the entire edifice.

By Neeraj Pal

Marketing @Cutshort