Startup Sales and Marketing Hiring: The 3 Things to Look for


hire for startups

As a startup marketing director who was the sole person behind the “marketing department” for a few years while we moved to the mid-sized stage, I developed an eye and a couple of ears for spotting sales and marketing hires that fit our culture and goals – in part because of the hires that didn’t fit the “startup” profile.

In order to put together the right startup marketing or sales team, choose at least one person at your company to interview applicants who:

  • is known for creating quick and genuine connections with other people, regardless of the department in which they work.
  • intuitively grasps and makes sense of sub-textual nuances and human behaviors.
  • has been with your startup since the early days.

These are the people who understand the way your company works and are very invested in your success, because they understand how you’ve advanced from super lean to the point where hiring a bigger team is possible. More likely than not, these are also the people who are most familiar with your company’s mission, work ethic, and personalities of your team.

What are you looking for in your new marketing or sales hire? Yes, you want some solid experience, and that’s already why you’re interviewing the select group you’ve chosen. It’s when you’re doing the actual interview that you need to tap into your inner psychologist and look for these three traits of a stellar startup hire:

  1. Creative Authenticity.

If your startup is anything like ours, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves every day, and there just ain’t no time for formalities, overly considered words, or politics. You need a team of hard working people who are secure about who they are and the work that they’re doing – not preoccupied with hierarchy or posturing. The truth is, we just want to get the job done and done well.

How do you evaluate creative authenticity?

Ask the potential hire how he or she works and what work he or she is most proud of, and listen for answers that focus on accomplishments, measured with the person’s own metrics, not those of his or her superiors or stakeholders like:

“I take pride in research over guesswork, so I can provide answers that I feel comfortable with, even if they don’t end up being exactly right.”

Look for answers that indicate that this candidate is self-motivated to drive value not only for his or her company, but for himself or herself, such as:

“I had a lot of respect for my boss, but I just didn’t feel I was getting the kind of mentoring that I needed, so I helped create a mentoring program with the help of our CEO, who backed me.”

If you pay close attention to his answers, you’ll be able to identify someone who genuinely wants to contribute and who does so by using the creative or intellectual assets that he or she innately possesses.

2. Curious Energy

A candidate for your sales or marketing team doesn’t need to have memorized your website before the interview, but it should become clear that he or she has spent a good amount of time learning not just about what you do, but what your industry does and why it is of interest to him or her.

How do you spot the “not-quite-right” response?

  • He or she mentions your company only after you ask him, “So tell me what you know about us, Sarah.” (Someone who is naturally curious will be referencing your company and your industry at natural, unrehearsed points during the interview).

On the other hand, what are the signs of a candidate whose organic drive to learn and her undeniable curiosity will make her an asset?

  • He or she will eagerly ask you more questions than you have time to answer during the interview, and will probably send you an email or two to get the answers after the interview is over.
  • His or her body language and eye contact will be genuine and energetic.  You’ll be able to spot it if you’re tuned in.
  1. A balance of “Get out of my way; I’ve got sh** to do” and “How can I help you?”

This one is harder to spot, but it’s a big one.

Just because, all of a sudden, you’ve got more people on your leadership team and maybe you expanded your office space doesn’t mean that you should start acting like a corporation. Why? Big companies have certain luxuries that startups at any stage just don’t – time for a lot of meetings, for one; time for a lot of paperwork, processes and analysis paralysis, for two.

At a startup, if you’re trying to do the same amount of work of a company many times its size, you need people who aren’t afraid to figure it out without involving more people than absolutely necessary. You need a staff of people who are outspoken, driven and ready to plow down obstacles without always asking permission.

Here’s how to find out if your candidate has these skills:

  • Ask him about a time he had to make a quick decision or take a risk, and how it turned out for him. (Hint: Extra points if his story ends with a hard lesson).
  • Give her a scenario like this one: “It’s Friday. Your team has called it a day. You check your website metrics before you leave for the weekend and the website is down. You have no idea who to call or whether you should even attempt to diagnose or fix the problem yourself. What do you do?”

What are you looking for? Three things: 1) Her ability to find several possible solutions; 2) The level of anxiety or acceptance she exhibits at potentially arriving at the wrong answer (of course there is no wrong answer in this case); and 3) How adeptly and logically she thinks through a challenging question while communicating that thinking with you.

Employees who have been overly ‘trained’ to immediately seek someone at a higher level to find answers or who are anxious about making a mistake are probably those who won’t find comfort in making the quick decisions that often must be made at a startup – decisions that could very easily end up being “right” or “wrong.”

Hire Slowly so You Grow Quickly

A startup is a very specific, unique and challenging professional experience. Those who will drive yours to a greater level of success are also very unique people who are invigorated by ownership, self-reliance, risk and reward. Don’t underestimate the importance of looking for personality traits and professional motivations that are informed by personal values. And make sure that you’ve assigned your most genuinely curious and intuitive people to interview them.

Startups are on an abbreviated timeline and hiring new staff you’re not sure will fit your culture and mission is a mistake you don’t have the time to make.


Image credit: CC by James 2

About the author: ttrevor

Theresa Trevor, @t2amplifinity, is the Director of Marketing for @Amplifinity, a referral software startup in Ann Arbor, MI. Trevor has contributed content to many publications including Wired Innovation Insights, Fast Company and the AMA.

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