How to Hire a Top Notch Startup Team When You Cannot Compete on Salary


Hire An Impressive Team

You don’t have to offer big bonuses to hire great talent.

I often get asked how I managed to get so many impressive people on my team. By every law of logic, a company as small, new and budget-constrained as mine should not have as many rock stars on our team and advisory board as we do.

After being asked the question so often, I’ve finally come up with a few pieces of advice for others trying to build a world-class team on a shoestring budget based on what’s worked for us.

1. Start with their ambitions.

It takes an incredible amount of money to make a very smart, ambitious person drop everything they’re doing to help you realize your dream. If you’re a startup, you will never win at this game because you simply don’t have an incredible amount of money. Instead, find ways that your dream can become a shared dream.

For me, that was where my dream from the Peace Corps of helping women in West Africa through moringa (a local tree with highly nutritious leaves) met my co-founder’s dream of finally creating her own food product after years of doing consumer packaged goods consulting. For another co-founder, it was a chance to test out his dream of connecting people across continents using technology to tell compelling stories. You’ll get incredible people on your team if you can show them where their personal ambitions meet the company’s ambitions.

2. Get the right jugglers to wear the right hats.

In startups there are a lot of moving balls and everyone has to wear many different hats. The key is to delineate those hats and balls as clearly as possible from the start so that you play to people’s strengths.

I’m a big-picture person, as most CEOs are. I’m great at putting together a high-level strategy but less great at filling in the minutiae; one of my co-founders excels at operations, but has a hard time forecasting the future. By recognizing this, we are able to put together cohesive plans while both playing to our strengths. This isn’t always easy; doing this properly requires everyone to admit his or her weaknesses. I’ve tried to take the lead on this by often pointing out where my own weaknesses are and building a culture of professional vulnerability.

3. Encourage debate.

After a company retreat, a new team member remarked how interesting it was to see the four members of our management team engage in heated debate one minute and happily eat dinner together the next.

Sometimes we joke that we fight like young siblings — ferociously, but with the understanding that at the end of the debate we’ll still want to play together. Though the debates can be tiresome, I wouldn’t want it any other way. We debate because we all want to build an amazing, enduring company and want to get to the best solution for creating that.

4. Create a culture of gratitude.

There is nothing worse than feeling like no one is recognizing your hard work. Fortune 500 companies recognize hard work with large bonuses; cash-strapped startups recognize it through public praise. At KuliKuli, we take this idea to heart by starting our meetings off with “recognitions” where each person goes around the table saying a quick word about what they’re grateful for about each person present. At our company retreats, we do a lengthier version of this, which we call a “gratitude potluck” where we each speak for a few minutes about why we’re grateful to have each person in the room.

5. Never forget your “why.”

At KuliKuli, our vision is to enable everyone to have access to nutritious sources of food like moringa. We often mention our vision when making company decisions. This helps us stay true to our brand while also reminding ourselves why we started doing this work in the first place.

At some point I hope that I will be able compensate every single person on my team with large salaries and bonuses. But even when that day comes, I still intend to live by these guidelines to create a successful, hardworking team that is excited to come into work every day. I’d love to hear from you all – what is the best tip you’ve seen in team building?


The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Image credit: JD Hancock

About the author: Lisa Curtis

Lisa Curtis is the founder of Kuli Kuli, a mission-driven food startup that is creating a market for moringa, a unique superfood.

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