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Why Every Startup Needs “Pillar People” First

Aug 06, 2016
By Suzanne Abate

Entrepreneurs make really bad hiring decisions. I know because I’m one of them.

And now I’m going to tell you why. But first, a very quick backstory.

I’ve been self-employed now for 13 of my 34 years. In the early 2000s, founders in their 20s were not as prolific as they are today. And I didn’t so much declare my way into entrepreneurship as find myself there.

A better way to describe it would be accidental tourism.

I graduated with a very specific cultural studies degree and no intention of leveraging it as an educator†. In other words I had no clear path to point myself down after university.

ironic because I’ve since become one

So I took up some operational management roles with a hospitality group, putting all those years of bartending to higher purpose.

And then I opened my own restaurant with a longtime friend and colleague. And then I lost all my money. I was 23.

Another longtime friend learned I was unemployed (and about to move back in with my mom) and asked me to come into his new office and help him out with “stuff” for a day or two. I did.

Four years later we had built a very successful investor relations firm, doing what can be best described now as startup acceleration. Back then, that term didn’t really exist.

One of the startups we helped to accelerate was an online real estate platform to standardize and better facilitate the purchase of international properties. And it had one hell of a plain language search!

It was there I met Andrew, who had a small design studio business on the side and with whom I soon co-conspired to partner up and build a great agency. It’s possible Andrew would describe these events as me “bulldozing him into letting me stick around,” but that’s a conversation for another time.

We were going to build a great agency!

We were going to need great people!

We had little money.

We had inconsistent sales.

We had to hire anyway.

Working in a small company is very different than working in a large enterprise.

In a small company, you must do one and a half jobs at least to demonstrate value. In a large enterprise, you can typically get away with doing just half a job.

In a small company, you cannot hide from your mistakes. In a large one, mistakes can be shipped from department to department or buried altogether.

In a large company you can bet with some certainty that your paycheck will be on time every other Friday. In a small company, there are no safe bets.

But! In a small company, there is tremendous opportunity to create your own future!

Ah the promise of growth! A trusty lure for entrepreneurial spirits. Who wouldn’t want to create their own destiny?

Turns out, lots of people. And that’s ok.

Which leads me to three hard-earned hiring tips for entrepreneurs, who I’ve already said, make terrible hiring decisions.

1 - Don’t project your entrepreneurial spirit onto candidates.

Is growth exciting? Of course it is. Do you thrive in a world where the sky is limit? Hell yeah!

Does your candidate really want to blaze their own trail alongside you? I don’t know, ask them.

Or better still, let them show you. Let their side projects be evidence of their desire to build something; that labors of love are not inextricably linked with money; that they are passionate.

But also,

2 - Don’t assume your path is their path.

If you’re confident that you’re hiring a builder, great. Let them build with you for as long as they’re willing.

Give them a wide berth and honor your promise to let them create their own…role, salary, responsibilities, opportunities.

And prepare yourself from day one that someday they will leave to walk their own path.

If you are still waiting for them to reach for the brass ring, chances are you didn’t hire a builder to begin with. See tip #1.

Lastly, and most important,

3 - Don’t hire based on potential.

At least not until you’ve reached a certain scale.

When you run your own business you are at once the CEO, the COO, Director of Sales and Marketing, Director of Production, VP of Product, Technical Lead and coffee runner.

If you’re lucky enough to have a partner, you are only half those people.

These are not just titles, they are the pillars of your business. Each function is helping to hold up the roof and keep things from crashing down.

A general cannot be in the trenches. A visionary cannot look out and over from down below. An engine cannot smoothly change from first gear to fifth.

In order to be freed and focused to grow your business, you need pillar people.

Strong individuals who can immediately and intuitively manage core business functions with little interference. Pillar people who can hold up parts of the roof so that you don’t have to hold everything.

When you hire for potential, you’re hiring marble columns. People whocould become leaders, but today need constant guidance and support. People who cannot yet reach, let alone support, the ceiling without you.

You are unloading tasks but not responsibility. You are still in the trenches, you’re just not alone.

Hiring for potential is an opportunity that can be embraced at scale, when your foundation is solid and your roof stable; in the glorious, expansive space between that you’ve created by hiring right early on.

pillars Your earliest hires should be “pillars” — people who can hold up core functions of the business with little need for daily guidance and support.

Do you have stories about bad hiring decisions or great tips for how to avoid them? I’d love to hear them! Email me directly.

Originally published at on May 12, 2016.

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