Head of People needs to be one of your first 10 hires

In the startup world, you hear a lot of talk about your first ten hires. Your first ten hires will, in all likelihood, end up being your leadership team as you scale. They’ll get the most equity (roughly one point each) and play the biggest role in growing the business.

The logical takeaway then is that you need absolutely incredible people to fill this role.

It’s why Y Combinator preaches to their founders to spend ~50% of their time on hiring, and why “Thiel’s law” is that a startup screwed up at the start has no chance of recovering.

But, startups miss something very basic in their first ten hires. They miss the Head of People role.

I’m also not just picking on startups. Plenty of main street businesses that do $3-$5M EBITDA also don’t have a Head of People.

This is an unbelievably huge mistake.

What do the first ten hires typically look like?

Regardless of your industry or product, your first ten hires will pretty much look identical for a startup. It will probably end up looking something like:

  • ~4 to 6 devs
  • ~1–2 product managers
  • ~2–4 sales
  • 1 “Growth” employee
  • 1 “biz ops” employee

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty great team and absolutely the right mix of people if you’re playing the venture-backed startup game.

It’s incredibly difficult to hire anyone outside of this very standard framework. The reason why is every role above directly contributes to the product or to revenue. When you have truly hit on product-market fit, you don’t need anyone else (such as marketing).

You’re just trying to stay ahead of demand.

Or, let’s say you haven’t hit on product-market fit. But, let’s say you raised $1m in a seed round to build out this team and try scaling a product. Good luck trying to explain to your VC’s why you hired a Head of People instead of another engineer to get the product out the door.

Either way, there is plenty of rationale for why you shouldn’t hire a Head of People.

But, the most successful startups I’ve seen all make that hire as quickly as possible.

Business, especially a startup, is just people

It’s easy to get caught up in business. There are B2B, B2C, DTC models. There are “digitally native brands” and “incumbents” undergoing a digital revolution. There are plenty of “niches” to play in.

Let’s simplify.

At the end of the way, business is just one group of people (employees) trying to deliver value (product) to another group of people (customers).

That’s it.

When you think about it that way, the basic business “formula” is:

Your people => your product => your customers

Notice how your people comes first. You need your people to come first.

Without your people working, motivated, and skilled, good luck delivering the product that adds value to your customers.

Culture is a full-time job, so hire a Head of People

The CEO and the founding team will always drive culture. If your CEO is an asshole, then no Head of People will be able to save the culture.

But, a fantastic culture is the only way to build a business. The data is beyond clear that culture is a driving factor behind whether or not a business succeeds or fails.

That’s why CEO’s are always coached to spend time on culture and make sure that people want to come into work each day.

But, let’s be real. A CEO has plenty on their plate and they cannot devote 100% of their time to culture.

If we accept that culture drives success (we do), and we accept a CEO cannot devote 100% of their time to culture (we do), shouldn’t we accept that someone should have a full-time job that is all about driving the culture?

Shouldn’t we get that person through the door sooner rather than later?

Training and hiring matter

On a similar note, it’s incredibly important to get the right people through the door. As talked about above, your business is really just your people. If you find and hire the wrong people, then your business won’t grow. It’s as simple as that!

As mentioned above, so many startup resources dictate that a CEO should spend ~50% of their time on hiring.

But, since hiring will decide whether or not you should grow, you should have someone who is completely dedicated to this role.

Since you’ll hire a lot of people outside of your first ten employees, getting a Head of People in place now to build process to hire and train will pay substantial dividends down the road.

So, how should we hire a Head of people?

Hiring for Head of People is difficult. There are a lot of different profiles out there, but here’s what I’ve found to work best:

  • Someone with at least one successful exit under their belt (probably as an employee….but as long as they’ve seen growth and know how it changes a company)
  • Someone with strong business acumen and understands the underlying business, probably better than anyone on the leadership team
  • Someone who lives and breathes culture. They’ve probably read all of the Adam Grant/Dan Pink/Malcom Gladwell books
  • Someone who loves your startup and can’t stop talking about it to others

That profile is difficult to find, but can supercharge your growth. The best way to find them is through referrals and asking your investors and other founders who they have in their network.

The sooner you get this profile in the door, the sooner you can really grow as a startup.

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