The Challenge

It’s one of the most daunting tasks for a startup CEO: controlling budget and cash burn. It would be great to say “cash flow” rather than “cash burn.” But the reality for me, the CEO of a biotech startup, is that no money comes into our early stage company outside of investments.

Every startup has the same challenge – how to find the right people. I need so many people, but I cannot afford them all. It is crucial to have the right team, but it is equally important to determine a way to determine a way to pay them before I even start searching.

The right person needs to meet specific technical needs, but also have the ability to wear many hats like I do.

The Ideal Hire

To find the right person, you need to look for specific traits:

Passion for the company mission
Fit for the role
Extreme flexibility and adaptability
The ability to operate outside of their comfort zone
Obviously, the ideal person is more valuable than any startup can afford. Therefore, you need to get creative to ensure a fair and competitive compensation package.

(as seen at July 25, 2016)

At Efferent Labs, I started looking for my first full-time employee only a year ago. Prior to that time, I had used only independent contractors. But I needed a person who could seamlessly shift from one role to the next, work independently, and stay the course when things are rough. It’s a startup life – one day to the next, even one hour to the next, things change and you must adapt or die.

My budget was way too low for who I needed, so I knew it would be necessary to sweeten the incentive. First, I looked to my personal Rolodex. I know a lot of people in biotech, having spent the last couple decades owning a company in the space.

My first choice was the most qualified and experienced person I knew and respected. But after a lot of discussion about whether he would accept the position, I realized the right person probably didn’t need the experience of a mature VP or director. I realized, I could grow my own leader! Next, I connected with local university professors for recommendations. With a 43North win under my belt, my status provided access to local leaders and afforded me the ability to find the right connections to accomplish this task.

I sat down with a local professor who forwarded me a resume, indicating there was no better choice. In many ways, he was right. The individual was knowledgeable, creative, and met almost all of my required checkboxes. But there was something that stopped me. Always listen to that gut feeling. I did, and decided to talk to him one more time before making an offer.

I asked him about his opinion of our mission and how he might work with us. The fit had to be right for him. More importantly, he had to be right for the company. The next day, he sent an e-mail thanking me and explained that he was not ready to be in a startup. My gut feeling was correct!

My Perfect Hire

My perfect hire needed to have passion for what we are doing, understand startup culture and commit to our mission. After rebooting the search process, I finally found him. The question was then about compensation. Like just about all startups, we cannot offer the traditional package of a Fortune 500 company – in fact, we are almost diametrically opposite. Stability, security and set hours are not in our DNA. Luckily, for an ideal hire, the right job is about more than dollars and security. In a startup, freedom, creativity, stock options, and time off flexibility are just as valuable.

The most important part in startup employment is to be upfront and honest about risks and rewards My perfect hire understood this and was both well-informed and enthusiastic. Our negotiations led to an acceptable offer. Today, this individual continues to be an extremely valuable member of my team. I had a gut feeling when I first met with him, and it was correct!