Recently, I found myself stuck at New York's LaGuardia airport waiting for a twice-cancelled flight.
After responding to e-mails and eating overpriced salad, I started glancing enviously at other travellers passing the time with friends or colleagues. It made me realize that, for the first time in my life, everyone I worked with would pass "the airport test." Meaning that if I were to be stuck with them at an airport for hours on end, we could pass the time enjoyably.
Making the transition from a big corporate job to running a startup comes with many frightening challenges, but on the bright side, you generally get to hire people you like.
But strong startup employees need to be more than likeable. They need to have multiple skill sets, a high tolerance for risk and instability, and the ability to push the company forward in an environment with limited resources. It's not surprising that many entrepreneurs liken the hiring process to hunting unicorns.
To complicate matters, startups often need to woo these unicorns with paycheques and benefits that tend to pale in comparison with those offered in big corporate jobs. The lack of security can easily scare off anyone with a mortgage.
So how do you win over the people who will quickly become your company's most valuable asset? Oddly enough, selling your company to prospective hires is not that different than selling a product. To do either, you need to have a good story.
"It turns out that pay is not the key motivator for most people," said David Wexler, a Toronto-based human capital strategist and executive coach.
While employees need to earn enough money to cover their cost of living, other things motivate those attracted to startups, he explained. They include having a broad range of responsibilities, tremendous growth opportunities, less bureaucracy and corporate politics and finally, potential equity stakes.
But how does an employee considering making the break from corporate life know they are up for the challenge? Mr. Wexler suggests they ask themselves whether they are willing to live with the risks and uncertainty that go with working for a company that has little money and where the failure to execute may be fatal to its existence. Also, the startup environment is often one of long hours and high-stress situations.
In Mr. Wexler's experience, individuals who thrive in startups are often creative self-starters who can operate effectively in rapidly changing environment.
"They are both strategic and operational, meaning that they can both contribute to the organization's direction and identification of key strategic business goals, and also roll up their sleeves and get the results that are going to keep the business operating and growing," Mr. Wexler said.
So how does one go about hiring these unicorns? Mr. Wexler suggests investing a few thousand dollars on an HR consultant who knows how to map out a recruiting process and develop a compelling story to entice suitable candidates. Alternatively, startups can call upon a board member or advisory group member who has HR credentials and can help with these issues early on.
One part of this story is the startup's corporate culture.
"Startups have a key competitive advantage over established companies: their culture. The fast pace of a growing company isn't for everybody, but the right candidates will be attracted to this," said Ben Baldwin, founder of Toronto-based ClearFit, a technology company that lets employers predict who will succeed at which job and why.
To win over the right employees, companies need to look past the résumé for the candidates with the personality and motivation to succeed in your unique work environment, he said.
"Relying on résumés and interviews yields results that are similar to a coin toss," said Mr. Baldwin, adding that at a startup, a 50-per-cent "mis-hire" rate could sink a company. It served as his motivation to start ClearFit, which allows employers to engage in "predictive job matching" in order to streamline the recruiting process.
"All startups are different and all people are different, so it's hard to find the right match," said Mr. Baldwin, adding that it's important to find people who are comfortable without much structure, recover well from setbacks and are motivated to succeed. It's hard enough to get a startup off the ground, so surrounding yourself with others who have such attributes is critical.
As for his own startup, Mr. Baldwin realized early on he needed to find people "who are always reaching for the higher rung and not worried about failing.
"At a startup, the angle of growth of the company is equal to the angle of growth of its people," he said. "In other words, it's less important who this person is today and more important what they will become."
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler