Hiring · Startups

What skills/characteristics are often overlooked in startup employees?

Joey Nima Investment Banker at Wells Fargo

May 22nd, 2015

Startups employees are often some of the best and brightest from across the world. They all must be bright, driven, dedicated, etc. But there’s definitely more to a great startup employee than those characteristics. From a leadership position, what do you think are the most underrated skills most employees lack?

Steve Simitzis Founder and CEO at Treat

May 22nd, 2015

Appetite for risk, and comfort with uncertainty. These two qualities are HUGE. I've worked with plenty of people who are bright, driven, dedicated, etc. But without those two, they fail to thrive at a startup, and are better off coming on after Series A.

Stephen G. Barr Inimitable Advisor with Wide experience.

May 23rd, 2015

Early stage founders and employees obviously must wear many different hats by nature so that flexability and multitasking ability is generally a given as is as is open mindedness, dedication, and perseverance.

Some traits that don't seem to be give as much weight are:

  1. Brutal Honesty - I see so many people afraid to speak up or question things that the founders may or may not be doing that is counter productive to the overall success of the project. The ability to call out and point to the pink elephant siting in the middle of the office is critical. Everyone on the team should feel at ease to speak up lest the entire team is risking making a critical early stage mistake when a minor pivot could have made all the difference in the world.
  2. Fiscal Prudence - Just because your startup just closed a 2.5 million dollar seed round doesn't mean you need to run out and rent 2,500sqft Class A office space for $4,000 a month to house one hustler/ceo and two coders. I know of one right now who did just that and they pull the blinds and keep the door locked during business hours. These guys are obviously throwing good money after bad and should have stayed in a garage somehere and reserved a conference room at a coworking location when they have investor or board meetings. Even in this day of "lean startups" I see a ton of fat on a daily basis.
  3. Humility - Getting to be a lost trait is some circles.

Dr. Geoff DePaula visionary, integrative medicine doc, disruptor

May 25th, 2015

Perserverence.-  if you believe in every cell of your body that your cause/vison/mission is one to work hard for- you will.  That is the fuel for the perseverance. 

If you never give up... your still in the game, & you never lose.

Court Rye Founder at ElectricBikeReview.com

May 22nd, 2015

It seems like the people who can successfully manage "multiple hats" and "long hours" as well as unexpected situations where coworkers aren't acting perfectly (yelling comes to mind at some of the startups I've been at)... and the environment itself being messy and limiting at times, these people tend to have a good sense of humor and a weather-borne wisdom. I see people who overcame small minded communities, people who were minorities or struggled to fit in (Mark Zuckerberg), people who immigrated (Elon Musk, Sergey Brin), people who have overcome family drama and can "deal with messes" and hang in there. If you can get real with someone in an interview and argue about something and they hang onto their beliefs (and back them with data or amend them on the fly) that is someone who might be a good fit and add value. And if you can joke with them a bit after the argument, then they will become a friend and that bond can help weather the storms to come. These skills also cause "startup people" to leave or get fired when larger investment and IPOs come into the picture. The humor becomes a risk and the "do what I said" becomes more important than the "wow, you solved something I didn't even know was a problem and I don't care if you went a bit rogue to do it".

Kathy Keating Techie that loves solving wicked problems

May 23rd, 2015

Thirst to Learn.
Willingness to be uncomfortable.
Commitment to continuous evolution.
Embraces change.
Doesn't take things personally.
Accepting and inclusive.

Dan Maccarone Co-Founder/CEO at Charming Robot

May 23rd, 2015

They should be able to juggle multiple roles at the same time, self-starting is pretty critical. I think they should be opinionated without being arrogant. The idea being, a good founder should encourage the team to question ideas and decisions for the bettering of the product. Adaptable is pretty important as well. When it comes down to it, anyone working at a startup should be collaborative, which in a more specific sense means they need to be able to listen and check their ego at the door. No matter what someone has done before they walk through the doors of a new company, it doesn't mean they have all the answers (though presumably they have some for sure). That's the fun part of all this: learning how to work with new people and appreciating that great ideas can come from anywhere. This may seem obvious to some of you, but you'd be surprised how often these things are overlooked.

Anubhav Kushwaha When was the last time you took charge of building a team from scratch? We are hiring software development leaders

May 22nd, 2015

It is not a good idea to generalize but of the many people that I have worked with, specially at startups there are a few glaring areas of improvement. The most important one is captured in your question itself.

  1. Ownership - You cannot afford to have employees at a startup (or any company). You need owners. You have to structurally enable that and your people need to step up and be owners
  2. Long term thinking - Thinking about creating long term value for customers rather than focusing on exits
  3. Persistence and grit - Not all days, weeks or months are going to be easy. There are going to be sustained periods of hard work and low returns but only by working through them can you reach the long term value

Benjamin Olding Co-founder, Board Member at Jana

May 25th, 2015

Focus.  While the "multiple hats" thing can be a good trait in some roles, it can't come at the expense of getting your own stuff done as well as it can be.  The founders definitely have to wear multiple hats.  Some of the employees will definitely have to wear multiple hats.  However, the opportunity to wear multiple hats can really become a distraction - and it's easy for people to feel like they are making progress when they're working hard.

There is no substitute for focus, however.  I'll hire that quality again and again.  Some part of your startup will likely be under-built relative to your stage; employees that use this as a justification to work on a variety of things (even when they probably shouldn't) is a reality - but the teammate who can stay focused on their own area and keep it from becoming the next disaster is under-appreciated and worth keeping at all costs.

It takes experience on your part to figure this out though - it's a lot more tempting to view the multiple hat wearers who "heroically" do things that really aren't in their skill set as the core "startup people."  I tend to view the real "startup people" as the ones who can build up the company in their area of expertise from scratch without support and without drama, even in the midst of everyone else running around like their hair is on fire and the sky is about to fall in.

John Petrone CTO at LaunchPad Central

May 24th, 2015

An ability to create everything, including all the supporting processes, from scratch and then modify and grow them as the company grows or changes.

I've seen a lot of smart, driven, successful people struggle when confronted with the blank sheet of paper that embody most early stage startups. No or little development, deployment, systems management, sales, marketing and support processes require an ability to create from scratch, with just enough for now and a vision for where you need to be. 

Reme Pullicar Project | Program | IT Manager

May 30th, 2015



I’d have to submit that one of the most underrated skills anyone has is the art of listening. I regularly work with Boy Scouts who are working their way to the rank of Eagle. It’s a lofty goal that requires a merit badge entitled Communications. One of the badge requirements is an exercise wherein the boys log every form of communication they experience for a full day. When I interview the candidates and review their journal entries, they almost always miss the alarm clock or their mom’s waking them up in the morning. They miss the street signs along their ride to school. They usually miss the morning’s announcements coming across the school’s PA system. The exercise’s goal is to awaken a recognition of how many forms of communication we all experience every moment of the day.


My point is this, we usually think of listening in the context of conversation and generally admit that we aren’t even good at that. Startup, and business success in general, requires us to listen at a more fundamental level. To listen with all of our senses. What are the unspoken vibes in that engineering meeting? Does it feel like we have buy in or is there pent up frustration? What are our customers saying? Is a low sales volume saying our pricing might be wrong or that our marketing is failing or something else entirely? When people see our logo, our website, or hear our elevator pitch, do they come away with the feeling we intended for them? Perhaps they see immaturity in our company (a cartoon logo might impart that message) or don’t feel we are addressing their specific needs.


I believe that if we engender listening as a fundamental component of our company culture, then we are enabling ourselves to better see and hear where our strengths and weaknesses may lie. A company that listen’s well is able to anticipate and make small course corrections along its journey to growth. Big corrections are always harder to implement and their costs are always more than just financial.


I’m interested to hear what your other contributors have to say. I’ll be listening.