Do you really need a full-time hire for that?

This post is directed at startups that have not yet reached product/market fit.

I have nothing against hiring for the right reason--when it is clear that doing so will advance critical path quicker and/or with higher probability. When that's clear I've extolled (and am practicing) inbound hiring; when it isn't clear I think the right answer is not hiring until it is clear.

Hiring seems to be the preferred use of seed funds (by investors and founders), whereas I'd prefer a focus on customer acquisition. I realize I'm the outlier here, but even though it's the norm I nevertheless cringe when I here something like this:

Me: what's the use of funds?

Founder: we'd like to hire a designer, n front-end programmers to do slick JavaScript and round out our product, n back-end programmers to help us scale, and a data guru to help us model all the data we're generating and/or build out these complicated algos we need.

Let me unpack why this bothers me so much. 
Full-time designer. Product design is often a key to success, so doesn't it follow you should have a full-time designer out of the gate? No, it doesn't.

Decent design should be built into the development process by the founders. Given that decent product, you can bring in consultants to polish user flows and visual design. You'd be surprised how little hours of input this polish actually takes. It's so far from a full time job.

Perhaps more importantly though, the best designers don't want to work for you or anyone full-time. They love moving from project to project and perfecting things in this manner. So get the best and pay them what they want, which will be a lot cheaper than hiring a full-time person and will also produce better results.

N front-end programmers. It takes a lot of founder time to manage a team of programmers, and more importantly it changes the focus to building features. After all, you have these programmers now--they can't just sit around! 

The problem is you don't yet have product/market fit, and until you do, you don't really know what to build. And that should be the focus of the founders -- to find the special fit that will make your company take off. When product vision is truly clear, then it makes sense to execute it, and hiring follows. 

In the mean time, if you need some extra help, get some contractors to test out specific things. You may end up hiring these people eventually and you'll know more about them when you do.

N back-end programmers. You don't need to scale yet. To the extent you do, do it in the cloud. It will be cheaper in the short-term (in both monetary and focus terms) to out source this piece. 

Data guru. Consultant. 

Of course there are some startup companies that need hires beyond the founders right away. And it hasn't escaped me that there is a cynical angle of developing an acqui-hire team, which can increase the expected value in failure scenarios.

I'm just saying the default position seems to be to hire whereas I think it should be the other way around. A more subtle point is that I think founders should learn and do decently anything that is core to the company, e.g. design or data. When I hear "I suck at design" I think back to my first startup when I knew pretty much nothing. If you're taking the long-term view of things it is worth your incremental time to develop these skills.

The core point is focus. Focus on traction and all else will follow. Unfortunately, it's hard to be at the right place at the right time, but you can increase the probability by extending your time horizon. There's no better way to do that then to cut your burn rate.


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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.