I’ve recently met a number of startup Founders who express regret when asked about their first international hire. The typical response is something along the lines of “our first hire wasn’t great, it set us back a few months, but we’ve learnt a lot from the experience”. After hearing the same thing a few times, I thought it’d be useful to share some of what I’ve learnt.
If you’re an Aussie or Kiwi Founder hoping to build a big business, expanding overseas is often viewed as a potential unlock to a big market. It can be a defining moment for the company, and it’s something you only get to do once. I don’t think I need to convince you that your first hire on the ground is important.
The big mistakes I’ve seen are:
The biggest trap I’ve seen Founders fall into is thinking they need to get someone with great connections who’s worked at a big company and knows what it takes to scale a business. I frequently hear things like “we got the ex-Head of Sales at [insert big company] to come on board”. That's great but it's probably not what you need in your first hire.
What you really need is someone who is hungry, and who you trust. You want to avoid hiring someone who seems great based on their experience but isn't on board with what it actually means to work in an unstructured environment. During the interview process, these ex-Head’s of will probably convince you that they’re deeply passionate about the problem you’re solving and that they love your product. They’ll also probably say that they’ve spent enough time working at big companies and now want to work on something new and exciting.
However, launching internationally is often not as glamorous as it sounds. It means localising your product, talking to customers, researching the market, searching for offices, setting up basic sales processes, and a whole lot more. When I joined an Aussie fintech startup as their first US hire, I spent hours calling various government agencies, speaking to banks, setting up an office and PO box, conducting interviews, and ordering equipment, all whilst being 14 hours behind my colleagues in Australia.
Being the first boots on the ground means a lot of multidisciplinary foundational work. This person will be working across sales, operations, product and marketing. This means that they need to learn quickly and be willing to toss aside their Job Description to just get shit done.
So what types of people can do that well?
The three cohorts of people that come to mind are young consultants, investment bankers, and recent MBA grads. These people likely have a few years of professional experience, they know how to grind and they’re usually hungry. You’ll want to make sure you find someone who also knows how to figure out stuff on the fly. Young people also typically have the added benefit of having more free time.
You can usually lure these people away by selling the opportunity. If they’re good, they’ll be given responsibilities years ahead of schedule. You can also typically hire these people at cheaper rates than say, for example, a VP of Sales at Hubspot. Many Founders stretch their budgets to overpay for senior hires, and then regret the decision in a few months.
A few other things to keep in mind:
There’s a lot to consider when hiring internationally and much of this advice will vary based on what your company does and the stage at which you’re at. Whilst no hard and fast rules exist, I firmly believe that hiring a hungry generalist who you trust is a great way to seed your overseas operations.
As always, I’d love to hear thoughts and feedback. You can reach me on LinkedIn or Twitter.