Wanted: Entrepreneurial Employees

By Ray DePaul

When I was the CEO of a tech startup, there were two employees that took up more of my mental energy than they should have. At the time, I blamed them for "not getting it". I now blame myself.

When I hired my first sales person, he had all the credentials that you would want. He had met his sales quota for a decade, could close 6-figure deals, and had very high integrity. The challenge wasn't so much that he wasn't selling anything for us, but that he couldn't detect that with a simple change to our product, the customer would have bought our solution. Like all of his previous successes, he was selling what was on the pricelist - not unreasonable, but not what we needed. My first sales support person was also a challenge. She was very smart and was good in front of customers but was frustrated by the ever-changing product that wasn't always ready for prime-time.

Upon reflection, I now see that it was my fault for recruiting the wrong type of employee. I had hired pure executors into an fast-paced, ambiguity-ridden entrepreneurial world. They would have been perfect hires for a more established, mature company, but what I needed was a team of entrepreneurs.

I believe there are two separate lessons in my mistake. First, for those in a hiring position at growth-oriented, fast-paced companies, entrepreneurial skills and attitudes are not reserved for the founders. Employee number 5, 10, or even 30 (or 300?) still needs to deal with the ambiguity and unique demands of working in an entrepreneurial environment. My advice to you is to hire for the same mindset you would look for in a co-founder.

The second lesson is for those who mistakenly avoid entrepreneurship because they think it's only about starting a company. We see this all the time. Students self-select out of entrepreneurship programs because they don't want to start a business. Most CEOs don't make the mistake I made and are always looking for employees who are entrepreneurial. In a growth company of 30 employees, there may be two entrepreneurial founders, but there are another 28 entrepreneurial employees. If you want to be one of those employees, I suggest you embrace entrepreneurship.

To be clear, there are companies out there that don't want entrepreneurial employees. They want people that can efficiently execute the tasks given to them. Many of these companies are very big, but small companies are not immune to this execution-only approach. What we find is that 20-somethings that embrace entrepreneurship would prefer to work for companies that offer a fast-paced, growth-oriented environment where they are given an opportunity to quickly contribute in a meaningful way. In 2016, Google and Apple acquired 25 companies, often paying ridiculous amounts of money simply to secure a knowledgeable and entrepreneurial team. The message is clear. If you're entrepreneurial, there's a place for you at the world's most exciting and innovative companies.