How to Make Sure Your First Hire Is the Right Hire

Last Updated Sep 3, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

By Zubin Irani, CEO, cPrime, Foster City, Calif.
My partner Chris and I needed to hire our first employee -- someone to handle the financials for cPrime, our information technology project management, staffing and training services company. We took a chance and hired my personal banker away from Wells Fargo instead of bringing on an experienced executive we couldn't afford. Emily was young -- 24 and fresh out of college -- but I had a gut feeling that she was exactly what we needed. I knew from seeing her every couple of weeks that she was highly organized and professional, plus she was hungry to learn and be challenged, which outweighed her lack of experience.

Fact is, my partner and I were overwhelmed. Every day we were doing some billable work, some sales work and some consulting, as well as handling the company's financials and administrative tasks. By 2007 we had crossed $1 million in revenues, but we were spending more time handling day-to-day minutiae than building the business and supporting our consultants out in the field.

Know what you need and what you don't
We knew we needed someone who could manage our books, payroll and forecasting, administer benefits, keep tabs on our credit and handle all the little things that go into running an office. That someone needed to be smart, fast, organized and professional, but cPrime is a bootstrap startup -- we've never taken a dollar from investors -- and with limited funds we couldn't go out and hire someone expensive who would bring five or 10 years of experience to the table.

Emily didn't have all of the accounting experience we needed, but she dealt with numbers every day and had a solid professional backbone. She had yet to help a small company become a big one, but that was okay -- we were looking for someone who would grow with cPrime.

Financially, it was a risk to hire our first non-revenue generating employee. And making a back-office hire meant that we had to actually have an office. But aside from forcing us to move out of the garage, making the decision to hire Emily lent a new gravity to what we were trying to accomplish with this business.

The weight of responsibility
Anytime you start a company you accept failure as a possible outcome. When it was just Chris and myself, if we failed, he and I failed. But when you add that employee, you're asking her to give up her current career path to join you. That's especially true when you hire a young person who is just getting going in the professional world.

Emily had already built up some good momentum at Wells Fargo. She was well-respected there and was doing well for herself; to ask her to leave could mean derailing her future. For her, joining a start up like cPrime would be exciting, and it could mean leap-frogging a few rungs on the corporate ladder. But getting in on the ground floor is always a gamble; it's only a good place to be if a business lives up to its potential.

We had Emily start at 5 a.m. on a Monday because we were going to be out at client sites for the rest of the day. She showed up on time, no questions asked -- even at that ridiculous hour. At that point it became clear that we were not just getting an affordable hire, we were getting someone who would embrace challenges with energy and enthusiasm in order to learn as much as she possibly could.

Keeping up our end of the bargain
But it wasn't a one-sided deal: In exchange, Chris and I had to offer Emily continual opportunities to learn and to build her career. Just as she was promising us performance, we had to promise her growth, and that understanding gave us a whole new sense of purpose in our roles as business owners.

To this day, Emily has kept up her end of the deal. She is loyal, reliable, tireless and flexible -- she's awesome. That means that Chris and I have to ensure that the learning opportunities and potential for further growth are always there so she can continue to develop her career in a dynamic way. In a way, Emily's growth is tied directly to cPrime's growth: Our success is her success. That may be a simple lesson to learn, but it helped me to realize that my role as employer is just as important as my role as entrepreneur.

Fortunately, cPrime is also making good on the deal. We're at 70 people now, and we'll exceed $10 million in revenue this year. I know that I hit the ground running five times faster every day to keep the opportunities for our collective and individual growth coming. Of course, the good thing about being a small, fast-growing company is that the challenges just keep getting bigger.

Along the way, we've made a concerted effort to give Emily experiences that she wouldn't necessarily be afforded at a larger company. We give her visibility, ownership of specific problems and the authority to make decisions. That way she can constantly expand her role and learn what it takes to resolve issues as they emerge, from identifying solutions to evaluating vendors or negotiating contracts. The good news is, I had lunch with Emily recently and she said she's still challenged every day.

At some point I'm going to look back at this experience and I'm not going to think about how much money we made as a company or what projects we did. I'm going to think about the people we had as part of our team and all the great things we did together. As we build the company, it's about creating a place where you have smart people who love working together and love what they do.

When he's not running one of the fastest-growing companies in the Bay Area, Zubin Irani can be found rounding the bases of a local softball diamond or staying on his toes in weekly comedy improv classes.
-- As told to Joe Conway