It can be the most exhilarating or the most daunting time for an early-stage founder: Bringing on the first hire.
That time came in 2019 for Asheville-based Ecobot, an environmental and construction SaaS platform that launched a year earlier. The team needed to recruit sales professionals to drive more customers. For CEO and co-founder Lee Lance, focusing on non-job related skills helped him land the right first outside hire.
“I told my co-founder that we need somebody who can look at the long goal of where we’re heading and just put one foot in front of the other and take this journey,” CEO Lee Lance told Hypepotamus. They found a candidate who, quite literally, did that. Leigh Rothermel had just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had previously hiked the daunting Appalachian Trail before joining the team.
While backpacking was definitely not a skill needed to work in business development at a startup, Lance said looking for talent with unique backgrounds was key for the young company.
“As an early stage company, you’re often constrained by cost,” said Lance. “You’re looking for not just people that have experience that can fulfill a certain task, but people who are also entrepreneurially minded, who are naturally curious, and have an interest and care about something so much broader than their specific area of expertise. It sets a pretty high bar.”
Lance said he had to find candidates that were “coachable, not defensive, but opinionated and confident.”
As a CEO, he said he is “doing more than just hiring, you’re building a culture on which the company itself will rest. It’s typical for a company to prioritize their customers and then their product and then their team. I’m very intentional about a flip of the typical model. It is team first. If you hire the right people, [they’re] going to build a better product than our customers could have ever asked for.”
Ecobot’s payroll has grown to 13 full-time employees. As the team has scaled over the last three years, Lance told Hypepotamus that he specifically looks to hire other entrepreneurs. In fact, he said Ecobot goes so far as to not interview engineering talent unless they have a side hustle.
That’s right. He actually wants employees to have other gigs.
It may sound counterintuitive to some founders, who often buy into the notion that early startup employees should live, breathe, and sleep what the company is working on. But Lance said that mentality doesn’t actually help a company prepare for sustainable growth down the road.
“We want engineers that are passionate about using technology to solve problems,” he added. “If they don’t do that for things that they’re passionate about, then they’re probably not going to engage in the way that you want to and the organization.”
Now, Lance knows this type of arrangement isn’t the standard. But he said that a people-first mentality will help his company grow stronger well into the future.
“My fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders is to build a durable, investable, acquirable company…and you don’t build a durable company by expecting people to work 90 hour weeks and have no outside interests,” he said.