Last September, I had the opportunity of spending a few hours with a family friend who had been in the banking industry for over twenty years. I think I met him a once growing up but this particular trip to New York allowed me to spend quality one-on-one time with him. He shared lots of good advice and it was a pleasure to sit across from such a knowledgeable, yet humble, individual. I tried to absorb everything. However, there was one thing he said that resonated with me more than anything else, "People almost always leave companies because of their managers. Remember that in your entrepreneurial endeavors."
I think this is especially true when working in a startup environment and can be extended to; "People almost always join and leave companies because of their managers". In the case of early stage companies, managers are more often than not the founders themselves. In the early days there's not too much certainty. However, there is one constant day in and day out: the people you're working with and for. I think this early founder-employee fit evolves into culture. Culture is upheld the strongest by the founders/leadership and is maintained as a common thread through the company. This not only attracts but also helps retain talent. This invariably helps a company become better.
It's why VC's spend time digging into a founder's ability recruit. It'll give them a taste of what's to come. Accordingly, being on a founding team of a company, it'll be up to us to attract (and keep) the best people. You cannot rely solely on press, metrics, etc when it comes to recruiting in the earliest days. It is quite literally up to you.
I think founders can approach it from a personal brand stand point; twitter/personal blogs, and or from a technical depth standpoint; technical talks/papers published/previous technical execution, Either way there's a need to do what's most authentic to who you are since its most likely to be convincing to somebody looking to join you. Some of this does seem obvious, but I think it is something that needs to actively be done. However, sometimes it can be overdone and doesn't seem authentic. Plus, people tend to get wary of people who are too charming/smooth. Similarly, its why it makes sense to ask to spend some time with founders before joining a company, should it small enough (<50). You'll most likely get a taste of what lies ahead.
I'm going to spend some time looking for stories from the first few employees at some today's larger startups/tech companies. It could give insight into what convinced them to join in the earliest days. I'm curious see what sold them.
This family friend recently passed away and I write this post in his memory. I hope to not only have the stamina and fitness to climb to Everest Base Camp in my late 40's like he did but also carry valuable lessons like these that he shared with me.
Assumption: Basic product/market fit, in one's own eyes, and a need to hire. If not, there should be focus on getting a point where hiring is necessary.
Update 1 (07/18/16) : The Macro, YC's publication, is doing a whole series on early employees. So far they have: #1 Airbnb, #1 General Assembly, #1 Yahoo, #1 Reddit, #1 Amazon.