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I spent my first two years at the University of Michigan waking up to an alarm ringing at four in the morning and venturing into twenty degree weather.  I was one of forty varsity rowers on the Michigan Men’s crew team who religiously spent their mornings (even Saturdays) on a river, working to exhaustion for three hours at a time.

One would think that was our price for a top university scholarship, right?  Unfortunately, not.  No one person on the team received an athletic scholarship.  In fact, we paid to put ourselves through pain in ice cold temperatures in the amount of $2500.  We were a non-funded program, but were competing with Harvard, Cal, and Washington, the powerhouses of rowing. 

Nobody was there because they felt obligated; we were there because we had the desire.  There were never any arguments about a lack of effort or concentration.  We were working towards something special; a chance to be the best among the best, funded or not. 

That experience defined my life both personally and professionally.  One may wonder what rowing has to do with entrepreneurship and startups.  Yet, when it comes to putting a company team together, it means everything.

There are many characteristics that make a person a good hire.  Yet, there is one item, especially in a new company, which trumps them all; the passion and love for the product or service.  An employee that loves their company’s product or service will radiate this enthusiasm and excitement through their work and eventually to the clients/customers. They will be more self-motivated because they believe in what the company has to offer. They will constantly ponder their work, even after the clock hits 5pm. They will be willing to put the extra hours in, in order to surpass everyone’s expectations. Most importantly, they will offer valuable feedback and ideas at a moments notice.

In this type of environment, you as the entrepreneur will not have to worry about motivation, or making sure the job is done right.  That is because no one is there just for the salary.  They are there to reach one goal; to build a great company.  Remember that in a startup the founder is going to need people who are going to contribute more than the basic job requirements.  To truly move the company forward an entrepreneur is going to want a team that is going to be interactive, creative, and even controversial with one another.

A 4.0 at a top 5 university with experience at a large corporation is equivalent to what we faced with our full scholarship, big name competitors in rowing.  But as you might expect, we came out on top (my freshman year our freshman eight placed second nationally).  Point? Any reasonably qualified candidate with determination can be taught to improve their skills, but you can not teach someone to believe in your product or service.

Sometimes you will get a potential hire that’s oozing with enthusiasm about your company.  Yet more often than not their level of passion is hard to identify. Here are a few pointers to help find the right person. 

Analyze Their Interview Questions

Compare the amount of time a person you are interviewing focuses on your company and concept to aspects of the job such as compensation and benefits.  If a person truly believes in your company, then they will likely be willing to take a salary hit in order to have the opportunity join the team.  To work for a startup one has to be willing to sacrifice something; usually time or money.  If their questions seem to radiate a concern for working long hours or salary, then they are definitely fishing in the wrong sea.

Turn It Around

In a follow up interview, after you have explained your idea to the potential employee, ask them questions regarding your company and concept.  Some examples may be:

-What kind of potential do you see for our company?

-Do you have any additional ideas with what we could do with our product/service?

-Do you see any problems with our concept?

 A genuinely passionate person will have thought about these types of things in between interviews. If you are receiving "yes/no" or one sentence answers, then you might as well stop the interview right there.  The key question in that group is the last one. No idea is perfect, especially at the beginning. If a person is able to point out a couple possible flaws in the concept, then you know they are actively thinking and not just sucking up to get the job. 

 Do They "Get It"?

With the above questions you are also testing to see if the person just "gets it."  In order to be an effective startup employee, they need to be able to see how your concept fits into the big scheme of things.  They should be engaged in the interview, asking questions and offering ideas. 

Another way to test their "Get It" quotient is to only give them part of your idea.  Leave out some obvious possible applications of your concept and see if the person thinks of these applications on their own accord.   


Last but not least, use your instinct.  If you get a bad vibe from someone, it is probably for good reason. 


This Entrepreneurship article was written by Brian Balfour on 2/9/2006

Brian is a young, 22 year old, entrepreneur. To read more about his companies and startup advice please visit