Kaarel Kotkas is the founder of Estonian identification startup Veriff — a company he started when he was 20. He’s since built a solid team to help him scale the company and hit the not-so-mythical-anymore unicorn status. I sat down with him at Money 2020 in Amsterdam to get some advice for building an executive team.
This Q&A first appeared in our weekly Startup Life newsletter. For more insights like this, sign up here.
Your early C-suite needs experience
If you’re a first time or a young founder, you want people around you who have led a company through similar challenges you are facing, that you’re excited to learn from.
Plan two years ahead
Because of the seniority and wealth of experience that you’re looking for, you need a longer hiring phase — there are fewer people with the right skills, people have longer notice periods the more senior they are and you’ll want to spend some time getting to know them.
Hire to fill the gaps until you’re ready for C-suite people
The team you currently have to support you should be able to drive your company’s growth through the early stages. In fact, early teams often enjoy that part of the process while [more seasoned] executives often don’t want or don’t have the necessary skills. It’s perfectly normal for your senior team to change a lot in the early days.
Really get to know them before you commit to them
Hiring an executive usually involves fewer formal processes like rounds of interviews or practical tests. Remember, you’re looking for someone who can sit by your side to lead the company so it’s really about all parties ensuring the relationship works. You need to trust the person — can you talk to them about everything?
Informal chats asking for advice on a challenge you’re facing is a good way to test the water — do they see the world in a similar manner to you? Have they thought about things that were unknown unknowns to you? Can they point you in the right direction? The real challenge of a CEO during this time is to understand personality traits as it’s very hard to change those things. I will often ask, for example, "What are some traits of yours that your colleagues may not like?", "What are some things that you do that bring you joy?" or "What do you want to have control of?"
One of the biggest mistakes is hiring executives who can’t actually “do”.
Use your biggest fans to find your execs
Your first C-suite hires should come through your network. Reach out to people you admire and who you’d want to learn from — maybe they’re the right fit for the role. If not, ask them for a recommendation for someone who is. Use your investors too — they can introduce you, help you validate executives in disciplines that you have less experience with and formulate what it is you actually need.
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Early executives need to execute
They aren’t just there for the ideas — they need to be able to put them into practice, run processes and have the horsepower in them to drive the company through some of its fastest growth stages. One of the biggest mistakes is hiring executives who can’t actually “do”. Find out how much hands-on work they’ve done and how much they’re willing to do now by asking people they’ve worked with before.
Hire diversely to meet the needs of your customers
If you’re building a global company, you want to have people around you that are questioning the problems and barriers that will be faced in the different places you want to operate in. Is there a cultural difference? Something we’ve missed? Do we need to adapt our messaging because there’s more or less trust in a new market?