The dos & don'ts: titles for employees at startups
Titles won't make or break your offer, but why not pull every lever you can, to get someone amazing on your team? As long as these titles are accurate to the job someone is doing, they are easy and inexpensive ways to attract talent.
- Add "Founding" to the titles of your first 1-2 hires. ex: "Founding Engineer" — Founding does not indicate seniority, just the time that someone joined. It doesn't cost anything to add "Founding" to a title, but the effect of doing so is big. Adding this to a title will also more accurately represent the impact this person inevitably has on your business.
- Add "Strategist" or "Growth" to titles, where appropriate. ex: Sales Strategist, Growth Marketer — Be flexible on titles that make a candidate feel good and are still accurate on the role. Titles like "Customer Success Strategist" or "Growth Engineer" will help candidates with their career prospects and elevate the role they take on. Candidates gravitate to titles like these because they can more clearly define a path to broader Strategy, Growth and Product roles in the future (which are very appealing positions). By giving people these sorts of titles, you're propping them up to do this while remaining accurate to the role they play in your company.
- Add "Lead" to a title when your team is ready for someone who will have a higher impact on a per-project or per-product-area. ex: Customer Success —> Customer Success Lead, or Data Platform to Data Platform Lead — This attracts more ambitious people, who desire leadership experience or want to drive objectives forward.
- Hire someone who is over-indexing on the title (i.e., negotiates heavily for a more senior title). It could be a signal of values misalignment, or generally misunderstanding how startups work
- Give candidates "Chief __ Officer" or VP titles just because they're first in a role or department. It's usually an executive role which you want to hire later in your company's life, and giving out this title limits your ability to hire a more senior person without demoting someone or creating a conflict. Giving them a "Head of ___" title is a better call.
- Give candidates "Manager" titles before the need for managers arises. This won't be sustainable as the company scales. Managers to be good overseers & delegators first and foremost. Early hires in a role or department are more often incredible executors, and it's hard to evaluate someones managerial ability early on. It may be tempting or attractive to do this because it gets people excited to join but it also gives them nowhere to go or grow, and can create conflict later on.
- Add too many levels before you're ready by creating hierarchies like "Senior" "Staff" without having a clear leveling framework will give people mixed messages and might cause dissatisfaction.
- Be overly specific of niche with your titles. It can be tempting give someone a made-up title like "Head of Partner Risk Onboarding", but this can be a turnoff to candidates because they don't understand the divisions of role in your org, or how their role fits in.