WATCH: 'It’s about assessing who you are as a leader ...' Recruitment for food startups

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Recruitment FoodBytes

In a large company, a bad hire can create headaches, but it may not be the end of the world. In a startup, however, it could mean the difference between success and failure.

FoodNavigator-USA caught up with Frank Milianti at Rabobank’s FoodBytes!​ event in San Francisco to talk about hiring employee #1, knowing your limitations, and the skill set required by a modern food CEO.

No two entrepreneurs are the same, noted Milianti, who is managing director at recruitment firm Creative Alignments​, and served as one of several mentors​ to the 15 startups​ pitching at FoodBytes! 

“[But] founders don’t typically make the best people managers… The founder is typically a big picture thinker and maybe you need someone a bit more tactical as part of the leadership team."

The key to success in building a management team, he said, is "assessing who you are as a leader, ​[knowing] what you are good at, knowing what you are not good at, and hiring for those ​[missing] pieces that you need.”

One thing founders also need to be good at is raising money, he said. “A unique skill set that’s needed maybe more today than in the past is the ability to raise capital and have conversations with individuals in that arena.

“Five or 10 years ago companies were started with the mindset of growing steadily and maybe not looking for an exit, and that’s changed quite a bit more recently where that certainly is the endgame for a lot of companies.​”

The ‘off paper’ fit, and the 'owner mentality'

But what specific skills should startups and small companies seek as they build their management teams?

In a larger CPG company, the traditional focus was on finding ‘good employees,’ said David Youngerman, founder of Youngerman Search Partners​​,​ which specializes in finding talent for small and mid-cap CPG firms and their private equity backers.

In a startup, however, you need to be able to think outside the box, work with limited resources and operate without much supervision, and finding people with more of an ‘owner’ mentality is critical, he told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Candidates need the patience to maneuver the tough times, and the ability and desire to find the correct, creative solutions to issues they likely could not anticipate.”

Finding people that fit into your culture is also mission-critical, said Youngerman.

The ‘off paper’ fit is just as important as the resume-job description match, particularly where the talent is asked to accomplish more with less.”

“Founders usually get into it for the love of their product, but they don't usually love running the business.” David Youngerman, founder, Youngerman Search Partners

‘Big food’ experience: A double-edged sword?

As for hiring people that have only worked at large companies, this can be a double-edged sword for startups, he said, in that these executives may know how to scale a business, and have valuable experience and contacts, but may not flourish in a less structured, or poorly resourced, environment.

Taking it a step further, he said, "Results in a small-cap environment are much more transparent and, as a result, the urgency level to produce is amped up, as is the need to take on that accountability head on.

"Several of my private equity clients strongly prefer and will put a premium on talent who has already been through a successful private equity event, either as the CEO or functional leader.”

david youngerman

I've seen many private equity companies hire an executive with a wonderful resume only to get stuck with a hire who perhaps is used to more available resources in order to be successful, or whose leadership style doesn't resonate well in a smaller environment, or had previously been functionally silo'd to the point they don't partner well cross-functionally."

David Youngerman, founder, Youngerman Search Partners

Runa cofounder Tyler Gage: 'Being an entrepreneur is not the same thing as being a leader'


Delivering the keynote address at the Kombuchakon conference​ last week, Runa​ co-founder Tyler Gage​ said that finding people you think will be a good cultural fit, and that you actually like spending time with is critical.

However, Runa (which is now owned by Vita Coco) had made some "atrocious hires​" because its founders had not always spent enough time drilling into candidates' experience to determine whether they had the specific skills or experience needed to accomplish the tasks ahead, he said.

He had also learned that "being an entrepreneur is not the same thing as being a leader," ​said Gage. "There's entrepreneurship, leadership, and management, and they are three very different things.

"Entrepreneurship is a creative function, finding the white space, being on the edge, doing the hustle, creative problem solving.

"Management is about administration, marshalling resources.

"Leadership is about vision and guidance. Where are we going, how are we going to get there, and how do I get everyone on the same page?"

'I was still operating in this capacity that I have to do everything'

At a critical point in the company's development when Runa was not delivering what had been promised to investors, he said, "I was still operating in this capacity that I have to do everything, work 20 hours a day and solve everything myself, hustle, hustle, get creative.

"I recognised that we had a 60-person company with national distribution and millions of dollars on the line, and that I needed to lead in a different way, and it opened up a whole new dimension of growth.

"Being a leader is about setting the vision: laying out where you are going, getting roadblocks out of the way and laying down the track ​[not building the train as well]."

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