The Power of People: Building a Startup Team

Denis Gulagin, CEO & Founder at Bakksy, shares recruiting secrets for crafting a stellar startup team

I'm Bakksy
5 min readMay 31, 2023

Building a startup is hard. Building a startup team is times harder.

What’s the secret to finding the right specialists for your startup team? How do you define what makes someone a good fit? What’s so special in looking for people to join a startup team? And how does the process differ from hiring for established companies?

Denis Gulagin, the founder and CEO of Bakksy, has revealed recruiting secrets that go beyond mere skills and expertise.

People say that Denis’s main strength is assembling strong teams. Let’s find out how he does it.

Why do people matter?

People are important in every setting, whether a global corporation, a local shop, or a service station. However, in startups, their significance is even greater.


Because, at the beginning, a startup is only an idea. Powered by people. It’s the CEO’s and founder’s job to find people powerful enough to spark the light and transform the idea into reality.

Every person on the startup team is a mini-founder.
Every person on the startup team creates the future corporate culture.
Every person on the startup team lays the foundation for a common future.

That’s why it’s crucial to be incredibly careful when choosing people for the startup team.

Four key qualities to seek

1. Ambition

Here’s the thing: you can’t “motivate” people. It’s simply impossible.

You cannot motivate someone who doesn’t want to be motivated. The only thing you can do is find people whose own motivation aligns with the company’s goals and values.

It’s a perfect match when you don’t have to explain to the person why they should do the job. What’s the purpose? What’s in it for them?

An ambitious person will have the answers to these questions from the very beginning.

And when I say “ambitious,” I don’t just mean ambition for a career. Ambition can manifest in self-development, growth, financial goals, or personal aspirations. What unites them is the driving force behind.

And what you need as a startup founder is exactly this — the driving force.

Look for ambitious people, and you will have it.

2. Potential

You can’t bring your ambitions to life when there’s no potential.

But what exactly does “potential” mean?

I define it as the foundation a person has at the present moment — desire, knowledge, discipline, understanding of the domain, work approach, and willingness to learn, among others.

All of these elements create the groundwork on which ambitions can be realized.

The combination of a person’s ambitions and potential can determine if they are a good fit for your team.

Sometimes, this combination is even more crucial than hard skills and expertise. It allows individuals to grow and improve, which is paramount when hiring for a startup team.

3. Vibe check

Unfortunately or fortunately, startup culture is not all rainbows and unicorns.

Your team will have its own tone of voice, sense of humor, and topics of discussion. You’ll have your unique way of handling problems far from the world of “corporate culture.” After all, you’re building a unicorn. You can’t achieve that by communicating solely through emails with the same formal ending, “sincerely yours.

So, try to ensure that the candidate’s vibe matches the team’s. You can do this by asking some thought-provoking questions — not too many, but enough to observe how the person behaves in real life beyond the confines of an interview.

Why do you need to do the vibe check? Because when everyone is on the same page, people work more effectively. As simple and pragmatic as that.

4. Stardom/mediocrity balance

Mediocre people lack ambition. They lack the driving force that every startup needs, making them ill-suited for a startup team.

On the other hand, individuals who consider themselves “stars” may have abundant ambition, but they also believe they are superior to everyone else. This mindset makes them terrible team players. They always think they know better than others, stifling the creativity of their teammates and focusing solely on their own interests.

What you need is something in the middle, leaning towards the “stars.” It’s individuals with strong self-confidence and a willingness to grow who also support the growth of others. In this way, every person on the team can develop and propel the project forward.

The role of CEO/founder in hiring

The founder or CEO doesn’t have to fulfill the role of an HR person, but they should be involved in the hiring process as much as possible and for as long as possible.

Here are two tips for companies of different sizes:

  1. Including a final interview with the founder/CEO in the hiring process will help filter out candidates who don’t meet all the criteria mentioned above.
  2. When there are too many candidates going through the hiring process, it can be challenging to follow previous advice. In such cases, for teams with more than 60–100 people, reserve the final interview with the CEO for hiring top-level and C-level managers only.

Three control questions

During interviews, there are three questions I particularly like to ask candidates to assess if they are a good fit for our team. Here are those questions:

1. Why?

Why do you wake up and go do your job? For what? What’s the reason behind that?

This question provides valuable insights into the candidate’s personality and helps uncover their true motivations. It’s difficult to deceive or give expected answers when responding to this question, so you’ll be able to get to the core.

2. What can you tell us about your previous employers?

This question reveals how people work in different teams, companies, and cultures.

Also, it paves the way to opening one important criterion — whether a person loves to gossip or not. Gossip lovers are an automatic no-go to our team. They are always ruining the vibe and creating a toxic environment.

3. Can you tell us about your biggest achievements and failures?

This question is particularly effective when interviewing managers. When discussing their achievements, attentive managers will emphasize the collective effort of their teams (“we did,” “we accomplished”) — it’s a good sign.

When it comes to failures, if the person continues to use the collective pronoun (“we f*cked up”) — a bad manager is spotted.

Why? Because a good manager takes personal responsibility for failures and acknowledges that it is their own shortcomings, not the teams. They should shoulder the losses themselves but share the credit with all team members.

Final thoughts

The startup team is not just a team. It’s a tribe.

The founders’ objective is to find individuals who will seamlessly integrate into the tribe and share a common vibe — an internal ideology of the company that everyone feels and agrees on.

It will make your team more than a team. It will make the work more than just work for them. It will help you make sure everyone’s breathing the same air, running at the same pace, and having the same reasons for doing what they’re doing.

Build your team like a human, not like an HR person. Find people for your team, not just qualified experts.

Then, you will be able to implement the craziest ideas alongside these people.