Hiring as a startup is hard, but it’s worth spending the time to get it right: It’s one of the main indicators for how well you are doing. Here are ten tips to give yourself a fighting chance at getting top talent.
The people you add to your early-stage company disproportionately affect how your company evolves culturally and structurally, so getting it right is crucial. In a venture-backed startup, your team isn’t just there to complete tasks: They become part of your fundraising collateral.
As you add new teammates to your team, you are in effect answering a question: “Can these founders hire a great team to reach their goal?” If the answer is yes, you’ve just made your next round of funding all that much easier.
I’ve worked with a lot of startups over the years, and it turns out that startup companies, on the whole, could be better at hiring. Here are ten of the most common mistakes — and how to address them.
Finding your candidates
1. Design a great hiring process.
Many startup founders mistakenly see hiring as “a thing you do” — or an activity, if you will. It isn’t. To hire well, you need to fully immerse yourself in the hiring process.
As the hiring manager, you need to be completely clear on your process. How that process works varies from company to company, but at the very least, you should be able to answer the following questions. If you’re uncertain about the answers to any of these hiring questions, it could be that you’re not ready to start hiring yet.
- Why are you hiring?
- What do you need your new teammate to do in the short term?
- What do you need your new teammate to grow into long-term?
- What is your job spec? Does it clearly describe your company and the role?
- Where are the leads for your candidates going to come from?
- Who is interviewing this candidate?
- How do you decide whom to hire?
- What should the offer be?
- How will you close the candidate?
- What does your onboarding process look like?
2. Give it time. Hiring doesn’t happen automatically.
The rule of thumb is that you need to spend at least one hour per week per open role to hire efficiently. Carving out enough time to actively run the hiring process is non-negotiable. If you don’t have the time, make the time, or delegate the role of the hiring manager to someone else.
Hiring takes a lot of activity, which doesn’t stop with writing up a job listing and posting it to ZipRecruiter. You’ll need to plan out your entire hiring process and screen candidates. Plus, it’s important to carefully manage your hiring funnel and analyze where your most promising candidates come from
Choosing the right applicant tracking system (or ATS, among friends) can take a lot of hassle out of the process, and it ensures that promising candidates don’t slip through the cracks. While a good tool can make the hiring process smoother, don’t be lulled into complacency. Even the best tools are just tools: You still have to do the work.
3. Don’t wait for inbound applicants.
When you are the size of Facebook, Google, or Airbnb, every job rec you post will get a thousand applicants. As a startup founder, you don’t have that luxury. The truth is that the perfect person for the role you are recruiting for probably already a) has a job and b) are very happy in that job.
Think about it this way: If you were job hunting, would you look at your own job listing for a company you’ve never heard of? Needless to say, your job ads need to be great, but the unfortunate truth is that a lot of inbound applicants are nothing to write home about and will take up a tremendous amount of your time.
Your first 10–15 employees are probably going to be from your professional network — people you’ve worked with or friends’ colleagues. You have to be systematic about approaching your wider network to fill the top of the hiring funnel.
4. Use LinkedIn effectively — and turn it into a team sport.
“Who is the best person you’ve ever worked with? Do you think they would be a good fit for the role? If not, do you think they might know someone who might be?” As a CEO, you’re going to be a broken record. Block out time for the whole team to get involved with the hiring process.
There is an art to effectively mining your first and second-degree connections on LinkedIn — and it’s crucial to get your whole network involved. Do you have advisors? Investors? Employees? A board? Friends? Family? Ask all of them to help.
Interviewing your candidates
5. Decide who interviews for what.
It’s common that several existing team members are involved in the hiring process. That only makes sense if you have clarity on what each team member is looking into. If everyone just follows the Who interviewing method of walking someone through their resume, you end up duplicating a lot of work, and the person being interviewed might be tempted to just repeat the same lines again and again.
Instead, try to get each interviewer to play to their strengths and interview the candidate for a particular aspect of their role. Everyone should be interviewing for “culture fit,” and “do I think this person is a good candidate overall,” but beyond that, every interviewer should have a focused line of inquiry.
Agree in advance about which team member will probe into which aspects of each candidate’s skill set. Have each interviewer report back, preferably in writing, about what they learned about those specific skills in the interview. This way, you’ll end up with comparable sets of notes for each candidate, which should make it easier to get a holistic picture of whether you should extend an offer or not.
6. First impressions matter: Prep yours ahead of time.
The most talented candidates are going to be bombarded with recruitment opportunities. This is your chance to stand out, by making sure that the user experience of being courted by your company is among the best.
What makes a great first impression? Reply promptly to candidates. Make sure you keep interview appointments. Offer to pay for interview expenses. Have a plan in place to ensure candidates are welcomed properly when they arrive. Keep candidates informed throughout the process. If you turn someone down, do so politely and compassionately — you may want to hire them for another role further down the road. In addition, it’s possible a great colleague/friend/someone from their network might apply, and you want to have left a good impression, so you don’t miss out on other great candidates down the road.
Consider making a one-pager or a little information kit about your company that you can hand to the interviewee when they arrive. Include why you are an awesome founding team and why your company is the best place to work in the world. If you’re a mission-driven company, this is your chance to start telling the story of why you’re doing what you do. This is a branding opportunity.
It doesn’t take much to ensure your candidates are left with a favorable experience of your company.
7. Network — and hire from that network.
Encourage your team to start building their network at every opportunity. Even when there is no job rec open, when you’re in an early-stage company, you are never not hiring.
Keep an eye out for potential recruits at events, and tell people about the company you’re building. If someone’s eyes light up when you’re telling them about the company, make a mental note of that; they might be excited enough about your market that you can add them to the team further down the line.
Closing & integrating your candidates
8. Treat hiring like the experiential branding opportunity it is.
Your company’s values should permeate through every aspect of the hiring process. Treat your hiring as sales, and put your best foot forward. Make sure you eloquently distill why your company exists, what the problem is you’re solving, and for whom you’re solving it.
You never know whether your interviewees have friends who might want to take a closer look at the company. Perhaps they know investors; they might be potential customers in the future; or they could end up being a supplier. Anything is possible, as long as your applicants walk away with a positive impression of your company and a clear picture of what you do. Make it count.
9. Make your offer competitive.
Know what your applicants will be optimizing for. Potential hires who are willing to work at an early-stage company will probably know that you can’t match the compensation package of some of the bigger, more established companies. You can use services like Glassdoor to see what the median wage and compensation is for the role you are recruiting for. Bear in mind that your candidate will also be looking at the same information, and offering an insultingly poor compensation package means that they will almost certainly turn you down — a terrible waste of time and an exercise in frustration.
If the median wage for the role you’re hiring for is $100k, make sure that your budget has at least that in it. As an early-stage company, if you can’t offer a competitive market wage, you may still have a couple of other arrows in your proverbial quiver. You can offer equity in the company, a job title that reflects your candidate’s importance in the company, a personal development plan with training and opportunities for role expansion, and much more.
10. Treat closing your candidates like a sales process.
When there’s consensus in your hiring committee, take decisive action. Remember that even if this candidate isn’t actively looking for a new role, being recruited triggers something in people, and in my experience, many people try to get a few offers lined up in order to make sure they get a competitive deal. This also means that if you drag your heels in the hiring process, your candidates rapidly become less likely to accept your offer — and they may even accept another in the process.
It’s worth including multiple people on the closing process. For senior personnel, consider involving a board member or your investors to help convince the candidate to join. You can also include multiple people from your founding team — it doesn’t take much to make a new team member feel loved.
Sometimes, candidates are hesitant to join immediately — perhaps they have a project they want to finish in their current job, or they might want to reach a vesting cliff before leaving. It is risky to wait too long, but at the same time, it’s worth making your candidates happy. They have to feel good about joining your company.
Finally, there is real value in closing a candidate in person. It is much easier to get a read on the person if the final conversation is happening in person. The interview process is over at this point, and you’re doing a full-court-press sales process. Meet them in person, take them out for a nice meal — whatever it takes to remove any doubts and convince them they’re making the right choice.
A huge thanks to Steven Lurie of Team Builder Ventures. The first draft of this post was based on a presentation he gave at Bolt, and he gave a lot of helpful input later in the process, too.
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