Startup Recruiting: Sniper Rifle, not Carpet Bomb

Jake Fuentes
Mar 28, 2016 · 6 min read

Early on when building my company, I heard the same refrain over and over again: “you should spend half of your time on hiring”. Part of me thought that was bullshit: there’s no way a CEO spends half of their time doing any one thing. But when I asked more seasoned founders what they wish they had done differently, one of the most common answers is “hired better people faster” — even if they already spent a huge amount of their time doing it. I decided to accept that while it might not be quite half of my time, hiring should at the top of the list of things I had to do well, and it’s worthwhile to spend a giant amount of time doing it.

But then I started asking how other startups actually did it. Where do you find the best people in the world, and how do you convince them to join? That’s when the answers started to get a lot fuzzier. It seemed that while everyone recognized that hiring is absurdly important and super time-consuming, very few people had concrete strategies for getting it done. Here’s what we did, hopefully you can avoid some of our mistakes.

We started with what people say most often about how they find people: “we mine our networks.”

Great, I thought. I’ll go sit down with basically everyone I know and ask them who they know, and eventually people will start coming out of the woodwork. It’ll take time, but it’s supposed to. After all, I know good people.

So I attended meetups, I trolled Twitter, and I fed my coffee addiction with people I already knew (or their friends), and I asked one question over and over again: “Who do you know that might be interested in joining?”

We got a few good leads, but in general I wasted a lot of time trying to “mine my network” without being intentional about it. It turns out that the “we’ll blast the word out and see who turns up” approach only works under one of two conditions: once you have a critical mass of people, or if you have one of the best personal networks in the world.

Think about it. I needed to find people that were:

  1. Exceptionally talented at what they do
  2. Interested in the type of thing I wanted to build
  3. Aligned with my company culture and values
  4. Able to work well with me and the rest of the team
  5. Ready to jump into the next thing

Did I really think the best people that fit all those criteria will also happen to know people I know, or happen to be at the same meetup as I was?

There’s a right way and a wrong way to “mine your network”, and I was doing it wrong. I decided to go the other direction. Instead of carpet bombing my network and trying to get the best people, I started with the best people and worked my way backwards. The result is way more targeted, and totally changed our hiring velocity:

Develop the list

In theory, the absolutely perfect person for my position existed. They’re incredibly talented, they’re right for our role, they work well with us, and they’re ready to make a jump. There’s just one problem: I didn’t have a clue who they were. To find them, we needed to work with the information we had, narrowing the field of 7 billion people down to something manageable. We decided to make a list of 150 people that might be a fit, based on public information alone. We started getting really good at scouring Github, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit and others for people that had critical jobs at companies we respected, had written code that we liked, had side projects that looked good, or anything else that caught our eye. If an engineer had written a blog post about our industry, we knew about it. If someone had just left a larger competitor, we knew about it.

There are tools out there that will help (Hired is great for finding active candidates, Entelo is great for research and contact information), but this part just takes plain elbow grease. We put an incredible amount of time into researching the people on the list. By the time we were ready to reach out, we knew these people.

Find your way in

Once we had our list, then it was time to explore our network. It’s much easier to ask someone for an intro to a specific person than to say “who do you know?”. You’ll probably be a degree of separation or two away from some people on the list, but many others will be out of your network. If they’re in your network, get an intro. If they’re out of your network, it’s time for a cold email.

Intros have a much better chance of converting to meetings than cold emails, but in general we were positively surprised by the response. There are lots of tutorials out there on how to craft cold emails, but the most important thing is to tell them exactly why they’re on your list.

You’d be amazed by how many people will take a meeting from a well-crafted cold email.

I’ve been working with Dave Fayram, Level’s CTO, for almost four years now, and I consider him one of my best friends. We met via cold email. He made the list because he was lead engineer at a successful company in the space that we respected, and we told him that. It turned out that we were an awesome fit in all kinds of other ways too, but it was impossible to know that before the first email. We also found our first iOS engineer, our second designer and a bunch of other awesome people the same way.

Play the numbers game

From there, it’s just a numbers game. For our CTO search, we had about 150 people on the original list, took 20–30 first meetings (be prepared for lots of “sounds cool, but not the right time” responses), a handful of second and third meetings, and our first offer converted. Your funnel may look different, but you can then tweak your approach and see what works better. Isn’t science great?

This type of thing is exactly what professional recruiters do when sourcing new positions for their clients. But you have a massive advantage: you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can tell your own story, and your candidates are much more likely to respond to you than to a recruiter.

It turned out that the advice “spend half your time hiring” wasn’t an exaggeration. It takes a ton of time. But if it was going to take that much time, I had to be damn sure I was being efficient about it. If you happen to know world-class people who are perfect for your company, awesome! You should leverage that for all it’s worth. But my guess is that there are lots of founders in the position I was: that’d work for a few good people, but it dries up pretty quickly. When it did, I realized I should have been thinking clearly about our hiring process all along and make sure the funnel was working. The perfect people are waiting, but they’re not going to pop out of nowhere and fall in your lap. By the time you have a borderline-creepy level of knowledge about who you’re talking to, you’ll know you’re doing it right. It’s incredibly time-consuming, but this is your founding team, these are your first employees — these are the people that will define your company. It’s worth it.

Jake Fuentes

Written by

Working on something new. Former Co-Founder/CEO of Level Money (exited) and Head of New Products at Capital One.

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