How to win at hiring Co-Ops at your startup in 2019
For the last 3 years, we’ve been hiring insanely talented co-ops at Drafted. In this post, I will detail everything from why it’s a good idea, the process, and some of the hacks we use to win the game.
Here are some of the common objections you’ll hear to hiring co-ops
“We don’t have enough bandwidth to train them”
“If they’re bad we can’t fire them”
“We need full-time employees and we don’t have time to run a hiring process for co-ops until we fill the full-time positions”
“None of the engineers want to to mentor a co-op”
“We don’t have anyone to do university relations or on-campus interviews”
“Co-ops? They’re not going to do real work”
Pretty much all objections boil down to this one false underlying belief:
“Investing in Co-ops has negative ROI”
This can’t be farther from the truth, if you know what you’re doing. Most people vastly underestimate the value of co-op programs, and vastly overestimate the effort required for hiring and getting great results out of good ones.
Why hiring co-ops is awesome
If you can’t get pumped up about hiring co-ops, you can’t win.
Here are just some of the reasons why hiring co-ops is a great idea. At Drafted, we started interviewing co-ops and interns when our team was 3 full-time, and it was awesome.
- It’s important to note that most co-op programs typically have a 6–9 month duration as opposed to summer internships which have a 3–4 month duration.
- In 2017, the average tenure of a fulltime employee at Uber was 21.6 months. If you could hire a co-op, for 9 months and then hire them again for 21.6 months fulltime, that’s a 40% increase in your average tenure, basically for free.
- The best co-ops are just as skilled as entry-level fulltime hires, but they are hungrier, less entitled, cheaper, and easier to integrate into your culture.
- Yield rates on offers made to co-ops are much higher than offers made directly for full-time hires.
- Hiring mistakes made on co-ops → fulltime < hiring mistakes made on direct-to-fulltime.
- Co-ops bring fresh energy and perspective to your office and workplace
- Co-ops bring mentoring opportunities even for your junior employees, which accelerates their professional development. Sometimes teaching is the best way to learn.
- Co-ops are a great way to aid with your diversity and inclusion efforts, because co-op hiring is fundamentally potential-based rather than accomplishment-based, which evens the playing field a bit.
- A single happy co-op can refer 10 fulltime hires for you once they graduate.
- In engineering, co-op onboarding will be very similar to FTE onboarding. You’re paying both to get trained, but onboarding co-ops is obviously cheaper because they are cheaper than FTEs.
- Even great co-ops that don’t end up joining fulltime have incredible value to your company in terms of spreading the message of your employer brand to their friends at wherever they end up working. They may work somewhere else for a couple years and then apply to your company again, and bring 3 friends from their job with them. It’s like creating the ultimate army of recruiting sleeper agents.
- It’s FUN (at least I think so)
Plan your co-op program
No need for bureaucracy, just a very simple plan will do. Here’s a good starter plan if you have a small team.
- Number of co-ops you want to hire: Start with 1–2 if it’s a team under 10 people.
- What functions you want co-ops in: Engineering / marketing / sales etc
- Estimate what you’re willing to spend on a co-op
- Target 1–2 schools that you want to hire co-ops from.
- Create a job description
- Create an offer letter (not enough people do this)
How to make a budget estimate
This does not have to be exact, but it will come in handy later I promise.
For example: If you think $25 / hour is a good rate,
$25 per hour for 9 months would come out to roughly $36,000 + 10% for payroll taxes + 10% for overhead = $43,200.
How to choose target schools
The US News list of top rated internship and co-op programs is a good place to start. However, the factors I considered were
- What schools will I be less likely to compete on salary and more based on differentiators?
- Does the school have an online portal and responsive staff to handle employer relations specifically for co-ops (you’d be surprised at how under-resourced some schools are on this)
- Ask other startups which co-ops they like (reputation)
- Don’t go to the top 1–2 engineering schools in your state. It will be too resource-intensive to compete effectively and you can get higher efficiency without quality loss by considering #3–10 on the top schools list.
- The individual department reputation doesn’t really matter as much — I’d rather hire the top student in the #10 ranked department than the bottom student in the #1 ranked department.
A differentiated job description
This is one of the most important aspects of your co-op plan, because this will be your key differentiator in beating Google and Facebook at getting the best talent from your target school.
A great co-op job description is very different from a great FTE job description. A great startup co-op job description is also very different from a great big company job description.
If you optimize your job description for only ONE thing — optimize it for being different.
I believe that the best job descriptions are designed in a way that makes the reader want to learn more about the team, company, and job.
Instead of going into a ton of details and theoretical breakdown here, it’s easier to show than tell, so here is a FULL job description that I used recently.
Note from the CEO, Vinayak, to you, our future Hacker Fellow.
Ahoy! If you're the kind of person that wants to constantly level up your game, crack bad jokes, and be part of something bigger than yourself, read on.
Drafted is a young, but well funded venture backed startup led by the best product team in Boston. Drafted is funded by people like founders from KAYAK / Hubspot, the Slack Fund, and the same venture capital firms who funded companies like Dropbox, Facebook, and Snapchat.
This is not your normal co-op experience. You will get a shocking level of responsibility and autonomy, and the opportunity to work alongside, not for, some of the smartest teammates you will ever have.
You are a curious person who loves to learn. But also someone who likes showing more than telling. Everyone can say they are a quick learner, but at Drafted, we expect you to prove it. Every. Single. Day.
We're a small startup, so you can expect all the good and not-so-good that comes with it. I can't promise you that everyday will be easy, but I can promise you that everyday will be ambitious.
Ideally, you'll come work with us for a term, crush it, and then join us fulltime and use Drafted as an unbelievable launching pad for a very successful career. We'll make it happen for you, if you commit to us and give it your best shot.
Must really enjoy coding
Must have shipped at least one software project for school or otherwise
Familiarity with Node.js, React.js, Elixir is nice-to-have
Must be interested in pursuing a career related to software, products, startups, design, etc.
Efficiently Screen Candidates
Usually, you won’t get all candidates at the same time. You’ll get the candidates either in batches, or as a stream of notifications.
My screening strategy is to optimize for the speed of making contact with the best candidates, rather than the elimination of unqualified candidates.
Since I don’t know when such a candidate might express interest, I always look at incoming applications ASAP and try to make a decision within 2 minutes about whether to reach out or pass.
If I decide to reach out to a candidate, I cold call or text them on their listed cell number immediately.
Typically I first send a text message, and if I don’t receive a text response within 1 hour, I’ll cold call them.
Hi <Name> - this is Vinayak, founder and CEO at Drafted. Thanks for your interest in the Hacker Fellow position! Your profile was among the best applications we have received, and I'd love to give you a call whenever you're free. Should only take 20 minutes.
In most cases I get responses within 2 minutes, and am able to do a phone call with them the same day.
Here’s how I typically structure the phone call (15–30 minutes)
5 minutes: Introducing myself and Drafted
5 minutes: Two questions -
What is the #1 thing you want to learn in this co-op?
Why did you apply?
5 minutes: Explain the rest of the process to them and see if they have any questions about the company or co-op.
The extremely compressed timeline with quick fire questions reveal
- Whether their #1 objective is aligned with the job you want them to do.
- Whether they are excited about your company or whether they are excited about just getting any co-op.
- How good they are at thinking on their feet and moving fast, two critical skills for working at a startup.
Note: Sometimes people end up being very nervous because of the “surprise” that they get a text /call from the founder on such short notice. This is totally OK, and I typically start the call by saying “Don’t worry, this is not a test, I’m just calling to say hi and tell you about what’s next.” I find the confidence or nervousness during the first conversation has 0 correlation with our hiring decisions or future performance of the candidate.
Take Home Exercise
Our programming exercise is designed by the engineering team (shoutout to Eric and Sam!) with the following objectives
- A person with no programming skills should be able to complete it given infinite time. i.e no difficult algorithms, or “cleverness” required, you should be able to google whatever you need.
- Completion of the exercise should demonstrate the ability to learn, ability to follow instructions, and a desire to improve.
Our entire exercise is contained in a single 1 page Google Document, which gets sent to the candidate via email, immediately after they pass the phone screen.
They are allowed to complete it whenever they wish and take as long as they want. They are told only one thing — that we will move on to the next interview step with all candidates that complete the exercise, provided we have not already filled the position.
The best completion time we got from a candidate was within 2 hours of us sending the exercise instructions, and we on-site interviewed and him the following day.
Here is our exercise
Using [Technology Framework 1], [Technology Framework 2], create [REDACTED]. [2 lines with specifications about functionality].
Feel free to email us partial solutions or ask for help with anything that doesn't make sense. Doing so won't count against you in any way.
We are using https://jsfiddle.net for the project, and we have already setup a basic working project (with the correct libraries) to fork that is linked at the very bottom of this document. If you really really don’t wanna use jsfiddle feel free to send us anything we can run with instructions on how we can run it.
[Specific instructions on how to build the project]
Things we are looking for:
- [Some tech details specific to the project]
- You were able to ship something that worked
- You were able to follow instructions
- You were able to learn the tech that you didn't know before this project
Example solution to a different exercise
Libraries to use:
- [Some libraries with links to their docs]
Resources to learn:
- [Links to tutorials on all the libraries and frameworks that we ask you to use in the project]
Fork this project <link> and send us a link when you're done (or submit anything that we can run locally)
We send and evaluate the exercise with the candidate via email only. This tests written communication skills and simulates a real working environment. Good candidates often ask clarifying questions via email, or send partial solutions and ask for feedback on how to improve their approach.
As soon as we have a complete solution that works and is acceptable, we ask the candidate to come visit our office for 2–3 hours. They meet with 3–4 people at most, and time permitting we take them to lunch.
Immediately after the candidate leaves the office, we use the Champion-Veto system to make a decision on whether to Hire or Pass based on the information available. We typically don’t do reference checks that go beyond basic educational and resume verification for interns and co-op students, since they usually do not yield any new information.
We communicate this decision immediately via email for candidates that are a pass, or text + call for candidates that are a Hire, and follow up the next day with paperwork / formal offer letter etc.
The offer conversation
This is a very overlooked part of the process, especially for co-ops. Every minute you can reduce between first contact with the candidate and communicating a decision is a huge advantage in winning their trust, showing them that we care about them and value their time, and introducing them to our culture of direct and fast feedback.
Usually, the structure of this conversation is as follows (20 minutes)
2 minutes: Congratulate the candidate and let them know that the team likes them and we want to offer them a co-op position
5 minutes: Feedback from the candidate - How did they think the interview process went overall? What would they change about the process? Do they have any feedback about what we can do better?
5 minutes: Questions about the candidate - Where are they in their search process? How would they rank Drafted among the different options they are pursuing? What are the most important factors to them when accepting an offer? What are their constraints in terms of start date / school schedule, etc? How much time do they need to make a good decision about accepting / declining the offer?
2 minutes: Present the details of the offer - compensation / benefits
2 minutes: Talk about what specific projects you have in mind for them (subject to change of course)
2 minutes: Any more questions about the company or co-op?
2 minutes: If they had to make a decision immediately, what would it be? How did their perception of Drafted change from the time when they first saw the job description to now?
End: Set up a followup time / expectation to hear back from them.
Best case scenario, our process takes 3 business days from start to finish with a single candidate. There are several important parts of what I’ve outlined above that play a part in helping us win the best hires.
- Optimizing for speed of positive outcomes instead of elimination of negative outcomes
- Several moments during the process where we ask for feedback
- Highlighting differentiators specific to startups and Drafted throughout the process like access to the executive team, focus on learning, etc.