Consider the offer signed

How a strong marketing candidate bailed at the last minute to a counter offer

Background

At my startup Exceed.ai, we’ve developed an AI-powered SDR automation platform and have reached Product Market Fit. It is now time to hire our first marketer.

Through my network, I was referred to a candidate we really liked (for anonymity purposes I will refer to the candidate as “the candidate”). After interviewing with myself and the team, we concluded he was undoubtedly a strong fit: diverse background, motivated, a storyteller, creative, hard-working….he had many strong traits. Most importantly, the team liked him and it seemed to be a good cultural match.

I talked to four passive references who had previously worked with him, all of whom confirmed the way we collectively felt.

My only question mark was why a strong candidate would leave their current position. His current company was solid and he had only been there for 18 months.

When I asked the candidate this question he responded:

“Personally, I have nowhere to grow, and the company’s product is a gimmick.”

It seemed a reasonable answer at the time.

Negotiating the offer

Since the candidate’s current company was not a small startup, I knew we would not be able to beat his current above market base salary. Therefore, my strategy was to go with a lower base salary, compensate with a healthy sum of options, and sell him on the opportunity for growth and leadership. It was an opportunity to be part of our executive team and fundamentally shape the company.

After a few weeks of tough negotiating, we raised his base salary (to a little less than his current base) and improved other terms, increasing his overall compensation and option grant after we close our next round.

I felt good. We were able to give him most of his requests and I was excited and looking forward to having him on board.

Slipping away

After agreeing to the new terms over email, we made the changes to the offer and sent it over to be signed. A few days passed. After not hearing back, I followed up.

His response: “My current company wants me to push the start date back a week to help with the transition.”

I agreed right away: “Leave your current workplace on the best terms.”

The candidate was thankful and added: See the offer as signed, I’ll get back to you tomorrow with a final start date.”

A few more days passed. After no response, I checked in again.

“I need to chat with you over the phone” he responded.

At this point, I knew something was not right. I responded “Just let me know if you are in or out.”

Candidate: “I got a counter offer that I cannot refuse and have decided to stay.”

Six weeks of work. Six weeks of meetings, phone calls, interviews, reference checks and time from many team members— all down the drain.

Hindsight: Could have I done anything differently?

These things happen. Yet, I asked myself whether there were any red flags or anything I could have done differently to avoid this happening.

The fact that a strong candidate was departing a good company after only 18 months should have prompted me to take a deeper look at his motivation to jump ship.

In hindsight, I should have asked:

“Why don’t you think you have growth opportunity in your current company?”
“If you receive a counter offer with a material salary increase and title improvement, would you still come work for us?”
“Is there any counter offer that will make you stay at your current position? If so, what does it look like?”

While he simply could have answered “no”, I believe these questions could have revealed his potential bailout.

Leveraging an alternative?

While I sincerely don’t believe we were used for leverage, I don’t think he was really ready to switch. The above questions would have allowed the candidate to think about his move carefully and provide me an opportunity to gauge whether he was really ready to make a move. I would have looked at his body language and decisiveness.

If you have any other ideas and advice on how to avoid such a thing, I’d love to hear them!