University Recruiting for Your Startup

Viraj Mody
May 28 · 9 min read

This is a brief overview on how to set up a University Recruiting program to attract new grad engineers and interns at your startup, based on my experiences getting this up and running at Convoy.

Why is University Recruiting (UR) important?

Setting up a good campus recruiting program creates a flywheel of young talent that pays dividends over several years. Interns and new grad candidates are an important pipeline to harness — they bring energy and new ideas that complement those of more experienced members of your team, and can help scale your team rapidly.

UR is hard for Startups

The University Recruiting machinery works pretty efficiently at larger companies with well known brands — they have established relationships with colleges, have large college recruiting budgets, and employ several people for whom focusing on this is their primary job. The perks, their campus and employee experience are all catered to attract young, hungry engineers. Large intern and new grads classes make it possible for companies to build programs targeted specifically for them.

Getting the university recruiting flywheel going for smaller startups is an entirely different ballgame. Neither do smaller startups have the budget to spend extravagantly on campus recruiting, nor do they have dedicated recruiters or established relationships with colleges they can leverage. Lavish perks and fancy offices often aren’t a tool they can use to attract interns and new grads against the bigger companies. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the lack of a brand name — interns and new grads are looking to beef up their resumes, and having brand name companies on it is high on most of their priority lists.

From a startup’s perspective, foraying into university recruiting is a large, speculative investment of time and money. Interviewing candidates, flying out your team to campus, and closing candidates will take a toll on your resources, so the key to success here is to maximize return on investment, and many of the tactics described below are articulated with this primary goal in mind.

When should you consider investing in UR?

The plan here describes how to go about setting up a university recruiting flywheel, not one-off intern or new grad hiring. Given this context, the prototype for a company that’s starting to think about establishing a UR program is one that has achieved product-market fit, has raised at least a series A or B round, and has a small but experienced engineering team. This type of environment sets up interns and new grads for success, because the most uncertain phase of your startup is behind you, and you’ll have the resources to challenge and mentor them, which are key to providing a good experience. Most importantly, you’ll have validated that your startup is viable enough to make this long-term investment worth it.

Preparing for university candidates

While a lot of what you do for industry recruiting is applicable to university recruiting, there are some distinct things you want to do before you begin the process of engaging with candidates or doing university outreach.

Colleges/sources to focus on

It’s important to identify which universities you want to focus your efforts on. For the first time around, pick at most 3–5 colleges to source from and engage with (3–5 is derived from working back from how many interns you want and can handle). To identify where to focus, I suggest the following considerations in order:

  • If you have a strong local university with a reputable engineering program, that’s a good one to add to your list. Having easy access to campus allows for stronger, more frequent engagement without a lot of the costs. Also, home-field advantage matters.
  • Your investors might have a university program you can leverage (such as Greylock’s Tech Fair, Sequoia Campus, etc), that’s a great opportunity to find pre-qualified candidates, thereby increasing your success rate
  • Alma-mater of engineers on your team, especially those with strong connections to the university (recent graduates, honor society members, employees who have kept in touch with professors, those with connections to the Dean’s office, etc)
  • Colleges with a reputation for entrepreneurial programs. You’re likely to attract and close candidates who are more comfortable with the risks and challenges that joining a startup provides them.
  • Colleges that will help you source and recruit diverse talent

Once you have identified a few colleges, create a hypothesis for why you intend to engage with each of those colleges. It’s important to write down so you can do a post-mortem and iterate on your plans for the following year. Next, filter the list with some practical considerations:

  • how does engagement with this college play into the strategic plans for your team
  • how costly will it be to engage with this college (travel, cost to participate in events, etc)
  • who would you be primarily competing with, for candidates from these colleges? For instance, if you’re not a hot Palo Alto or Bay Area startup, it’s going to be pretty hard to close and build a flywheel with Stanford or UC Berkeley, even if you have some alma mater networks there.

Setting budgets and expectation

Depending on the size and experience profile of your current team, create a budget for the number of interns and new grads you will be able to successfully absorb, work the numbers backwards for the recruiting funnel to estimate how many candidates you need to engage with, and create an estimate for the time and energy you’ll need to invest overall. This is an important step to understand the cost and to keep an eye on the ROI as you continue your university recruiting efforts, and how it might impact things like your roadmap, industry recruiting, etc.

The hard part here is estimating funnel metrics if you haven’t done this before — it’s not going to look anything like what your industry hiring funnel looks like. Strong candidates from good schools typically have several offers, so the acceptance rate will likely be much lower than your industry candidate acceptance rate. Without knowing how effective your interview screens will be, you won’t know pass-through rates. The key is to make an educated guess, and keep tuning your funnel. Following the plan outlined here, we roughly ended up with a ~50% onsite-to-offer rate, and ~35% offer to accept rate at Convoy. Both were better than we had originally estimated, but having a plan helped us ensure we were investing appropriately.

Create interview rubrics and loops

In order to evaluate candidates appropriately, and to ensure you’re providing a good experience to candidates, you should write down how your intern and new grad interview loops will be structured, what the rubrics are and logistics for how you want the loops to be conducted. This isn’t too different from what you should be doing for industry candidates already, but it requires some level of deliberateness and modification to account for the difference in the volume of candidates you will likely need to interview. At Convoy, we decided to run ‘on-site’ intern loops over video conf, and fly in new grad candidates for loops in person. We also had a plan for who would be on the interview panel, and how we’d protect their time given that there is usually a flood of candidates that will need to be interviewed in the September-November timeframe. It’s critical that you’re able to track every candidate (how they were sourced, who contacted them, how they did in their interview, etc), ideally in your ATS, but if not, in a place that can easily referenced and analyzed.

Engaging with Candidates

As with all startup recruiting, the name of the game here is standing out and increasing your odds of successfully closing candidates. Things you should do with most candidates apply here too. For instance, screening for intent and appetite for what makes your startup interesting relative to competitors before interviewing candidates, having hiring managers engage directly for promising candidates, etc. This section contains specific things that help with UR candidates.

Differentiate yourself

Recruiting against the Googles, Facebooks and Microsofts of the world is a game of asymmetric warfare — the way to win is to either not play, or to change the rules of the game. If you engage with candidates on campus the same way these companies do, you’re fighting an uphill battle. The key is to get creative, and invest in ways that larger companies just cannot. Here are some examples, but this is where you want to customize your approach as much as possible:

Convoy’s CTO, Grant Goodale, with a Convoy carrier who drove around 2018 Greylock Techfair’s raffle winning students in a Big Rig.
  • Grab attention in a way that regular swag cannot. For instance, for Convoy, we raffled off rides in a big rig for students as a way to get them to notice us
  • Attend campus’ startup-focussed recruiting fair, rather than the standard career fair
  • Reach out to reputable, entrepreneurial honor societies or engineering student groups at the schools you want to engage with, and work closely with them to organize an event (with interesting food!) that is highly customized and curated to attract the kind of candidate who are likely to be interested in a startup, and then ensure the agenda is unique.
  • Use students to identify the super-connectors on campus, and establish a relationship with them that you can leverage to get introductions to the most promising candidates
  • Use your networks to source specific types of candidates from the Dean’s office, from professors, etc and engage with them directly
  • Reach out to college’s career services center and talk to them about how you can get creative together to stand out. Formal engagements might be expensive, but starting to build a relationship is important.
  • Using your investors to stand out, or strategically name-dropping specific investors and VC firms, goes a long way in helping get the most promising candidates interested
  • Focus on selling the impact an intern can have in a smaller company vs established companies. Interns will have the opportunity to ship something meaningful and important for the company — a startup cannot afford to keep interns on projects without a clear ROI.

Double down on closing candidates

Just like you do with industry hires, once you’ve made an offer, you want to throw all you’ve got at helping close the candidate. The difference here is that closing a couple of candidates from the same university sets up a future flywheel, so the stakes are higher.

In the case of college candidates, they tend to generally have more offers and constraints. Their understanding of the startup ecosystem also varies widely. So making sure you can work around their schedules, ensures you’re able to get them face-time with folks on your team who they’re most likely able to relate to, connecting them to other new grads and interns, having founders reach out to them, etc, are all options you should consider. Do not delegate this to recruiters, or assume that something that worked with one candidate will work for another; creativity and customization is key here too.

Post-mortem and iterate

During university recruiting season, pay close attention to your funnel, and the impact of UR on your team. Don’t hesitate to modify your plans as new information comes to light — this isn’t something you can set and forget about.

At the end of the UR season, do a retrospective of your entire process. Revisit your hypothesis for engaging with each university and validate whether it played out or not. Look at your UR funnel stats in aggregate, and cut by source/college, and see where you succeeded and where you struggled. For each campus event you invested in, look at attendance, engagement and success rates. Talk to candidates who accepted their offers and get feedback on what part of the pitch/process resonated most with them. Similarly, talk to those who declined offers and get candid feedback for why they didn’t join you. Finally, look at the cohorts of incoming interns and new grads, and use all the data above to strategize about how you might revisit choices and decisions the following year.

Intern and New Grad Experience

Once you’ve done the hard work of hiring your new grad and intern class, the other key ingredient to making the flywheel turn is making sure interns have a great experience, so they come back as new grads, and the stories they bring back to campus help you get the next batch of interns from campus. What makes a great intern experience deserves its own separate post though.

Conclusion

UR for a startup isn’t easy, and requires a level of deliberateness and attention that might not be worth investing in for everyone. But if you’re intent on making it work, I’m hoping the plan above can help you craft your own unique strategy. When it works, UR is a great accelerator to help scale your team, and to build a flywheel that can deliver for years to come. Good luck!

Portions of this post will also appear in part in an upcoming, comprehensive Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring published by Holloway (where you can sign up if you’d like to read, review, or contribute to it).

Convoy Tech

Engineers, data scientists, product thinkers and designers changing the future of freight. http://convoy.com

Viraj Mody

Written by

Scaling engineering teams and building product. Currently @ Convoy, previously Dropbox, Audiogalaxy and Microsoft.

Convoy Tech

Engineers, data scientists, product thinkers and designers changing the future of freight. http://convoy.com