Getting recruiting right for startups
Let’s face it! Recruiting is just hard — especially for early stage and growing startups. Every entrepreneur, CEO or COO of a startup will tell you two things:
1. They can’t seem to hire fast enough
2. They’re petrified of waking up a year later not knowing how they hired this sea of mediocrity, that is now their company
Those are both very real concerns. To start with, you don’t have a well-known employer brand and everyone is telling you that you have to keep the hiring bar very high to succeed long term(which is great advice, btw). These two factors (no employer brand + raise the hiring bar) collude to land you a double whammy and really slows down hiring. However, there is a way to climb out of this short-term impediment and the good news is that when you do manage to climb out of the hole, you will find that the effort is well worth it. All of a sudden, being known as a “hard to get into” company and having a strong employer proposition are advantages. And to think of it, these two were such villains in the beginning!
This article recommends a 3–step approach to getting recruiting right for early stage startups. This article is not about getting each hire right (i.e. getting talent assessment right). Instead, it focuses on getting the hiring machine or infrastructure right, that will let you run faster in the near/long term. This is also an outcome of my learning and many, many hard knocks received over the past two and a half years working in startups. Not to mention, over 7 years of working for Amazon and Facebook.
3-steps to recruiting nirvana:
- Set and implement a high hiring bar across the company
- Build a strong in-house sourcing engine
- Identify, articulate and aggressively evangelize 2–3 aspects that are unique about your company (employer brand)
That sounds easy enough, but the challenge is to parallel path all 3 steps because doing them sequentially is not something you can afford to do.
Set and implement a high hiring bar across the company:
When it comes to the hiring bar, John Doerr’s wise adage about achieving audacious goals is equally valid — only measure what matters. However, spend the time to think through and identify a finite list ( 4–5 max) of attributes or traits that define success at your company. In my experience, here are a few ways in which this exercise goes off the rails i.e. things to guard against:
- each department starts to make the argument that their roles are different and require a different list of traits. It quickly becomes a big laundry list — different by role, department, seniority etc. Not only is that too complicated but also completely unnecessary. I strongly recommend holding the line on a small, finite list of traits applicable for any role across the company.
- things that sound generic and nice should probably not be on that list. For example, who doesn’t want to hire a “team player” or someone with “integrity”. It’s not that those things are not important. Those are table stakes and using generic traits like that will not help you separate the cream from the crop when it comes to candidates.
A quick analysis of the best companies in the world shows a fairly consistent list of traits that defines their high hiring bar. Here’s a summary of those traits:
- Strong cognitive ability — pattern recognition, deep diagnosis, context gathering
- Strong execution — solution-led, speed over perfection, work backwards from outcomes, unconstrained
- Strong collaboration — influence with data, radical candor, able to take people along
You can’t go wrong with the above list. Alternatively, you could frame these traits in terms of your company’s core values. Doing so creates a common language for the company to discuss performance and hiring standards, which can be powerful.
A word of advice here about making this list of traits practical and usable. Think of each trait like a spectrum. Spectrums have extreme points — a high end and a low end. Setting your hiring bar is about deliberately choosing where you want to draw those two ends. Now, set those extremes for each trait. This is a good way to assess whether a candidate measures up to the role you’re hiring for. A common problem with startups is finding that someone you were so excited to bring on board a year ago doesn’t seem to be scaling with the role — sound familiar?
Closely guard the hiring bar by teaching a few, select folks in the company about these traits as well as about setting the high/low ends for every trait. Now, this is where it gets interesting. What I mean by “teach” isn’t really the same as one of those classroom-based training sessions (that can come much later). Teaching means sharing context and doing so repeatedly over many coffee chats, 1:1s, drinks — whatever works for you! Teach them to deeply internalize why these traits matter, how you came up with them and how they will directly impact business results (positively and adversely). Insist that this “core hiring team” be ruthless about the hiring bar and diligently measure it. When you start to see consistency in the quality of your next 50–60 hires (and trust me, you will be able to see it — either way), then figure out a way to expand this hiring team. Teach every one of your first 100–150 hires to be guardians of the company’s hiring bar!
Build a strong in-house sourcing engine:
At the cost of sounding like a broken record, I will say just one last time for emphasis — hiring is hard (and apparently, alliteratively so). That is probably why staffing agencies seem like the easy way out. Why? Because they know what they’re doing and they have the resources. Spoiler alert: it almost never works out that way. In reality, the lack of a strong employer brand means that the startup has to overcompensate for telling their story by building a much “larger than normal” pipeline. The trouble is, such stories are best relayed directly from the storyteller (the startup) to the listener (best candidates). Using agencies, even the best ones, leaves the door wide open for lost, misunderstood or poorly understood context regarding the mission and the opportunity — this is very hard to recover from. The result — many interested prospects that either don’t convert to credible candidates or worse, a host of offer declines! Agencies should be sparingly used for either niche roles or very senior, executive-level roles.
So what is the alternative? To staff for the bulk of your roles, build a strong team of sourcers internally and have them blast out your story in a consistent way. The best sourcers in the world bring a level of precision by mapping each open role to just the right kind of experiences at other companies, products, technology stacks etc. Done right, this can be a lot more sophisticated than just searching on LinkedIn by titles or by companies, which is a crude approach. Don’t undermine the effectiveness of your sourcers by asking them to be “recruiters” as well. Your sourcers should only be doing two things — build pipeline by mapping the market and tell the company story effectively and consistently, multiple times a day to candidates. It is well worth your time, effort and money to hire one or two recruiters to focus on candidate assessment and experience.
Identify, articulate and aggressively evangelize 2–3 aspects that uniquely define your employer brand:
A strong brand is not about convincing everyone that you rock — it’s true for customers and equally true for candidates! It is about telling your story consistently and effectively, so you can develop a level of precision in attracting every possible candidate that resonates with your story. The best stories have something unique that folks remember — let’s call it your “superpower”. Asking these questions can help surface your superpower:
- What are the 1 or 2 things you want to be known for above everything else? example: solving the most complex technical problems? the ability to reinvent/invent something radically?
- What is the best reason why your mission matters? Why should anyone care why you exist as a company?
The more unique the answers to these questions, the better your candidate targeting capability.
Once you’ve identified and articulated your superpower, invest in 2–3 select channels to blast out your story — could be digital media like Glassdoor or BuiltIn, but could also be targeted events — MeetUps are a great option. However, be selective and go deep with those channels. Very easy to do a lot and dilute the impact! Finally, but most importantly, turn every employee in the company — particularly your first 100 hires — into marketing channels for your employer brand! Regularly host sessions where the story is repeated in creative and engaging ways — insist that the most senior leaders actively engage and lead such sessions!
I will end by saying that it is entirely possible that there are better ideas and options out there or you may not think that these will work for you. Feedback is always welcome!