Inbound vs Outbound recruitment — Beware of the claw
It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost-swallowed up in the ocean-unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward.
The Diamond Age
Hiring is one of the hardest things to do at start-ups and without a strategy, it’s even more difficult. Once a company achieves some level of product-market fit the founders’ roles change from wearing multiple hats and being on the tools to three key areas 1) Setting strategy, 2) Getting the right people on the bus, and 3) Ensuring that those people have the right resources to achieve their goals, which are aligned with the overarching strategy. If we assume that each of these areas should take up ~1/3rd of a founder’s time, then how should the time be best spent on hiring? How do you create a funnel for the talent? Pushing out a couple of job advertisements on LinkedIn might feel useful but it fails to generate any loops that will continue to feed into your hiring process. A handful of conversations with experienced recruitment professionals led to a couple of consistent takeaways that most founders could benefit from.
This article is about generating the right level of inbound vs outbound recruitment channels.
Set the strategy
Firstly, you need to set the strategy. This is important because without an appropriate strategy, it’s likely that your brand message will be diluted. Even large brands need to have a consistent message and cannot rely on the founders’ “perceived brand.” Even if you know what you’re doing and why the work is important, it’s unlikely that outsiders will understand this unless you explicitly tell them.
To do this, you should create a simple elevator pitch that includes:
1) What you are doing and why it matters;
2) Why you are doing it well; and
3) What’s challenging about the current phase of the business.
The “what and why” should be short and sweet. Think of it as a one-line pitch that can explain why the company’s mission is important.
The second element should include some information about the traction that you have been able to generate, which generally isn’t externally visible. This supports the initial proposition — We’re solving a big problem and as a result, we’re getting a massive amount of growth.
Thirdly, if you’re talking about technical challenges that you’re currently facing in the candidates area of expertise, you’re able to turn them into the hero. It also gives them some insight in to the kinds of things that you’re trying to do. John F Kennedy, delivered his famous speech about the space race in 1962 but the themes are pertinent here:
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.
People want to do things that challenge themselves. Things that enable them to sharpen their abilities and test their mettle. Demonstrating that you have technical challenges that will push them is far more interesting for a majority of candidates than trying to expound on the potential value of an equity grant.
Go to market
Once you’ve determined what your strategy is, you need to go to market with it. You can share this message with your investors and should aim to get this message out any time you have a public opportunity. Again, this is why it’s important to have a consistent message. If it isn’t consistent, there’s a chance that your investors could dilute your message if they deliver the message in a different manner.
If you listened to the somewhat-recent Clubhouse session with Elon Musk, he never missed an opportunity to plug one of his companies and hit on all three of these points in <20 seconds for three of the companies that he’s involved with.
You can then identify the nodes in your network — Who is working on the tech stack that you’re interested in that is in your immediate network (via GitHub and LinkedIn)? You aren’t trying to qualify these initial conversations as candidates but instead you’re attempting to spread your message as a meme — giving it to them so they’re able to talk to their networks about it (again, why the packaging is important).
Aim to ask them about the people that they look up to in the same space. It doesn’t matter if they’re looking to make a move at the moment, either they or someone they know will be looking in the near future. Continue to follow the nodes and have conversations with as many people in your network of first and second connections to spread the message that you’ve developed.
Connect the nodes
Finally, continue to connect the nodes as you speak to people. Work out who is respected and capable. I recently heard a story of a consulting firm that would ask all of the graduating students that were interviewing who they would recommend from their class to triangulate the most capable and liked person. They would then approach the person that received the most references. However, this started to backfire after a while because the most popular person wasn’t necessarily the most capable in a given role.
The references should give you a direction to move in for your next set of conversations. Keep a record of the people that you’re speaking to and what their intentions are. Eventually, an opportunity will present itself.
Swiss army knives vs Specialists
Another issue that founders usually face when they’re making their first hires is whether to hire generalists or specialists. There’s a tendency for founders to perceive that people are able to act as generalists and pick up a range of skills because it’s what they had to do.
In my experience, first-time founders tend to project their background and abilities onto potential candidates. This can cause some confusion and frustration on the part of founders and in-coming candidates. Not all candidates are going to be able to do everything as well as the founders did. A lot of people prefer to specialise in one skill and as a result aren’t as willing to pick up a broad range tasks.
While founders will generally be looking for Swiss army knives in the early stages, it’s important to recognise that this will be difficult for a number of people. A lot of people only want to build up one skill set and, while this may be a surprise for some founders, most people don’t want to “own” a decision.
Therefore, early hires will likely have a profile that suggests that they can learn relatively quickly and are willing to pick up a number of different tasks but have one specific skill set. They should look like “T”s, deep in one particular vertical with a range of complementary skills. As the business matures, the length of the trunk on the “T” deepens as more specialised skills are required. Boning and peeling knives become preferred to Swiss army knives.
Ensure that you have a consistent message before you begin pushing your open requirements out to investors and speaking to people. You should have an elevator pitch for potential candidates that enables you to tell them what you are doing and why it’s important, why you are it doing well, and what the main challenges are that you’re currently facing.
Don’t treat the recruitment process as a claw game where you’re hoping that you’ll pluck the right candidate out of the pool that is LinkedIn. Create a more structured process, where you speak to potential candidates that could either join your team or potentially know people that could join your team. Once people feel secure, they typically look for challenges, so let them know about the challenges that you’re facing and how they could help. If you focus on outbound instead of inbound, you’ll find that you’re able to find like-minded people to carry your contributions forward and you will no longer be at the mercy of the claw.
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