7 Secrets You Didn’t Know About Hiring

How to Build Your Own Hiring Machine?

By Steijn Pelle and Jordan Pease

Ask anyone working at a fast-growing startup what keeps them up at night, and they’ll promptly reply: hiring.

Specifically, the biggest headache is likely to be hiring talented engineers, designers, product managers, data scientists and marketers.

How do we know? We — a product manager and a designer — faced the same challenge:

Build the first growth team in digital health for our company HealthTap in three months.


… We built a hiring machine using the same growth mindset the best growth teams in Silicon Valley are applying every day: a rigorous, methodological, and data-driven approach to growing a company.

After sourcing 3,000 candidates with this machine, we hired five new team members who had previously worked at companies on a breakout trajectory, had won TechCrunch Disrupt awards, and had collectively founded six startups.

The new growth team members

This is the story of the seven secrets we learned about hiring. Some of them are somewhat counterintuitive — so prepare to be surprised.

We’d love to hear your own counterintuitive lessons from hiring in the comments below or email us at steijn@me.com.

But first…

What the hack is a growth team?

As Andy Johns — a member of the first-ever growth team at Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and currently VP of Product & Growth at WealthFront — explains:

“Back in the days, Fortune 500 organizations were building and growing products primarily through separate R&D, engineering, sales, and marketing functions. Since software technology companies dominate industries these days, you can drive growth by bringing product and marketing together. A growth team is a cross-functional collaboration between sales, marketing, product, engineering, design, and data science to drive key metrics more rapidly.”

The process of building such a growth machine was also eloquently described by our friends Andrew Chen and Brian Balfour.

Why not apply the same process to recruit the first growth team for HealthTap?

Spoiler alert! That’s what we did.

#1: Don’t Write A Job Description (Yet)

Remember that day when you had to hire for that new position?… And the first thing you did was to write a job description and go to LinkedIn to search for candidates?


We suggest: principles and process first.

Tactics come second.

Spend time with your team and executives to answer the following two questions. This will save you lots of time when sourcing, interviewing, and ultimately agreeing on terms:

(1) What principles matter for your new team?

(2) In which process is your new hire going to work?

Make sure the principles of your team align with the core values of the company and match the quarterly / monthly / weekly / daily work process you have in mind.

For example, important values for our growth team are:

1.0 Growth team Principles

If you have a clear vision for the principles, process, team composition, and success, the job description will write itself. But more importantly, everyone is aligned.

#2: Hiring is a “numbers” game

“Say what?”

When we say hiring is a numbers game, we’re not advocating the throwing-as-many-resumes-at-the-wall-until-one-sticks approach.

Rather, the key to building a successful hiring machine comes straight from the growth playbook: set goals, brainstorm interventions, prioritize them, track the metrics that matter and ITERATE ON YOUR LEARNINGS!

“How does that work?” Here are the 3 steps to build your hiring machine:

Step 1: Build your hiring funnel

Define the different stages of your hiring process and construct a funnel for measuring your candidate’s movement through each stage.

For example:

1.1 Hiring funnel

Make sure to set target conversion rates at each level of the funnel. You can usually find this information using historical data or benchmark data from external sources (recruiters, industry reports, friends at other companies, etc.)

Step 2: Set your North Star

Determine how many hires you want by certain dates, and work backwards to set weekly goals for each segment of the funnel.

1.2 Weekly metrics

As you work toward your weekly goals, make sure to organize your results in an easy-to-digest report and present them to your team. This will force you to synthesize the data and ultimately promotes accountability for both successes and failures.

This analysis might feel like extra work, but successful hiring teams win by learning faster than others. We carve out 1 hour every Monday to share what we learned from the previous week.

Step 3: Learn and iterate!

Just like in growth: learning from past hiring interventions is even more important than launching new ones.

“You don’t say?!”

Tracking and analyzing data for each part of your funnel helps you better predict how realistic your goals are and better understand your conversion rates.

Depending on the drop offs in your hiring funnel, run targeted experiments to improve your conversion from candidates to hires. A/B testing different interventions is essential in scaling a well-oiled growth machine.

For example, we quickly learned that we were losing candidates at the technical assignment stage. We began A/B testing different types of assignments until we found one that spiked our conversion rate without compromising its difficulty.


Great tip from Brian Balfour: YES — hiring is a numbers game, but don’t forget to learn from your numbers. Metrics can tell you WHERE you have a problem, but they don’t explain WHY you have that problem.

Take for example the conversion from outreach to a phone screen. By asking people WHY they did or didn’t respond to us, we learned that candidates saw 2 things that make the opportunity of working at HealthTap unique:

(1) Scaling a product that has saved more than 25,000 lives (and counting)

(2) Uniting empathy with data to reach more users with a cross functional autonomous team of data-scientists, engineers, designers, marketers and product managers.

#3: Leverage your investors!

Most people know that investors provide funding for your startup.

What most people don’t know is your investors possess another superpower: getting great people to join you on your mission.

Makes sense, right? The incentives are aligned between the investor and the startup: make the company successful.

Since good businesses are built on people, most Tier-A VCs not only have partners involved in funding, but they also have partners dedicated to finding talent.

These talent partners are in the business of helping to blitzscale portfolio companies. The partners have A/B tested more outreach emails than anyone else, and have their own network of talent that they can tap into.

Shout out to Ardy Daie from Khosla Ventures and Tejas Maniar from Mayfield, who taught us these important lessons, and helped to fine-tune the hiring machine.

#4: Hiring is not human

We learned the hard way that most of our time was spent coordinating the various hiring and interviewing processes, rather than actually meeting with candidates.

During our first real foray into the hiring world, we couldn’t believe how many hours we spent writing emails, moving candidates from stage to stage in our tracking system, scheduling, measuring, reporting, etc.

It was chaos.

Fortunately, we now live in a world where there are platforms that let you streamline many of these tasks (it almost goes without saying but the applicant tracking system we use — Greenhouse — is the backbone of our hiring machine).

Your primary goal in building a hiring machine is to automate as much as possible; make yourself obsolete so the machine can do its job and you can go back to doing yours.

Don’t get us wrong, there will always be a high level of human intervention needed in hiring, but the closer you get to removing yourself from the planning phase, the more time you can spend on other, important, hiring tasks.

“So, how do you automate a hiring machine?”

Idea 1

Use tools like Hired, A-List, CodeFights, and HackerRank Jobs, which will hand deliver high-quality and personally curated applicants to your inbox (literally), saving you time at the sourcing stage.

Each service has attentive account managers, and offer unique value propositions that make them independently valuable.

Idea 2

Use services like Entelo, Recruitee, and Talentbin, period. They have a wide variety of tools for finding, tracking, organizing, and reaching out to candidates.

Among many other great features, they enable you to easily gather personal email addresses for just about any candidate you will find on LinkedIn. This is invaluable for outreach to high-quality candidates who are not actively searching for a job.

We also recommend trying out Entelo’s Sonar functionality — it’s a great way to automate sourcing for your open roles.

Idea 3

“But how do I get my team to use these tools?”

The key is to connect them together using available integrations. Send push notifications to Slack when a candidate applies through your jobs page, or have your interviews scheduled on HIRED post events to your Google calendar.

Oh Oh, It’s magic!

#5: Don’t Recruit Talent From Silicon Valley

“Are you serious?”

Not really.

People from the Bay Area are amazing!

But: the problem is lots of amazing companies are fishing in the same pond, so you’re not the only one who thinks that people from Silicon Valley are great.

The pain point with recruiting outside your region is this: how do you know if a candidate is qualified without understanding the quality of the school they attended or the companies they worked for?

Thanks to platforms like HackerRank, Codefights, or Kaggle, you’re able to hire based on skill rather than location.

In fact, we recently hired a mobile developer from Russia who was in the top 1% of one of the platforms we mentioned previously. We would have overlooked him for sure if we’d worked traditional channels only.

We believe Crossing the Chasm applies to hiring, too. You’ll find it pays off being an early adopter in many of these new hiring channels.

Why? Bigger companies simply can’t get a decent ROI on these new hiring channels. The pool is too small for their needs, so being an early adopter gives you unchallenged access to the candidate pool before others catch on.

Make it a routine to spend at least 10% to 20% of your time using new channels.

#6: Screen in, NOT out!

Most people evaluate candidates by looking at resumes and portfolios, searching for the things they DON’T want to see.

They create a rubric and follow it item by item.

Not a top 50 school? Next.

No PhD or MBA? Pass.

Many times this strategy results in a small number of qualified candidates getting screened out of the process; candidates that may just have been that unicorn you were seeking.

In our experience, we found it much more efficient to create a rubric of “super powers”, or in other words, those slightly unique and untraditional skillsets and characteristics that set them apart from the crowd. We think Ben Horowitz gets it:

“The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you). Literally, nobody is perfect. As a result, it is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness. Everybody has weaknesses; they are just easier to find in some people. Hiring for lack of weakness just means that you’ll optimize for pleasantness. Rather, you must figure out the strengths you require and find someone who is world class in those areas despite their weaknesses in other, less important domains.”

Superpowers come in many forms and are excellent indicators for differentiating awesome candidates from mediocre candidates, even if they appear to have the same resume.

Is the person a professional athlete, fighter pilot, gamer, or entrepreneur?

Hobbies, volunteer work, and other random skills can show craftsmanship, artistry, versatility, and passion — skills that can be applied very effectively in the workplace. When in doubt, look for a superpower that sets the candidate apart from the crowd. For more tips about hiring Originals, we recommend reading this article from Adam Grant.

Hiring is a brutal, time-intensive process that can wear you down. Don’t let that influence you to screen out potentially awesome candidates. Be diligent, but also approach hiring with the mindset of screening people into the process rather than screening them out.

Most importantly…

NEVER settle until you find that candidate that gets you genuinely excited. Stay true to your rubric, because the right candidate is worth one hundred of the wrong ones.

#7: Hack the assignment

Technical assignments, take-home design challenges, and other skill-based tests are great techniques to evaluate the true skill of candidates.

Often, these force candidates to back up what they had put on paper and gives you a glimpse into how their minds solve problems.

Many hiring managers are hesitant to send these types of challenges for fear that it will either scare off a candidate, increase the hiring timeline by an extra week, or cost the company valuable engineering resources to grade the assignment. We’re here to tell you to never fear the assignment!


Assignments do three important things:

  1. It shows you their commitment to the role and validates their interest to join your company.
  2. Thoughtful assignments tend to excite candidates and prove your company is solving the right types of problems.
  3. Relevant assignments give candidates a taste of the type of work they will be doing and whether or not it truly matches their skillset.

Another misconception about technical assignments is that it takes valuable resources to grade the assignment. Fortunately, tools like HackerRank have come to the rescue, facilitating every aspect of the technical evaluation, from administering to checking for plagiarism to grading. To learn more, read about how we integrated HackerRank in our hiring process:

Our favorite part about the technical assignment is the presentation. Make this process collaborative, and don’t be afraid to get up and start whiteboarding with candidates. This is your opportunity to see how they solve problems, articulate solutions, and ultimately collaborate with you and your team members.

Lastly, it’s important to identify scenarios where an assignment can end the process for a highly skilled candidate. For instance, if the candidate brings a strong portfolio or comes through a reputable referral. Incorporate fast tracks into your process for these edge cases so you don’t lose out on strong candidates.

But most importantly…

No one wants to get catfished, so do yourself a favor and SEND THAT ASSIGNMENT.

Sum Up

Here’s how to build your own hiring machine:

  • Don’t write a job description (yet): Make sure you have a clear picture of the principles, process and team composition before you start.
  • Know that hiring is a “numbers” game: Having a deep insight into your hiring targets, funnel and conversation rates helps you to optimize the steps that matter. Knowing the numbers isn’t enough; dive into the WHY behind drop-offs using your user research skills.
  • Leverage your investors: Ask the talent partners of your investors to help you get great people to join you on your mission.
  • Realize that hiring is not human: Automate parts of your hiring process — like sourcing or coordination — so you can spend more time talking to the candidates you really like. Use tools like Entelo.
  • Don’t recruit talent from Silicon Valley: “Are you serious?” Not really, people from the Bay Area are amazing! But thanks to new platforms like CodeFights, you’re able to hire based on skill rather than location alone.
  • Screen in, NOT out: Qualify profiles based on “superpowers”.
  • Hack the assignment: Never fear giving an assignment to your potential rockstars. It shows you their commitment and can excite candidates about the role. Use platforms like HackerRank to save time.

Be your own growth experiment!

Now it’s your turn: what are the things you’ve learned about hiring that you didn’t know about hiring before? What does your hiring funnel look like? Have you found different steps that led you to success?

Share your own counterintuitive lessons from hiring in the comments below or email us on steijn@me.com.

Feel free to show this article to friends who are hiring. We appreciate your feedback!

Thanks to Andy Johns, Brian Balfour, Casey Winters, Ardy Daie and Bram Kanstein ✌️ for reading drafts of this.