A note on Finding Right Talent for startups

We all know the importance of recruitment to any company. This post isn’t about the interview workflow or tactical tips, but the engineering mindset and humanity behind building a talent pipeline for a startup.

I’m currently kind of an accidental recruiter. The fun fact is I found quite a few of my developer/entrepreneur friends spending lots of time on it anyway.

The need of a recruiting agency within your company

Again, back to two classics: “the Hubspot book” and Work Rules. The first one is about hiring Sales but more or less applicable to other position as well. The latter one is based on Google which is hard to compare with, however some concepts stay.

The biggest reason for traditional job post not working, is great experienced talents seldom look for job themselves. Basically they keep receiving offers from agencies or connections including past managers.

Then why not outsource to recruiting agency— money is not the biggest problem.

What really bothered me was the reliance I had on outside resources for arguably one of the most important driver of my success. (Sales Acceleration Formula)

There are nice recruiters out there and it will be great if the partnership works out. They could understand a few technology terms your team prefer like Scala/AngularJS and help sourcing candidates, meanwhile it’s hard for them to identify talents with culture fit, say “people suitable for startups”. If you are in cities with only a few startups, the noise could be even larger. Also as the way incentive structures, good candidates almost always go to highest-paying job first, which many startups can hardly compete.

Sounds you should hire HR in your team, but No. It’s about unleashing your team’s potential to reach people like-minded. Everyone has close friends working at other companies. So your team is actually connected to over thousands of people in hundreds of companies. In which you will have a confident say whether any of them suit to work at yours.

Build out the Alliance.

Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s co-founder, wrote about Alliance, stating that in this new age companies and members need to rethink their relationships and how they can work better together.

Think about talents not only those working in your company, but those worked before and those outside. It’s an Alliance, it’s a Community. Target for something like the PayPal Mafia, attract people with common ambitions and make everyone better off.

Just like we should focus on listening in communication, it is much better to get in touch with people, hear what they do and what they interested at, instead of simply shouting you need urgently a Dev with Skill X to do Y.

Big companies got developer “Evangelist” or “Relations” roles, which are for sure less applicable at startup. However do encourage your members to reach out to the larger community, as it is in many ways beneficial. Not everyone are that outgoing, well esp devs, who like cold mailing or joining meetups and networking all day . Some prefer writing or some prefer working on open source projects, which are all legit. 
In a community your team know much better about who they want to have in the team. It’s also more human and genuine — instead of “cold” job ads or recruiting spam, I had coffee with many people, learnt a lot in conversations on tech stuff/product design/data analysis/company culture and made lots of friends. It’s good not only for the company but also for personal growth.

If you are afraid of members getting in touch with other companies will be “closer to the market” and leave for good offers, you have a much bigger problem you need to fix anyway.

Another good tactic is Force referral used at Hubspot, which Google got a similar practice. [1]

“Tonight, I will go through your 275 connections on Linkedin and look for salespeople in Boson to whom you are connected that look like that may be a good fit for our team” The next day, I show up to the meeting with the 18 people they are connected to that fit the criteria mentioned. They then proceed to tell me which prospective candidates are top performers and whether they are comfortable introducing me. (Sales Acceleration Formula)

Why it works is twofold. It’s “Aided Recall” in Psychology — Mr. A is not in your mind when you see the job post, but he is your answer when you are asked who’s the best JS developer you know. Secondly —screening (or interview) is hard. We are all biased to judge a person in glimpse, however that is a big decision to determine who work with you next. Having a reference check at the right beginning is great.

It’s a team effort

As mentioned above, for sure it’s one of the biggest responsibility leader to get great people on board, while a lot more could be done if the team work on it as a whole.

Firstly it solves the culture fit problem. In some teams especially those in US, hires need to have interviews with the whole team they are going to work with, or managers are being interviewed by their subordinates. Since culture matters a lot, having members involve starting from sourcing will help a lot. The culture is radiated and people who love that come to you.

So the question is how to motivate members and have them understanding why the effort. According to Work Rules, Googlers do Job referral for intrinsic reasons, less for the referral bonus. What they did to really improve referral the is to improve the process itself e.g. get back to candidates asap such that employees can get timely feedback. I believe, the best testimonial will be the brilliant work done by the hires. Then the problem is about connecting the hiring effort to it, and one way is using Data.

Be Open & Transparent

These are useful, and yes just pretty similar to those at marketing:

  • Reach(Engagement) — # people the team get in touch? Members can see how it grows thanks to their referral!
  • # of Applicants/Hires by Channel— Useful to see if Job ads on particular channels are really useful. Remember to ask candidates where they first hear about your company.
  • List of current positions & job posts — the most basic one so everyone can help share!
  • $ spent on job ads etc — So members can see referring their friends do save costs!
  • Reach-to-Hiring Rate % — Be careful on this one. It is a useful one but only with safe considerations, as low rate could mean an inefficient screening, not necessarily a high standard and vice versa. Thus you need to be sure your “bar” is defended in the interview process, not the sourcing one.

After all, the crucial thing is to understand it is a talent pipeline and something that everyone can contribute, instead of waiting for random top guns to pop up next to your desk.

Reflect on your criteria

An important takeaway of doing lots of sourcing, is to find the criteria need to be well defined. Check out Netflix’s Culture Deck to learn about what “well defined” means. There are some real important criteria that if missed, will result in deadly false positive. With unclear criteria, you also fall into the trap of just hoping “someone smart” bump up in interviews and turn out as a good fit, which rarely happen. 
On the other hand, you are selecting local-based talents — is that a must? You’re afraid of cultural misfit — is that really part of your culture? You have concern of overqualification — what seniority do you really need, what problem you really trying to solve? For sure there are practical concerns, meanwhile a few scenarios might reveal that you are imposing a limit on yourself, and by limiting talents you are limiting your startup.

Understanding the demographics

We often relied on our “field experience” to think about how hard is a talent with certain skills to be found, or with our guts sometimes perhaps. The worst case, people just settle.
Once your criteria is well defined, actually it is not hard to learn more about it. Go Linkedin and search for “Hong Kong based Customer Success Manager worked in Noted Startup in the past with Salesforce experience“.

Minimize dirty work so you can focus

As a startup you might not afford to hire a HR/recruiter in the first place. So getting logistics right is important.

Basically, it is about

  • Job posting & Receiving Job Applications
  • Tracking Interviews and managing resumes
  • Evaluating right channels

There are apps like Workable (It works great and we are using it!) or Recruitmentbox which helps a lot. Channels really depends on your location, Linkedin Job Ads might not work well for you especially if you are not a Global team. With the tools and some learnings right now my team (10+ engineers) can create such a pipeline we want with reasonable effort.

Again, the goal is to find right talent, not doing 100 phone interviews and then feel good with the single hire. Recruitment could be inefficient ,but hardly overemphasize. Be hunger, be experimental.

[1] see Work Rules Ch4 P.80.
In fact in Alliance the suggestion is more generic, people think about 3 people they admire and describe their qualities, to create a list of expert even they are no potential hires.