Powerful Recruiting Approaches for Startup Firms

Recruiting is important at any firm, but it is super critical at startup firms. This is because when you have thousands of employees, you can still get by after hiring a few turkeys. At a startup, however, you are so lean that every hire must count and a single bad hire can cause incredible damage.

To further complicate the matter, large firms have a product and employer brand that can attract applicants. Startups have no name recognition, no recruiters, and only an informal recruiting process. The recruiting is made even more difficult because startups are often targeting engineers and IT staff, which are the second- and third-most difficult-to-fill jobs.

Don’t despair. It is possible to recruit great people to a startup if you are aggressive and you know the right tools to use. The following is a list of recruiting approaches and tools that are tailored to the limited resources and the special needs of startup firms. 

Branding and Market Research Approaches

  • Understand a startup’s recruiting advantages – it is a major mistake to assume that as a startup, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. Although you may not have an employer or product brand, you still have many recruiting advantages, including the excitement that comes with starting something new. There is a certain panache associated with working for a startup because everyone knows that you are a risk taker, an entrepreneur, and a pioneer. Even though you may work insane hours, you know that you will be part of a cross-functional cohesive team and community that will share the pain with you. At a startup, you will likely have little structure and hierarchy, few rules, and because of the small size, you will have a chance to make some high-impact decisions, interact with executives, and simply to “make a difference.” And with all the risks come the possibility that you could become wealthy in a few years and you will always have the bragging rights that you got in on the ground floor. And if the startup grows, you will likely get promoted rapidly multiple times.
  • Fully know your recruiting targets — the first step in recruiting at a startup is focus your recruiting on top candidates who are not in the job market (i.e. passives) who may be 25 times more impactful than average hires. The next up is to fully understand your target recruits. Fully understanding them requires market research that helps you identify: 1) what specific factors will attract them and turn them off; 2) where they might find out about a job opening (i.e. social media, Twitter, referral from a friend etc.); and 3) what criteria they used to accept or reject a job. Start with a “recruiting behavioral profile” using your current employees to find out these three things. Other options include asking your network on social media, asking on online forums, or even holding focus groups at trade events.
  • Make a list of your selling features — your main competition for recruits may be other startups, so you need to compile a list of what makes your particular startup more compelling than others. Talk to your own employees and especially new hires to find out why they joined and why they stay, and what they find that your firm has to offer that is superior to what other startups have that are recruiting at the same time. Some key selling points might include a great product idea, more secure funding, great leaders, bleeding edge work, a new technology, being closer to an IPO or buyout, a great location, or a super team. Whatever you choose to sell to recruits, make sure that it coincides with the job acceptance criteria of your ideal recruiting targets.
  • Develop stories and become talked about – rather than relying primarily on job postings, a more powerful approach for attracting recruits is to become” written up” in local media and on blogs. In order to be written up, you need a story inventory that contains stories about your product, the way you manage, or other features that people would want to write about and pass on. Start by identifying the factors that journalists and bloggers like to write about. This involves looking at a number of write-ups in order to identify the common factors that writers and editors like to include in their stories. This might be a great project for a PR intern.
  • Make your position descriptions compelling – if you must post your positions on niche job boards, make sure that they are exciting and compelling. Don’t follow the traditional job description format, and be sure to include a few items that will get the reader’s attention.

Traditional Recruiting Approaches Adapted to Startups

  • Referrals are king – whether your firm is a startup or large firm, employee referrals are the fastest way to attract quality talent. Employee referrals work even better due to the growth of social media, but in order to ensure success, you need to integrate the two programs and then educate your employees on how to convert their social media contacts into quality referrals. Give your employees well-designed “referral cards” to hand to potential recruits who impress them. Be sure and encourage referrals “for the good of the team” by demanding that your employees refer only their very best friends and colleagues to ensure that they don’t have to work alongside average people. Ask employees to assess every referral on their technical skills, their cultural fit, and their willingness to join the firm. And always ask new hires to make referrals on their first day. You don’t need to offer major rewards: a $100 Starbucks card, concert tickets, a two for dinner coupon, or even a dozen movie tickets might be sufficient. Because you have fewer employees at a startup, you have fewer “talent scouts” to make referrals. As a result, startups should expand referrals to include “friends of the firm” including friends of employees, vendors, employee relatives and customers.
  • Social media is powerful – if you take advantage of the contacts and networks of your employees, you can spread your employer brand, recruiting, and job opening messages to thousands at a minimal cost. LinkedIn is the most powerful social media recruiting channel, followed by YouTube, Facebook/Google+, and Twitter.
  • Be innovative in your recruiting – many of the traditional approaches like large job boards, corporate websites, and newspaper ads used by corporations are expensive, and most of them simply don’t work. If you expect to recruit innovators to your firm, be aware that innovators will quickly discount your firm if they fail to see any innovation in the way that you recruit. Innovation in recruiting makes your firm stand out and get noticed in the media and the blogosphere.
  • Recruiting interns is critical – interns are an inexpensive (and sometimes free) form of labor who bring excitement and energy to the firm. Even though interns may require training before they add much value, their energy and their willingness to do almost anything makes them essential. Interns can also be asked to serve as “on-campus ambassadors” when they are attending classes. Use the social media networks and referrals from your current interns to identify the very best who they know for additional internship openings. Also use grad assistants at local universities to help find top intern talent. Offering virtual projects to interns may also provide an avenue to get top students who don’t live in the area.
  • Use a hiring team – in a small organization, many of your team leaders may be weak recruiters, and there may only be a handful of people within the startup who are really good at recruiting and selling candidates. As a result, it is usually best to put together a hiring team that does all of the hiring. This is because when you use a hiring team, the individuals on it are more likely to be knowledgeable and up to date on the best recruiting practices and what it takes to land candidates.
  • Use peer interviews — finding top recruits is only half the battle. You have to sell recruits on an opportunity that is probably full of uncertainty. The best way to sell them is to use peer interviews, where your own employees do most of the assessment and selling during the interview process. Having coworkers or peers involved in the interview process works particularly well at small organizations because these individuals are likely to be both knowledgeable and passionate about the entire organization because they “live the work and the firm” every day. The passion of these individuals is likely to come through during the hiring process and it might give you an advantage over other organizations with less-passionate interviewers.
  • Use local professional events — although a good deal of startup recruiting is done over the Internet, professional meetings and events are always an excellent place to recruit. Local breakfast, lunch, or dinner meetings held by professional associations are an excellent supplemental way to meet potential hires. Encourage each of your employees who attend these meetings to speak, to bring back the names of one or two potential hires, and to encourage speakers, officers, of the organization and other well-connected individuals to make referrals.
  • Your CEO as your chief recruiter – Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is an excellent example of a startup firm using its CEO as their chief recruiter. Because the title of CEO impresses many people, getting them to speak and attend events will likely dramatically improve your recruiting contacts and press coverage. Obviously, you also have to train them on what to say in order to effectively attract and sell recruits. Direct calls from your CEO or CTO can also be a powerful recruiting and closing tool.
  • Use technical contests – many firms use external contests to attract individuals who are not in the job market, in part because individuals who enjoy challenges and that want to assess or demonstrate their skills are attracted by Internet contests. If you can develop a compelling technical contest that your target audience will see and be excited about, not only will you get some answers to your contest’s problem, but you may get several high-quality hires from among the finalists and the winners.
  • Target your customers — if your startup has progressed to the point where you have customers, you need to target them either as recruits or as referral sources. Because your customers are likely to share the same interest and passion for what you are doing, they may be your best source of hire. If you only have a beta product, ask key customers to become beta testers, not only for the knowledge but also to build a potential recruiting relationship with them.
  • Campus recruiting — although most startups don’t have enough resources to recruit at college career centers, speaking to student groups, entrepreneurship classes, and technical classes may yield some results. Getting grad assistants to help you identify candidates can also be powerful. You can also do remote college recruiting using Facebook pages, LinkedIn, mobile phones, and even Twitter. If you have some employees who are recent graduates, use them to spearhead your college recruiting effort. Incidentally, starting early in targeting sophomores and juniors may bring you some great interns or recruits who you wouldn’t have a chance to get once they become seniors.
  • Search the Internet for examples of outstanding workand answers – educate your employees who are searching the Internet for new ideas or solutions to identify and seek out potential hires, based on a review of their work. Often complementing individuals on their work is a great first step into convincing them to become a recruit. You can find examples of existing work on many sites, including Pinterest, YouTube, Dribbble, and their personal website. You can also post advanced questions on online technical forums and use those that provide great answers either as referral sources or as recruiting targets.
  • Write blogsand post videos – if you have good writers among your staff, writing technical blogs is a good way to expose your firm and your ideas. An alternative is to feed compelling stories to popular current bloggers. Posting interviews with your key technical people on YouTube or posting videos made by your employees showing the fun and excitement at your startup can be compelling and inexpensive.
  • Interview live from anywhere — most interviews take forever to schedule because they require finding times where both the applicant and the manager are available. And for the applicant, finding an opportune time where they can take off of work and travel to your site may also be difficult. So, if you want to dramatically increase the number of individuals willing to sit for an interview and you want to excite them by using some new technology, consider using live Internet video interviews. For example, a new iphone app from HireVue allows candidates to interview from anywhere and at any time, using their mobile phone or iPad. Using this type of technology, almost every candidate and manager can find time for an interview.
  • Bring a colleague to work – sometimes nothing sells candidates better than an open house meeting on your site, where they get to meet your team face-to-face and experience their excitement. The best option is to hold an invited open house on your site and encourage your employees and interns to bring a top colleague with them. Then have your managers show them your best practices, technology, and your team.
  • Ask during the interview — ask the best interviewees during interview for the names of other good individuals who they know. If you ask enough interviewees, you will get a pretty good list of top names for your talent pool.

Advanced Recruiting Approaches for Startups

  • Involve top prospects in your work – ask top recruiting prospects to help you “assess” a new idea or program. Then build the relationship to the point where they know you well enough to consider a job or accept an offer.
  • Hire them both – although it might seem expensive, offer a program where you will hirea superstarand their best friend at the same time (i.e. colleague, spouse/ partner). The premise under this approach is that the unusual opportunity to work with a close colleague may be a powerful enough incentive to attract and keep top talent. And don’t worry: no top professional would ever bring in an average or mediocre colleague to work alongside them.
  • Target other startups – some of the best hires are individuals who currently work at startups. They are superior because they already understand the concept and the risk/reward ratio of a startup. Obviously, you should target startups that are going downhill (especially on a day when bad news is released) but you might also be able to get some recruits from former startups that are now getting large and bureaucratic. Consider informal recruiting at incubator sites and coffee shops in neighborhoods dominated by startups.
  • Get help from your VC – if you’re ready have funding, work closely with your venture capitalists to determine if they can provide you with help in the recruiting area. Because they have already worked with other startups, they are likely to have resources and contacts in the area of recruiting.
  • Adopt a “next time” hiring approach — face facts, there will be many times where you cannot successfully recruit a particularly desirable target. They may not be available precisely when you have an opening, or another firm may simply be capable of offering something that is more compelling. A solution to this problem is to adopt a “next time” hiring perspective, where you accept the fact that your initial recruiting efforts might be unsuccessful. But rather than giving up once you get a “no,” you continue a relationship with the individual in the hopes that you will get them the “next time” they enter the job market. This requires keeping in touch with them on a periodic basis and letting them know that you’re willing to wait until the next time that they are available. This delay will not only give you time to strengthen the relationship but it will give you more time to understand their job switch criteria and to sell them on the opportunities at your startup.
  • Ask past references for referrals– individuals who served as references for previous top hires, if they were asked, will often help out again in your search for new candidates. Start identifying recent hires who have turned out to be exceptional. Call their references back, thank them, and then ask them “who else they may know that is exceptional and could possibly be interested in a startup opportunity?” Because these individuals have given a good reference once, it is highly likely that the additional names that they provide will also be of high quality. Most references are more than willing to help without an expectation of reward.
  • Create a hiring consortium to share costs – if your startup is in its infancy stage and your budget is limited, consider collaborating with a group of similar startup firms to share recruiting approaches, ads, recruiting vendor and/or career fair costs. For example, one firm automatically shares its employee referrals between three different firms.

Final Thoughts

If you consider a startup to be like a sports team, you will quickly realize that recruiting top talent is the key to winning. A startup cannot grow organically without recruiting. And if it grows with mediocre recruits, it has already damaged its future.

If you hire great people, they don’t need a lot of training, coaching, or development, and if you hire innovators, the value of that innovation is priceless compared to the cost and time involved in recruiting. If you expect to win the recruiting war, every employee of the startup from the CEO on down needs to adopt the role of a 24/7 continuous talent scout. And finally, if you follow up and provide them with the most effective recruiting tools, you may be well on your way to becoming the next Facebook or Google.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips. Please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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