Beyond just having a company website, an on online recruiting brand includes all online touchpoints that together create your overall brand as an employer. As you scale your startup and build your core team, establishing an online recruiting brand is crucial to attracting top talent.
In the early stages of building a startup, your focus as a founder is building your core team and creating a quality recruiting process. But after you have that in place, how do you start thinking about scaling your efforts to attract even more high quality candidates? You have a beta product and paying customers and you’re looking to scale from 10 to 30 employees at lightning speed. It’s really important you have a repeatable process in place and get ahead of the curve when it comes to your recruiting brand. One thing I’ve noticed during my 10+ years of experience recruiting at Google, Amazon, AppDynamics, and now Unusual Ventures, is that broadcasting your company culture by establishing an online recruiting brand is crucial to attracting top talent as you scale your startup. This means going beyond just your company website and making sure all your online touchpoints appeal to candidates.
Invest time in tailoring your entire company website in order to tell a compelling and differentiated story for potential job candidates. Many startups make the mistake of focusing on just the Career or About Us pages on their websites and neglect to create a unified company brand that is welcoming to candidates. Future employees will look at your website as a whole, so while certain sections are targeted toward specific audiences, you want to make sure the entire website resonates with potential candidates, not just the Career page. Your goal is to help candidates envision what it would be like to work at your company by creating a fun, welcoming brand. For instance, you might post pictures of your team or your office if you have an attractive space and weave in messaging that reflects the culture and values of your team.
Harness (an Unusual portfolio company) does a great job of showcasing their company culture by including pictures of the Harness team engaging in fun outings and gathered together with their families, alongside a clear statement about their mission and hypergrowth:
Beyond your own company website, make sure external websites are aligned with the employer brand you want to communicate. One of the most effective platforms for demonstrating your recruiting brand is Glassdoor. Glassdoor has become the go-to resource for job seekers to check the reputation of a company. A lot of early companies have virtually no presence on Glassdoor and in the worst cases, leave negative feedback from candidates unaddressed. It’s important to remember that employees are not the only people who can leave feedback about a company—interview candidates can as well. As we mentioned in our previous post, the candidate experience is a big part of the recruiting brand as well. Having a robust, quality process should prevent bad reviews in the first place, but sometimes a bad experience happens. In those cases, answering these reviews shows you’re being thoughtful and care about the experience your candidates (and employees) have when they interact with your company. Otherwise, leaving negative feedback or reviews untouched can actively deter candidates. For instance, if any company on Glassdoor has a CEO approval rating of 80% or lower, that’s a huge red flag that employees are not happy with leadership and may scare off potential recruits.
One easy way to improve your Glassdoor presence is to get your team to populate the page with reviews. Make sure it’s 100% optional, but try to get as many reviews as possible. Remind existing employees that it’s beneficial to them because if you recruit more candidates, they get more of the help they need. For instance, there might be an automation engineer on your team who is also handling customer requests. That means they’re essentially doing two different jobs. Improving the company’s recruiting brand and having positive company reviews can go a long way to attract needed talent and fill out the team.
Besides adding employee reviews, make sure you upload real photos to your Glassdoor page. This means photos of team outings or events that illustrate your company’s working environment. One thing to be aware of is that these photos can potentially reveal gaps in your team’s diversity. Use this “visual audit” as an opportunity to examine any gaps in your team and surface diversity and inclusion as a priority in your recruiting efforts. It’s important to remember that by all accounts, diversity of thought leads to better products and businesses.
Another high impact action you can take to improve your company’s online brand is making sure your LinkedIn company page is up-to-date. Even if you’re just sharing blog posts about new feature launches. This is where you can demonstrate thought leadership in your industry. Publish all your articles and press announcements. It sounds trivial, but it can sway candidates by showcasing your company’s momentum.
Here’s a great example from Banyan Security (an Unusual portfolio company):
Notice their original content on industry trends and pictures showcasing their tight-knit team. It does cost a nominal fee to have a LinkedIn company page, but the results are well worth the expense to attract top talent.
Finally, don’t be afraid to get out there and use multiple platforms to communicate your company’s recruiting brand. Use StackOverflow, AngelList, Twitter, Medium, etc. to cross-post job listings and announcements so you can build awareness and attract candidates. Whether it’s Glassdoor, LinkedIn, or any other platform, make sure there’s regular activity that shows the tangible (free lunch!) and intangible perks (an inclusive company culture) of working at your company. Is it a family environment? What types of events does your team do together? The goal is to make it fun and inspiring.
At the seed stage, you’re hiring future leaders who will help you build your company. Make it clear to candidates that they will have the rare opportunity to join a company experiencing exponential growth and have a hands-on role in building that “rocketship” from the ground up. No matter how big or small of a company you are, you’re competing for the same talent so your employer brand needs to stand out in some way. Odds are if a candidate is interested in coming to work at your early-stage startup, they don’t want to work in an impersonal, corporate environment. Your job descriptions, your company page, etc. all have to show how their career can flourish and the opportunities available to them if they join your startup vs. a larger company. That messaging needs to be present in any company description and consistent across all platforms so candidates have a very clear understanding of your company’s identity.
Here’s a great blurb from AptEdge (an Unusual portfolio company) that describes employee autonomy and huge growth potential for the company:
It can seem overwhelming to create this online recruiting brand if you’re starting from nothing, but it pays dividends in the quality and type of candidates you can attract to help scale your business. To help you get started, I created this checklist, which you can download to make sure you’re covering your bases when it comes to developing your online recruiting brand.
Hiring is a muscle an organization builds over time, so it’s critical to put a process in place earlier rather than later. Having a clearly defined hiring process can help early startups avoid costly and destabilizing hiring mistakes.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting and each company develops their own process to aligns with their unique culture, but here’s one high-level breakdown of an end-to-end recruiting process for early hires:
1. Pre-screen interview (see pre-screen guide with questions) with recruiter. Forward the candidate to the hiring manager if all looks good.
2. Hiring Manager reviews resume and relevant data points (i.e. portfolio review for UX/UI engineer,* quota and revenue targets for sales hires**).
3. Hiring Manager does an initial phone or in-person interview. Don’t let schedules be a deterrent. Do a video call if needed and work around the candidate’s schedule to demonstrate how interested you are. Make sure to ask level-appropriate questions.
4. Schedule the on-site interview and pre-sync with the interview team before the onsite to make sure everyone is on the same page.
5. Track all the feedback throughout the day and require interviewers to give a “yes” or “no” immediately after each interview.
6. Debrief with the whole interview team no later than 24 hours after the on-site interview. Let the candidate know either way, whether it’s a rejection or an offer ASAP.
7. Reference review/backchanneling can be useful, but takes up valuable time. If you’re going to do a backchannel reference, start from the minute the candidate's resume is submitted so you don’t bottleneck the process.
*The majority of UX/UI engineers want to work on Consumer products. The challenge with UI/UX is finding someone who has SaaS experience and is motivated to work on an Enterprise product.
**For sales roles especially, make sure you understand their compensation expectations before you bring them in for an on-site interview. If you can’t do that, continuing the conversation might be a waste of time.
One thing I’ve noticed during my 10+ years of experience recruiting at Google, Amazon, AppDynamics – and now Unusual Ventures, is that founders are often so laser-focused on the mission of their company and why it’s going to be the next big thing that they lose sight that it’s a crowded hiring market with lots of companies competing for talent.
While founders are busy evaluating the candidate on their background, technical skills, and whether they fit the company culture, they forget that the candidate is also evaluating them and comparing them against all the other companies that they’re talking to, both large and small. That’s why I tell each founder I partner with that at every point, you have to be selling them on why your startup is going to be the next great opportunity in their career.
While this is true for all companies looking to attract talent, it’s even of greater importance for startups because more established companies like Google are a known quantity so to speak. That means that even if that interviewer isn’t a great sales person, there are unlimited resources online and in the media that the candidate can look to for a larger company. Candidates can google the company’s financials, look at their Glassdoor, etc. There are several data points candidates can refer to when they make their decision of whether to join a larger company or not, whereas startups have almost zero data points. Practically speaking, the startup’s CEO or founder is the only real datapoint these potential employees have. That’s why selling while hiring is so crucial for seed-stage startups. When you recruit candidates at the seed stage, you’re essentially asking them to take a leap of faith. Selling while hiring means empowering the candidate to feel confident in taking on some risk and setting out on this journey with you.
As a recruiter, when I get on the phone with a candidate, they often question my motives and think I’m working for commission (even if that’s not the case) because there are so many recruiters constantly trying to poach them. That’s why the most effective seller during the hiring process is the founder him/herself. The simple truth is that when a candidate joins an early-stage startup, they’re not going to work for a company— they’re going to work for a founder. It’s that person’s ability to convincingly communicate the vision and mission of their startup that makes the difference.
When I advise founders in their recruiting process, I tell them to give a high-level technical overview to the candidate on their first call, but to really focus on selling their vision as to why their startup will be the next great B2B SaaS company or Consumer Social app. That first call is when you should talk about your pedigree as a founder and builder, why you’re a good leader, and why they should leave their job and take a risk on this new opportunity.
The most common mistake I’ve seen is founders forgetting about the candidate’s perspective. They have faith in their own vision and the trajectory of their own company, but forget that the candidate is on the fence and probably thinking of the often-cited statistic that says 80% of startups will fail. Their decision to make a move and join a startup is ultimately dependent on the founder selling that vision. So it’s critical that as a founder, you sell yourself as a leader and talk about what makes the opportunity compelling. Start by taking a very real problem that they can relate to as an engineer or consumer and drill into that issue, so they can see your startup as the solution and the potential that holds. For instance, one team I worked with painted a picture for a candidate of a world where every company is a software company, which equated to every company having a need for their product. The founder emphasized why every engineer has felt the particular pain point the product would solve and sold his own background as an engineer. By doing that, he was able to say, “Hey, we’ve been in your shoes and we’ve developed a platform that allows engineers to focus on their job developing product instead of constantly getting on escalation calls.”
Illustrate that bigger picture as a starting point and from there, outline a career path for the candidate and what joining would personally mean for them. If you’re able to clearly spell out the direction of the startup and the impact they can have on a particular problem, it makes it much easier for them to visualize being part of your team and journey. Selling your vision means going further than just saying you’re building a cool product. Instead, outline a career path for the candidate. It’s much more powerful to say, “You'll come in and own the development of the company’s first user interface. Building out that interface will allow us to raise a Series A, and put you on the fast track to becoming an Engineering leader for our company.”
Yes, you’re interviewing them, but it’s important to relate to them. Ask what their career aspirations are. Are they looking to become an engineering leader in 3-6 years? If so, show them how the fastest way to get ahead in one’s career is to be at a smaller company where they’ll have more opportunities to have outsized impact and ownership. The key is listening to the candidate and getting on their level, so they feel excited about the opportunity and what it could mean for their career.
Another big mistake I’ve seen founders make is not being fully transparent about the trajectory of their startup. If you’re interviewing a candidate, don’t shy away from being upfront about the current state of your company. What is your burn rate? When are you going to run out of funding? If you can say, “Yes, we’ll run out of money in two years, but this is our budgeting situation and why it’s not an issue,” that’s much more reassuring and authentic to your candidate and ultimately, they will have much more confidence in you as a leader and your startup.
Of course, this should be within reason and you should take precautions whenever you share private information. Typically, I recommend getting an NDA from every candidate who comes in for an on-site. If you’re in stealth, I highly suggest giving the candidate an NDA from the very first conversation. If your startup is already publicly launched, then there’s not as much of a need for an NDA.
That transparency also needs to translate into your hiring process. Every member of the interview team needs to be prepared to sell your startup’s vision. I would block off an hour per interview – 45 minutes for a technical interview and 15 minutes reserved at the end to answer any questions the candidate might have. It’s critical to have every employee they meet sell their vision around why they left their previous position to join your startup. The candidate will expect the CEO trying to sell them, but they need to know why others felt compelled to take the leap. That’s oftentimes just as important. For instance, with one portfolio company I’ve worked with, the UX engineer ended up being the best at selling the company vision and why joining was the right decision. We reserved her for the second to last slot in the interview lineup, closing with the CEO.
To make the candidate feel even more at home, take them out to lunch to show them the company culture you’re building and that you’re all in it together. This lets candidates know that not only will they be part of something big, but they won’t be doing it alone because there will be support from the team along the way.
Startups often use high-level words to describe their culture, but it’s much more effective if you can provide an authentic story that demonstrates what it’s like to work at your startup and be part of the team. Sometimes candidates explicitly ask for a story or example, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, I recommend that founders have one prepared. For example, you might describe how your team is very tight-knit, and that co-workers actually hang out outside of work hours and go on weekend trips together without the company planning it. Or you might explain that intellectual curiosity is one of your values and teammates have started their own book club and hold lunch and learns. The point is to go beyond the textbook answers and provide an authentic story that shows the candidate what makes your startup a special place to work.
Finally, this last suggestion seems obvious, but I can’t stress it enough: When you recruit, you have to be cognizant of life. Understand the candidate’s life circumstances and do your best to accommodate them. Are there ways to tailor work hours for a flexible commute if someone needs to drop their kids off at daycare? If your candidate is on an H1B visa, how will you ensure continued sponsorship? How do you justify someone taking a pay cut if they have a family to support? Show them you understand they have other commitments and that you’re willing to be flexible. For example, we’re currently closing a candidate at a portfolio company and one thing we’ve offered is the ability to work from home on Wednesdays, when her child gets out of school early. It’s about demonstrating that you’re not just a great leader, but also a great employer.
Recruiting is very similar to sales where you ask a prospect if there’s anything that would prevent them from buying your product. I ask every candidate, “Are there any other factors that would prevent you from taking this opportunity?” That question will help you uncover the family concerns or the benefits complications. Do your best to address those concerns right away and get them out of the way on the very first phone call. Ultimately, life happens. There’s no way around it. Be as accommodating as possible within reason— there may be hard and fast rules, such as weekly sprint meetings that can only happen at a certain time. You can’t bend over backwards for everyone, but if there’s a reasonable request like a sign-on bonus, be open to small concessions like that. These compromises communicate that you believe in the candidate’s ability to do a killer job.
There are qualities a company evaluates candidates on, and qualities a candidate evaluates a company on. If you forget to talk about any one of those factors, it can be a potential deal killer. That includes all the little things founders don’t typically think about, like commute or work hour flexibility. Any past life experience could be a trigger point for saying yes or no. That’s why whenever I submit a candidate to a founder, I let them know the reason the candidate is looking, the compensation and commute they need, their visa requirements, etc., but I also make sure I present the candidate’s pain points.
Changing jobs is one of the most stressful life events, but founders overlook this when they’re laser-focused on building their team. The only way to understand what might be a dealbreaker for a candidate and what might prevent them from joining your startup is by asking them directly. “Why are you talking to me? What piqued your interest? Why are you interested in this company?” Start there and try to understand where they’re coming from. You’ll vet the candidate technically throughout the process, but there are all these other hidden factors you have to overcome.
To give you an idea, I created this tool which you can download to walk through the many potential questions that might be going through your candidate’s mind when they’re deciding whether to join your startup or not.
When you put those two lists side by side, it becomes very clear why as a founder, you have to sell yourself as a leader and your startup as their next big opportunity. If you don’t, you risk losing to tech giants that can offer more security or brand recognition because the best candidates have a number of options.
Most people only think of cash and equity when they think about compensation, but there are several different dimensions of compensation a candidate might consider. Understanding what the particular candidate is looking for and translating that into the different options that you’re presenting back is the key to closing candidates.
As a recruiter or founder, you’re probably tempted to wait until the final stage of the recruiting process before negotiating compensation with the candidate. But in the world of startups where time and resources are scarce, I recommend that founders flip the script and collect the company budget for the role beforehand and the candidate’s compensation expectations in your very first conversation with them.
If you wait until the final stages of the process before you start negotiating compensation, you risk wasting all your effort if those numbers don’t align. Instead, as a founder, decide the range you can budget for the position. If you’re a recruiter, collect that information upfront from the hiring manager or founder.
Once you have that number in your head, you can ask the candidate for their expected range and move forward knowing you’re aligned and likely to close them if all goes well.
It helps to be somewhat flexible when it comes to your budget. The key to closing candidates is understanding what the particular candidate is looking for and translating that into the different options that you’re presenting back.
Most people only think of cash and equity when they think about compensation, but there are several different dimensions of compensation a candidate might consider. Here are seven that I’ve seen factor into a candidate’s decision of whether to take the job or not:
Depending on the candidate, they might value some of those dimensions more than others. For instance, someone without a family might take a lower base but want more equity because they have a higher risk profile. It can all vary. To illustrate my point, here are three hypothetical candidate profiles you might come across:
As you can see, there are several factors that might motivate any one particular candidate and determine what you should include to offer a compelling compensation package. I advise founders to take the candidate’s life situation into account, be empathetic, and try to understand what is most important to the candidate. That means thinking about the compensation package comprehensively and being helpful when needed with lifestyle arrangements.
On a related note, be conscious of where you select your office because it might impact your ability to recruit. For instance, it might be more expensive to choose Mountain View over Fremont, but more candidates can get to Mountain View. Consider other expenses that might aid your ability to recruit, like sponsoring Immigration and Visa Candidates and extending benefits to family members. All these small benefits factor into your ability to attract talent.
When you put together your compensation package, don’t forget to provide a couple different offer types, depending on the candidate’s life situation. You might include one that’s higher on equity with less cash, another higher cash and lower equity, or another with additional conditions or benefits. In other words, take the range of what you want to pay and create multiple tiers around that number. For example, an offer to a candidate might look like this:
The candidate can then choose the option that best suits their needs and life situation.
One effective closing strategy I’ve seen is encouraging the candidate to think about the exit. Prompt them to consider what their 1% of equity would mean if the company got bought for $1B. When you present the offer, include the number of shares (i.e. 250,000 shares) as well as the percentage to help them visualize what their ownership could mean.
Similarly, walk the candidate through what the opportunity could mean for their career trajectory. For instance, you might highlight how coming in as an early engineer can be a stepping stone to them becoming a future Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering. One advantage startups have over larger corporations is that they can emphasize the ownership candidates can have in building a company and not just a product.
Another closing tactic I’ve seen is emphasizing that should the candidate perform well, the company guarantees bringing salaries up to market. For instance, everyone who was willing to take a step back in pay during the seed stage will receive a bump in cash compensation once the Series A closes.
If the candidate is still outside your budget, there are still ways to get them closer to accepting the offer. Say your offer is $20k below their compensation expectations. A one-time $20k signing bonus can help bridge the difference. Candidates joining a startup usually know they're taking a cash hit, but a signing bonus can ensure it’s not a huge lifestyle adjustment.
If you try all the tactics above and you still can’t close the candidate, don’t be too disheartened. You can’t win them all. Add them to your applicant tracking system for when you secure more funding and routinely check in on them. Their life situation might change.