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.