Recruiting top talent has become one of the biggest issues for startups. I wrote a blog post proposing that recruiting is now the 3rd crucial startup skill. In addition to building a great product and a sales and marketing machine, a startup needs to excel in recruiting to build a very successful company. There was a lot of interest in this article, so I’ve put together this follow up piece to expand and share the most valuable insights we’ve found from experts who have successfully hired top talent to fuel their own companies’ growth.
Much like sales and marketing, recruiting is a funnel process that needs attention at the top of the funnel (sourcing) middle of the funnel (evaluating and selling), and at the bottom of the funnel (closing), as well as in a fourth phase, On-Boarding. For a more in depth look at each part of the Recruiting Funnel, my detailed post on the topic is here.
The hardest part of recruiting is the top of the funnel, sourcing. Finding candidates that possess the right skills and talent used to be a lot easier using job postings and external recruiters. Today, the chances of finding great developers, marketers, and executives that aren’t already working for another company is extremely low. So, startups have to target passive candidates and go through a sales process to convince them to have a conversation and then ultimately to leave their current jobs.
Top tips for sourcing:
1. Hire a full time recruiter in-house.
Bring on a full-time recruiter earlier than you might think you need to. A full-time recruiter will be able to spend the time needed on researching, sourcing, and selling your company to great candidates. And, they are better positioned to also take on the work of creating a great candidate experience, i.e., managing the process itself which includes scheduling, gathering feedback, getting back to candidates, etc. In addition to your team’s internal network, sourcing will also need to look elsewhere. LinkedIn is one of one of the most well-known sources, and is a good place to start. You can also look at blogs, conference speaker lists, and if you’re looking for developers, try GitHub and StackOverflow.
2. Build an effective referral program.
Your employees are an often underutilized and very rich source for top talent. More than bonuses, I’ve found it to be most effective to put in place programs that keep referrals top of mind and build it into the culture — employees need to feel that it’s just something they do. For more ideas, Lever outlines how to put your employee referral program into overdrive to tap into one of the richest veins you have access to.
3. Build a strong brand.
To aid all of your sourcing efforts and out compete the market, one of the most overlooked but important aspects of recruiting is building a brand that attracts the best talent. Ask yourself — why is it a great experience to work at your startup and how can I give candidates a true feel for that experience? Think of ways to publicize your brand so that when candidates go searching for information about your company, they find videos, presentations, or other assets that detail what it’s like to work at and be a part of your company. This article on LinkedIn pulls together advice from recruiting leaders from companies including Zappos, Glassdoor, Hootsuite, SpaceX and others.
4. Create a solid candidate specification.
It is imperative to start the hiring process with a clear idea of what you are looking for. A scorecard is an internal version of an outward job description and is a great way to make sure you’re very clear on what you’re looking for in a candidate. A scorecard includes:
In today’s hiring environment, it’s important to develop a process to nurture passive candidates over time to get them to the point where they are willing to talk with you. Then as you move into the interview process, it’s important to strike the right balance of evaluating candidates and creating a great candidate experience during the interview process.
Top tips for selling and evaluating:
1. Use modern recruiting tools: Lever, etc.
At some point, your pipeline of candidates to nurture becomes too large to manage via spreadsheets. At this point, it will be extremely helpful to have a good modern SaaS recruiting tool such as Lever to manage the funnel. Note–we are investors in Lever, so our view is biased. However before making that investment we looked carefully at all the other SaaS recruiting tools and concluded that Lever was the only one that was built around the recognition of this huge change, where almost all of the really important recruits are now passive candidates, who are hard to source, and require a ton of selling work.
2. Create a structured interview process.
A key part of the recruiting process is creating a structured approach that evaluates whether the candidate has the necessary skills and cultural fit to be a good hire. My partner at Matrix, Dana Stalder, has written a blog post on a data-centric approach to interviewing, which walks through specifically how to create an effective process by knowing what you’re looking for and tracking candidate data from start to finish.
3. Ask the right questions.
Tom Tunguz interviewed Mark Roberge, CRO of HubSpot, to offer specific questions you should think about asking candidates when hiring a Head of Sales. Ask questions that target how the candidate thought about building the sales team at their last company — it’s likely they’ll repeat a similar process at yours:
Dharmesh Shah, Co-founder of HubSpot, offers great example questions to assess culture fit, while ensuring the interview maintains a conversational tone, not an interrogation.
4. Create a phenomenal candidate experience.
A great candidate experience means that anybody who walks through the door of your company will become a promoter, even if they are rejected. Dharmesh Shah talks specifically about creating a great candidate experience when hiring developers, but his process can easily be applied to other roles. Focus on the whole candidate experience, from the very first time they visit your website, all the way through to delivering a decision. Be efficient and transparent, and show the candidate you respect their time and energy. You might also consider creating a simple NPS style survey to give candidates at the end of the interview process so you can identify weak points in your process and improve.
5. Don’t skip reference checks.
Reference checks are critical to validating what you discovered during the interview process. It can be tempting to cut short the reference checking after a good interview. I can’t tell you how many candidates I’ve interviewed that appeared great in the interview, only to find there was a major flaw through the reference check. Karthik Sridharan, Co-founder and CEO of Kinnek, explains how to conduct focused and helpful reference calls to get the whole story on candidates, not just what they’re willing to share during the interview. I also recommend you take a look at my fellow partner Josh Hannah’s how-to-guide on “Executive Hires: The Case for Extreme Referencing.”
The bottom of the funnel is all about closing the candidates that have made it through the evaluation gauntlet. As in any strong sales process, make sure you understand all of the decision making criteria that your candidate will be using when evaluating your offer, including what they care about most, and where your company stands relative to their other options.
Top tips for closing and onboarding:
1. Keep selling after the offer letter is signed.
As Mark Suster points out in this blog post: “Why recruiting isn’t over when an employee accepts your offer” you enter the most vulnerable period right after a candidate signs your offer letter. That’s when their current employer, and any other firms that they are turning down will turn on their most aggressive attempts to change the candidate’s mind.
2. Use your VC’s.
Good VC board members can help with several aspects of executive recruiting. Your VC can help you think through your org design, help with executive job descriptions, talk through compensation, help with sourcing and references, and help close executive candidates by championing your company. Your VCs are there to help you — use them!
3. Create an onboarding program.
Once you have put this much energy into recruiting great candidates, it makes sense to invest the time to make them productive as fast as possible. Lever also offers some great Tips for Holistic, Effective Employee Onboarding. We’ve also gathered insights from HubSpot’s Andrew Quinn, Sales Training Manager, on creating the strongest team possible by laying the foundation through a structured onboarding process.
It’s no longer enough to be great at developing products that your customers desperately want, and to know how to market, sell, and retain these customers using a repeatable and scalable machine. While it is tough for a founder to think of spending this much time away from the other functions where their passions lie, more experienced founders and execs know that the only way they can build a scalable business is to build a team of A-players that can do most of that work for them.
If you enjoyed this article, you can find more articles by Matrix General Partner David Skok on his blog forEntrepreneurs.com, where he writes in-depth articles that include tactical advice for startup founders.