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 min read

The practical guide to startup recruitment

Recruiting for a startup means recruiting hard to find talent with limited resources and rapidly changing requirements. So how do you know who to hire, how to find them, reach them and how to hire them? This guide is made for you.

Why recruitment for startups is different

Recruiting for a startup is very different from recruiting for established companies.

Established companies have clear job descriptions and requirements, defined recruitment processes, are relatively stable and have an established employer brand.

The startup work environment is characterized by constant flux and change of direction, undefined processes and a strong variety in work activities.

Because of these differences recruiting for a startup brings different hiring goals, job requirements and ways of working compared to recruiting for an established company.

Startups have specific challenges to overcome in hiring for growth:

1. Need for talent that is growth minded and tech savvy

The most important difference is that the people that flourish in a startup are very different from talent that do well in a process oriented, structured and political environment of an established company. You need talent that is growth minded and that has the right tech and growth related skills. That talent is a rare breed and high in demand and therefore hard to find.

2. Unestablished employer brand

A startup has limited reach in terms of candidates that can be reached through the existing network and channels. This results in significantly less inbound candidate leads when compared to more established companies. Chances are very small that you find an engineer that is skilled enough in your technology stack by just posting a job on some job boards. Therefore startup recruiters need to include passive candidate sourcing in their sourcing strategy.

3. Limited recruitment resources

A startup has a limited number of recruiters and limited budget for recruitment tooling and campaigns. This means you have to be creative in your sourcing strategy. You have to look for talent in places where others are not searching and you have to differentiate your outreach from other recruiters to stand out.

4. High speed of scaling the team

The startup environment and needs are changing rapidly. And so are the recruitment goals and job requirements. The one moment you might be looking for a sales executive and a couple months later for an entire engineering team. Because of this you need to adjust your recruitment strategy on a regular basis.

Work related needs of startup talent (link)

The practical guide to startup recruitment

So how do overcome these challenges and find the best growth minded tech talent? 

This practical guide will help you to better equip yourself to hire the right people following these topics:

  1. How to understand who you need to hire
  2. How to find the right candidates
  3. How to reach out and engage candidates
  4. How to move from candidate to hire

1. How to understand who you need to hire

Who you need to hire depends on many factors.

The candidate's skills, background and experience are obviously important, also in a startup.

But in a startup environment some additional factors play an important role in deciding who you need to hire.

You need to take into account the current stage of growth of the startup and any expected changes in responsibilities in the near future since the startup goals and requirements are changing rapidly.

These are the steps to better understand who you need to hire.

Determine the job title and key criteria

Think of a position title that matches your desired position.

Maybe you have already seen a profile on for example LinkedIn that you think matches with what you need.

Is there a hiring manager or are there colleagues that will directly work with the future employee? Then involve them in the process, from brainstorming to decision.

Filter the needs for the position down to five key criteria that you think the candidate should at least bring.

Next to the hard skills that you include in your criteria, also define what kind of personality you are looking for.

To determine the desired personality you can use this startup personality assessment.

Write the Job description

Translate the key criteria into a job description.

Use a clear structure and if you’re not sure where to start use a job description template.

Topics that the job description should cover at a minimum:

  • Job title: Keywords of the role, seniority level and region (if applicable)
  • Location: Country, region and indicate if (partly) remote work
  • About: Your company’s mission, team and culture
  • Responsibilities: The job that the candidate is going to do on a daily or weekly basis
  • Requirements: Experience years, skills, market experience, languages
  • Benefits: Incentive scheme, stock options, goodies, salary, company fun
  • Learn more: Include links to company culture page, core values, product page, the mission statement, the team and overview with customers

Also take into account the alternative job titles talent will be searching for and use these in the job description.

Tools that help you write a good job description
  • Enlighten Jobs: Job and recruitment glossary to check for job title synonyms
  • QuillBot: Rephrasing tool to improve your job description text

Optionally do a talent mapping

Optionally do a talent mapping.

Talent mapping is the process of assessing the entire available talent pool that matches your job criteria.

A talent mapping results in a number representing the total addressable talent market.

The benefits of talent mapping are that you have a realistic view of the total size of the talent pool and that you can anticipate possible challenges during the sourcing process better.

Here’s a detailed guide on how to do a talent mapping.

High level results of a talent mapping (link)

2. How to find the right people

When you have a clear picture of who you want to hire you want to find the people who match that picture.

Because startups are relatively small and have an unestablished employer brand, you can’t just rely on active job seekers who apply to your job on a job board or your career website.

You will have to find the candidates yourself.

You can do that either by passive sourcing or through referrals. 

Recruitment through referrals is a well known recruitment strategy so we focus here on how you can find candidates yourself by searching across a variety of platforms.

We also go through cross referencing candidates, applying role specific recruitment strategies and setting Google Alerts for layoffs.

Passive talent: the most underestimated and biggest pool of available talent (link)

Alternative platforms to source startup talent on

Tech talent in most cases have plenty of career opportunities.

This means you are competing with recruiters that source at scale for these candidates.

Therefore you have to search in places where most recruiters don’t.

Here cross platform sourcing comes in.

Cross platform sourcing is searching for candidates across a variety of professional and social media platforms, rather than being limited to one platform. 

For most recruiters LinkedIn is still the only source of hiring.

So there is a big opportunity to embrace alternative platforms to find candidates on.

Cross platform sourcing has some big benefits:

  • There is less competition on alternative platforms compared to LinkedIn
  • Candidate information that you can find on other platforms is in many cases richer in terms of professional activity and interests
  • Alternative platforms are usually representing a niche of people who show very strong interest in a specific domain
There are hundreds of alternative platforms you can source talent on (link)

Some of the best alternative platforms where startups are finding talent on are:

GitHub: With 65 million engineers GitHub is the platform with the most active engineering users, beating LinkedIn and any other platform. A goldmine of rich and up to tech skills information. How to recruit talent on GitHub.

Stack Overflow: This question and answer forum has over 14 million developers and up to date tech skills information. Stack Overflow is a must for sourcing tech talent. How to recruit talent on Stack Overflow‍

Reddit: The Redditors community is one of the biggest and most underestimated online communities today with 330 million users. Redditors engage in comical, but also professional discussions. How to recruit talent on Reddit‍.

AngelList: Angellist is home to startup enthusiasts that don’t only have the right skillset, but also the right mindset for a work environment with rapid change. How to source talent on AngelList‍.

XING: The assumption is that LinkedIn is used globally as the primary professional network. Not true for Germany. Xing is the leading professional network site here and it is gaining more users in other countries as well. How to source talent on XING‍.

Kaggle: With 5 million data scientists and machine learning experts, Kaggle is the go to source for finding data talent. How to source talent on Kaggle‍.

Medium: Medium is one of the leading publishing platforms where professionals showcase their thought leadership in their domain. This is the place to look for talent that wants to get their voice heard. How to source talent on Medium.

If you want to learn more on using alternative platforms to source talent go to our blog series on cross platform sourcing.

Tools that help you find the best candidates cross platform
  • Recruitin: an Xray search string generator that creates the right Boolean search strings for several platforms based on the fields you choose to include in your search
  • HeroHunt: a cross platform talent search engine specifically designed for tech companies

Cross referencing profile data to find more information and contact details

A person on average has 7.6 different social media accounts.

Information you need for screening and outreach is usually spread across several sources.

If you want to have a full view of a candidate you have to know on which platforms the candidate is active.

It is bad practice to rely on LinkedIn only because candidates might not be active here and LinkedIn is increasingly limiting users from connection and messaging options.

By cross referencing candidates you can quickly find more information on a candidate’s professional activity, interests and contact details so you can do relevant and well informed outreach.

Here's an example of a cross referencing exercise.

Cross referencing a candidate to find more information and contact details (link)
Tools that help you cross reference candidates

Adopt a role specific recruitment strategy

Every role has their own preferred personalities, characteristics and needs.

This means every role has its own sourcing approach.

When you're recruiting an engineer vs a sales executive every step in the recruitment cycle is different: you search in different places, your outreach is different and your offer has different components.

Below you find the characteristics and a possible sourcing approach for three hard to find startup roles.

Full Stack Engineer

Characteristics

  • Self learning and excited about complex problems
  • Most likely codes as a hobby and has learned to code as a kid
  • Prioritizes good work-life balance over salary and benefits
  • Mostly leaves jobs because of poor management

Possible sourcing approach

  • Do a talent mapping for hard to find roles
  • Have your job description reviewed by an engineer
  • Search and engage candidates with a combination of LinkedIn, GitHub, Stack Overflow. Prioritize the latter two.
  • Research candidates by cross referencing their profiles and (hyper)personalize outreach based on relevant information you can find on the interwebs
SaaS Sales Lead

Characteristics

  • Target driven and optimistic
  • Tech savvy but mostly business minded
  • Gets excited about progress and growth perspectives like new markets or new offerings
  • Likes to save time so there is more time left to talk to clients

Possible sourcing approach

  • Create a job offer including an incentive scheme like a percentage of total recurring revenue and stock options
  • Search talent by including other tech companies in your search - use the PSE method or use a sourcing solution that takes into account SaaS specific talent metrics like tech and high growth experience
  • Use a contact finder to find public phone numbers and get in touch through direct phone call
Growth Marketeer

Characteristics

  • Usually millennial or gen Z who adopts new technology fast
  • Has a growth mindset, learns fast, is autonomous and is used to a high paced work environment
  • Very active in communities and on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Slack and adopt the newest social media channels and platforms in their life and work

Possible sourcing approach

  • Launch a creative job post and job marketing campaign showcasing your employer brand and your marketing content
  • Emphasize career possibilities, learning opportunities and make explicit that you motivate a level of freedom in work and that you embrace experimentation and tooling
  • Connect and engage with talent on their preferred social channels: like, comment, share on the platforms where they are most active

Set alerts to be the first one to know about candidates becoming available at scale

It often happens that other tech companies have to let good people go because of for example a declining market size, shift in focus or M&A’s.

These layoffs mean that talent becomes available on the market at scale.

Recruiting talent from companies that let talent go is a proven recruitment strategy.

By using a Google Alert on company layoffs you can take immediate action and offer a job to good talent that is going to be let go by their employer.

An example of a Google Alerts and possible results

This is how to set up a Google Alert for company layoffs:

Step 1. Set up a simple search string on google.com/alerts like ‘Company layoff’

Step 2. Add keywords to your search string that describe the industry you’re recruiting in, for example: (tech OR internet)

Step 3. Your final search string can look something like this: Company layoff (tech OR internet)

Step 4. Review the results for the alert

Step 5. Go to ‘Show options’ and add options, for example sources: News

Step 6. Save the alert, you now receive news updates on company layoffs of tech companies

Here’s a detailed guide on how to set a Google Alert to find and recruit available candidates at scale.

3. How to reach out and engage candidates

As stated earlier, startup talent like engineers, sales executives and growth marketeers are scarce and a lot of companies are chasing after them.

You have to differentiate yourself in your outreach to distinguish yourself from other tech companies that are recruiting.

Many recruiters try to automate the outreach process which can lead to impersonal and too generic messages.

That creates an opportunity for you. One of the most effective things you can do to differentiate yourself is to send a hyper personalized message.

To do that it helps to have complete and accurate information about the candidate that you have collected in the previous step across several online sources.

You also want to know which communication channels the candidate prefers to use and have a well organized process for scheduling and interviewing.

Drafting the right outreach message

Outreach is your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other recruiters. 

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to get a massage that is 100% tuned to you? 

Personalizing a message can be more time consuming than standardizing and automating it, but it will improve your response rates and help you start a fruitful conversation.

Tips in drafting your outreach message to any candidate:

  1. Hyper personalize your message by including relevant professional and non-professional facts about the candidate that you have found across several sources online
  2. First provide value in terms of anything related to the candidate, this can be a joke, a reference to their hobby, a genuine compliment, updates or mentions
  3. Do not focus on asking questions, state the situation and the potential of a further conversation without being too commercial or transactional
  4. Provide one simple and frictionless call to action in the end of your message where the candidate can simply reply yes or no to

A good outreach message could look something like this:

Hi [first name], I saw that you’re a big Guardians of The Galaxy fan, can’t wait until the GoTG 3 release in 2023.

I’ve been looking at your GitHub repos and was impressed with your JavaScript projects, especially the chrome dev tools projects, not something I have seen a lot of people working on but seems to be very relevant.

With [your company name] we’re building out our [subject] app which is reaching 15k business clients and we’re looking for someone who’s able to not only write smashing JS code but who also can take the junior team to the next level (this is the product and tech stack we’re building on).

With the variety of your JS projects and the level of complexity you’re handling it seems to be something that you might love to do.

If you want to have a chat over this you can reply in short and I'll take care of arranging our chat. Enjoy this sunny day!

Scheduling and interviewing

Scheduling seems easy but often goes wrong and causes a lot of frustration on the candidate side.

It’s relatively easy to improve the scheduling experience by using smart tools that help you schedule the interview.

The most important things to take into account in scheduling interviews with candidates:

  • Create flexibility for the candidate, some candidates prefer to have a call in the evening (for example after work) and some might be stuck to very specific days for a chat
  • Be clear about the goal and duration of the conversation upfront
  • Offer a simple way for the candidate to plan the interview on their preferred time slot (see tools below)
  • If relevant, send some information on the company and role (don’t send an overkill of information because you’ll risk scaring off the candidate)
Use Calendly to schedule meetings without having to exchange dates
Tools that help you schedule interviews
  • Goodtime: Scheduling tool that's free and easy to use
  • Calendly: Smart AI powered interview and scheduling tool
  • Talent Cube: Video interviewing tool to enable and record conversations and assessments

4. How to move from candidate to hire

You have the right candidates by now and want to move towards deciding if you want to hire them. 

With several interview rounds, planning and possibly assessments it can take a while before a candidate signs up for the job.

The average time to hire (amount of days that a job vacancy is open) for tech roles is 33 days

It takes time to offer a great candidate experience and ensure that you hire the right person.

Assessing candidates

To make sure you are hiring the best you might want to include assessments to your recruitment process. 

An important consideration is that you ask for time from the candidates which can be something the candidate is not looking to do risking them dropping off.

Good assessments however give candidates insights into their skills, which can be a good motivation to complete an assessment.

For typical startup roles there are several assessment tools so you don't have to develop themselves.

Assessment tooling helps you test skill sets of candidates
Tools that help you assess candidates
  • HackerRanl: (Pre)assessment tool to conduct interviews with pre-built assessments for developers
  • Pymetrics: Psychographics assessment tool that assesses the job seeker’s risk aversion, cognitive abilities and behavioural characteristics
  • TestGorilla: General assessment tool in a broad range of domains of expertise ranging from B2B sales tests to technical and HR tests

Applicant tracking and managing touchpoints

Because there are most likely dozens or hundreds of candidates per job and there are several jobs to fill, you want to keep track of your candidates that move through your different hiring stages.

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) helps you do that.

The ATS for your startup has to be:

  1. Effective in terms of helping you find the right people enabled by data driven decision making
  2. Flexible in terms of pricing so you can change plans whenever your needs change
  3. Easy enough to start using it today and integrate it in your recruitment process
  4. Scalable in terms of functionality so the tool can grow with your rapidly changing team
An ATS is crucial when you're managing dozens or hundreds of candidates and several jobs
Tools that help you move candidates to hires
  • Beamery: Smart ATS to track candidates and manage touchpoint and next steps
  • Recruitee: ATS with a focus on fast growing companies
  • Breezy HR: Affordable end to end recruitment software with functionalities like candidate management, reports and referral portals

The offer they can't refuse

You might not be able to offer the highest salary as a startup, but there are many other things you can offer the candidate.

So how can you make an attractive offer?

Next to salary, there are tangible benefits that you can include in your offer. But you should also not forget about the other perks that a startup job offers.

Tangible benefits that you can include in your startup job offer:

  • Shares: In any role and especially in early stage startups company shares are an attractive benefit for talent because shares can make employees millionaires and they provide ownership to employees. Shares are usually not offered at larger organizations unless you’re in a board position.
  • Bonus: In roles with clear targets it can make a lot of sense to provide an incentive scheme. Sales executives for an example you can offer a percentage of the Total Contracted Value (TCV) or Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR). A sales bonus can start at 5% but can go as high as 30% and sometimes even more.
  • Tools: As a startup there is more freedom to adopt exactly the tooling that you need. Larger organizations have set processes, tooling and compliance procedures they have to adhere to.
  • Remote work: Many tech companies work (partly) remote. The advantage of tech is that there is a limited dependency on work on site. Because of this you can support working from home and even working from anywhere, these are the best cities for remote work.

Intangible benefits that you shouldn’t forget to mention in your offer:

  • Career opportunities: Startups have the opportunity to grow fast and employees can grow with the company in terms of responsibilities. In many cases early employees can ride the wave of market traction in case a startup is successful.
  • Build a broad skill set: Startups provide the opportunity to build a very broad skillset. Established organizations have very well defined but often narrow job descriptions that require employees to specialize. Young talent in particular can enjoy the opportunity to explore what they love doing by engaging in a variety of responsibilities.
  • Fun team: Startup teams are tight-knit. Everyone knows each other and there are no islands. A well connected team with like minded people can be very attractive for startup talent.

We hope you enjoyed this guide and are very keen on receiving your thoughts and ideas to improve our content.

You can visit one of these sections to read more on startup recruitment topics:

Cross Platform Sourcing

Recruitment Strategies

Recruitment Automation

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