Recruiting Better in Tech Startups

6 min reading
Recruiting Better in Tech Startups
Recruiting Better in Tech Startups



Recruiting is one of the biggest pain points in tech startups. Time spent searching for “the right person”—which can add up to hundreds of work hours per employee hired—is time NOT spent building product features, or doing valuable research. This lost time can cripple whole projects and bring any startup to a standstill.

If you have been part of the hiring process at any organization, large or small, you’ve likely heard of or have witnessed some horror stories surrounding recruitment. Say for instance, a company gets no response to a posting for several weeks. Or a company wastes valuable time interviewing several candidates who lack the proper qualifications. Or, as in a scenario I was recently privy to, a company made a verbal offer to a candidate, who verbally accepted, and the next day the company got an email saying the candidate had accepted a better offer somewhere else.

Talent is being lured to emerging “Tech Hubs”

All startups are looking for the same thing: great people to do amazing things. There is now a very strong bi-coastal tug o' war for talent in the U.S. with New York City’s Bloomberg pushing on his ‘We Are Made in NY’ initiative to boost NYC’s 1,000+ startups. And Silicon Valley may not be the center of the startup universe for long with Singapore working on positioning itself as “a startup hub for Southeast Asia”, Israel’s startup scene climbing above 1,200 companiesand Dublin, Ireland quickly becoming the Silicon Valley’s “second home” to some big names such as New Relic, Airbnb, Facebook and more. And those are just some of the amazing geographical options playing host to thousands of startups vying for today’s talent.

Tech startups are driven to hire ‘top talent’

Did you know that there is often a section in a startup pitch deck boasting about the vast and otherworldly skills their team has?

The level of expertise required by job descriptions for startups can be very broad and deep, or as yCombinator user “amirmc” describes it best: The people they really need/want are probably capable of starting their own companies.” All startups are trying to push the envelope on not just ideas but technology as well, putting even more stress on the talent pool. Elli Sharef of recruiting firm HireArt puts it this way: “The technology behind startups is often so new that there aren’t enough candidates with experience in the right skills. It’s simply not possible.” 

So, we are looking for someone who is adventurous, experienced across numerous existing and bleeding edge platforms, frameworks, libraries, and open to taking on duties and challenges that may be outside their role. This person is a rare find, even in today’s vast talent pool.

Top talent will not be found in your inbox

The traditional approach to finding talent is passive. You post a job description online and wait for the right person to call. Fact is, posting a job will often amplify the noise of unqualified or barely interested candidates instead of the person you have in mind. Casting a wider net by posting in numerous places simply creates more noise.

While you are knee deep in resumes from people that just hit “Apply” on some job board or ad, the person you are really looking for is hard at work on breadbox-sized satellites or ranking the affordability of homes, and ignoring job boards. Hiring from this pool may require you to adjust your requisites and expectations of a candidate.

Don’t be passive. If you want to find the talent that will move your startup in its next phase, you are going to have to work more effectively to find it. Skip the want ads and start searching the off-market and poachable talent pool.

Today’s market in a nutshell

    – It’s no secret that the compensation for tech talent keeps going up faster than other positions because the talent knows the market is on their side and can demand more.

    – Conversely, with news of the hundreds of overnight employee-millionaires from an IPO such as Twitter and Facebook it is also becoming increasingly common for a candidate to request a larger chunk of equity in lieu of a fat paycheck.

    – Some startups are finding success in one-week paid tryouts [], or temp-to-perm employment contracts.

    – You are now competing with thousands of other startups and established companies—some in amazing locations with even more amazing offices and perks—looking to recruit for the same skills.

    – And the vast majority of candidates want to hit it big on the IPO or acquisition lottery.

Ways you can beat the game and get the right person for the job

Go off-market. As stated above, the candidate you want is likely off-market, so consider taking your job requisition off-market as well. Nothing sounds more interesting to a poachable employee than a position that is being offered exclusively to them. The process may be slower, but the amount of inbox noise is close to zero, allowing you to maintain some semblance of forward momentum.

Build a relationship. Andre Gordenstein, Senior Recruiter at Pandora Radio finds many candidates have become “jaded” by recruiters. He says “many—if not most—of the candidates I end up placing are ones whom I have cultivated a relationship with, know their career goals, and can match those goals to a position. It may not always happen fast, but it’s effective and builds long term partnerships and leads to success.”

Get to the point. We all really need to shorten our job descriptions—by about 75%. These two- and three-page job descriptions are only baffling the candidates and can work against you. Just like your pitch deck: get to the point, and show the passion. Tell them why your product needs to be built, what parts you need help with, and the tools you are looking for them to bring to the table. Be concise.

Host meetups and hackathons. Host a meetup or hackathon around the very problem you are trying to solve. These two activities are no longer a secret as a hiring tactic, which means it also attracts a fair bit of noise. But, at most meetups I have attended the business of getting interviews is alive and well.

Attend tech conferences. There is a major, well-attended conference for everything from Python, Java, Ruby, Rails, iOS, Android and more. If you need a Ruby or Rails developer, a Ruby/Rails conference is going to net every type of person from newbie to emerging talent, on up to major thought leaders in that space. All in one place.

Speed up and streamline your process. If you are reaching out to poach a person, you must have seen that their skills and level of work they produce are in line with what you want. Skip the ‘here is a link to our job description’ part and dive right into saying ‘I saw your work on ______ and ______, and I think you would be a great asset in helping us build our ______ on ______.’ When worded correctly, you start building a peer relationship here that could work in your favor down the road, if not immediately. Play the long game.

Have all necessary personnel ready to interview the talent on a single visit. Spreading it over days can increase the risk of losing them to another company—if you were able to get their attention, that means others can too. Get the interviewing team together within minutes after the interview to make a decision: say no, move forward or make an offer. Then call (don’t email) the candidate immediately after the decision to let them know their status.

Pick a better carrot. Drop the iPad/XBox giveaways to get leads. It cheapens the whole thing and, in my opinion, makes you look desperate. Andre Gordenstein says that over the years he found giving away iPads and other consumer goods was “nice, but didn’t necessarily motivate people to refer others.” What works, he says? Equity, or the age-old cash bonuses.

Keep in mind that I send my friends and colleagues to you because I like you and I want them to work there, not to sell them off for an iPad.

Foster your culture through Team and Jobs pagesMy favorite example is Planet Labs’ “Join Our Team” page From a memorable value proposition of “We’re building an API for the planet” to a close-knit team photo that is clearly taken at an off-site coupled with succinct copy, it makes for a great snapshot of the culture one can expect. You can digest the whole thing in 30 seconds and yet get a real sense of whether this is a place for you or not.

Facebook, Yelp and GitHub have cultures that are legendary (for good or bad.) And they likely got that way because of their early employees. Take a moment to imagine the type of culture you have/want and show that on your team/jobs page. Know that your candidates will either be attracted to, baffled by or repulsed by what you put on there. It serves both you and the candidate for them to be clear what they are getting into.

Now, go recruit in a new way

The pain points with startups are numerous, especially with newly minted and unknown companies. But they are pain points likely shared by all startups, even if you have powerhouse names like Dr. Dre behind your brand.

Banging your head against the same old recruiting wall is only going to yield the same old noisy results. It’s a completely different mindset with today’s startup talent pool, so you have to be willing to row out to where they’re swimming in order to attract someone amazing. And don’t forget to bring sandwiches, it might be a long trip.


It may interest you