Wong Liang Zan

Wong Liang Zan

© 2020

Hiring at Startups is not impossible

Hiring is hard. Hiring at startups is harder. Hiring well is incredibly important for a startup. Early hires establish the culture, set the standards and lay the foundation for the company’s success. I want to dispel the myth that it is impossible to hire high quality people at startups. Established companies don’t always win.

As a startup, the odds are stacked against you. You have no brand. You are one out of the many startups. You can’t compete on package and benefits. Society sees startups as high risk, high stress, and low pay. Your candidate’s family is unlikely to support the move. Joining a startup does not earn respect. Appreciate the difficulty. Don’t underestimate the challenge and accord recruiting the effort it deserves.

The process

Recruiting is similar to a funnel. The top of the funnel are candidates who applied. More gets filtered off with each round of interviews, until finally the hire. Recruiting effectively is all about speed - how fast you respond and how fast you make decisions. Speed is the one advantage that a startup will have over an established company. If you can make an offer to a candidate before the others do, you win(usually).

Assuming you have defined what the role looks like, the first phase is lead generation. If it sounds similar to Marketing, it is. We generalise as Inbound and Outbound lead generation. Inbound is where you put up trails of content like job ads and passively wait for applicants to come. Outbound is where you actively reach out to people. Candidates can turn up from anywhere. My policy is to exhaust all free channels. Put up ads on all the free channels you can find. For paid channels, do your research to make sure the ROI is worth it. Make sure they are able to reach the people you are targeting. Think out of the box. Seek out relevant forums, events, anywhere where your target audience is. Established companies don’t usually go the extra mile to seek these unconventional channels. I like to talk to people of similar profiles and find out where they hang out online or in person. If you can identify them, it will help your lead generation.

That brings me to Outbound lead generation. You cannot be content with Inbound leads. There’re good people who aren’t necessarily looking. Work like recruiters. Search for profiles on LinkedIn/Github/etc, find a way to reach them, then pitch. Most of those attempts will fail, but all you need is to nail one. Don’t get disheartened by rejections.

Startup playbook

Assuming you’ve found your ideal candidate, how do you convince him or her to join you? These are strategies which I’d usually employ as a startup to win them over.

Less bureaucracy and politics, more autonomy

Being small has its advantages. There are less processes to tangle with and less resources to fight over. There are people tired of the red tape or political tussles. They just want to do good work. Offer them a chance to start afresh and a platform to demonstrate their capability. Remind them that all established companies have some degree of politics, only how bad it is. There’s no way to know how bad it is until they are inside. Play on their fears of joining a dysfunctional company.

Chance to level up

Established companies usually have a organisation structure in place. People cannot move up until the incumbent has moved on. Or there may be mergers or restructuring such that opportunities for career progression are dashed. I’d appeal to their ambition for such candidates. Offer them a larger role in title and scope. This is something established companies are reluctant to give. Often they would hire for people who have performed at the same level. They don’t want to take risks and they don’t need to. How does the hiring manager at an established company justify hiring someone who haven’t performed at that level? If the hire performs, well and good. If the hire don’t perform, the hiring manager is going to look like a fool and harm his own career. That’s why they would not take risks. However, a startup can afford to take risks. Which is why there is title inflation at startups. Inflating titles are effective and they are free.

Chance to move into another role

There are great people who want to move into another role. But because their background is not related to the new role, they have trouble finding such jobs. Related to my earlier point, established companies don’t need to take risks when hiring. Why risk hiring someone who has never worked in this role? I’ve seen great people who want to move into the technology field from other industries. As a startup, you can afford to take risks. Such candidates are highly motivated and they are usually willing to accept a lower package as they feel that they are starting from scratch. Their experience also helps as they bring perspectives from other industries. When evaluating resumes, be open to people who may not have the necessary background. Give them the chance to show what they can do. I’d usually let applicants attempt a take home assignment for technical roles irregardless of their background.

Work on new technology

Startups offers a chance to work on the latest technology, something not all established companies can do. Established companies have revenue generating products built on older technologies. Their processes and teams are structured around keeping the product running and adding incremental changes. With that baggage, it is difficult to justify trying newer technologies. The priority is always on growing the existing product lines. Leading initiatives to try new but unproven technologies is a risk that most employees are unwilling to take as failures harm their own careers. Most technically inclined people are always looking to build up their skills in on-demand areas. Even those in non-technical roles such as Sales are keen to get involved in newer technologies as they get to ride on the opportunities that a technology shift brings. If you’re working on new technologies, take advantage of the hype and add it on the job advertisement. Update the job title to reflect that aspect. Titles like Mobile developers were non-existent before Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. The same goes for Data Scientists, and Block chain engineers. This is a card that startups can play.

Chance to learn how to start a business

A chance to learn the ins and outs of starting a business is something that a startup can offer. A startup is small enough for everyone to know everybody, and to understand how the entire business works. If a candidate has plans to start his own business, this is an aspect which you can sell to him or her. Established companies won’t be able to offer the first hand experience of selling to the first customers, or building the product or a team or a brand from scratch as they are already there. Talk to the candidate, if this is something that they bring up, use this as a selling point.

Flexible work arrangements

Flexible work arrangements is another selling point that your startup can use, though it isn’t true that only startups can offer flexible work arrangements. It is not easy to implement flexible work arrangements for a large organization for a variety of reasons. There are such companies such as Gitlab, 37 Signals, but they are the exception rather than the norm. But for a smaller company, it is easier to manage. There are great people, who because of family commitments, can’t take up a regular job. Larger companies can’t bend their rules for one candidate, and risk creating mayhem in their organisation. Small companies can. Bend the rules if need be, and make it clear on your job ad that your company has flexible working arrangements.

If hiring is not hard, there would not be a recruiting industry and the outsourcing industry. Despite the odds, it is not impossible for a startup to hire well. Like everything else, there is no short cut in life. Show up like what Woody Allen said, put in the effort, make decisions quickly, play to your strengths and I’m sure those positions will be filled in no time.