How to attract the best talent

We use provocative questions to invite startups to step outside the motions of their day-to-day tasks, and think imaginatively about your recruitment process.

Shout out to our community members Amy Christenson, Michael Malone, Ariel Hersh, and Gabriel Guedes for their collaboration on this piece!

It’s an exciting milestone in every startup’s journey - when you’re ready to grow your team! Often, this moment rolls around unexpectedly quickly.

Recruitment is essential to the success of every company; but for early-stage startups, it’s mission critical. The right candidates will not only crush the job, but cement your company’s values, and create the initial conditions for the next hundred hires.

Approaching recruitment with creativity, thoughtfulness, and an intent to communicate your company’s core values will not only help you attract the right skills, but also create alignment in your team at a deep level. In addition, investing in a thoughtful recruitment process in the early days sends a clear message that your company is one that puts its people first. This sets you up to win the war on talent, and stand out in an endless sea of job opportunities. This has never been more important - the next generation of talent are job-frisky and job-hop at pace.

Before we discuss attracting candidates at large, it’s worth mentioning that the best founders, and early stage team members, habitually mine their personal networks for talent. Where large companies such as Google and Atlasssian may have talent lining up to work for them, early stage startups will have to meet talent where it lives, and sell job opportunities to them. The most resourceful founders approach all introductions and meetings with genuine curiosity, and are often thinking, “Would this person make a great addition to my team one day?” They consciously nurture relationships with prospects, so that when it’s time to make their first hire, they have an engaged pool of talent ready to go.

Founders committed to a direct-sourcing approach are out-and-about in the community: speaking at events, attending meetups, and taking every and all opportunity to share the vision they’re building. For fast-growing startups, bringing an in-house recruiter onboard can also be a great move. This person will methodically hunt for the people you need - trawling through GitHub resumes, attending conferences, and sending our compelling outbound messages to prospects.

This article invites companies to approach recruitment thoughtfully, innovatively, and provocatively - because an investment in recruitment is an investment in the lifeblood of your startup.

To begin, ten very practical tips  

  1. Map out a candidate journey where your company’s values are brought to life. The key touch-points are: the candidate first stumbling upon the company and job description, the initial contact, the interview process, the offer, and the welcome kit.
  2. Interview fast; hire slow. When there’s a million moving pieces and a thousand things on fire, it can be tempting to rush in hiring. But hiring is one of the most significant decisions an early-stage company can make. Taking time to hire the right candidate delivers compounding returns, driving faster growth in the longer term.
  3. Set realistic eligibility criteria; make sure years of experience required is actually correlated with the skills you require. There’s some hilarious examples of this going awry!
  1. Put the salary range in the job ad - this saves time and telegraphs transparency. Buffer, the social media app, launched a ‘Transparent Salaries’ initiative where they posted all their employees salaries. This generated strong media buzz and attracted candidates who similarly valued transparency.
  2. At the early stages, hire a number of flexible learn-it-alls.  Early stage startups are messy, fast, and furious. This means you need a number of people who can handle ambiguity, and run with whatever is thrown at them. In practice, this means biasing your first hires towards ‘athletes’ - talent that will train hard and learn new skills. These candidates sometimes have less traditional career paths!
  3. Use hiring tools that minimise bias and encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion. Tools like Applied and Arctic Shores ensure you’re not letting subconscious bias seep into your screening process.
  4. Have the CEO / co-founders make first contact with prospective candidates. This sends a strong message about how much people matter to the business.
  5. Each step in the process should test for different things: values alignment, technical skills, and cultural add. The first stage should screen for values alignment - a rally cry for the right people. The second stage should test technical skills and relevant experience. The final stage is a great opportunity to bring the candidate in to work with the team on a problem. This will give both the team and the candidate a feel for how they’ll fit in, and you’ll have an opportunity to see their skills in action.
  6. Invite the candidate to do their own due diligence on the company. For example, Commit, a community for software engineers, has a Hiring Data Room for potential employees to scour their business. Remember, potential talent are taking a leap of faith joining your business: founders should welcome candidates' desire to understand the business model and financials, and not be deterred by it.
  7. Codify your processes. Your business needs strong foundations upon which to scale and optimise. While hiring by ‘gut feel’ may work in the beginning, memories fade, knowledge is not evenly shared, and as such, standards will vary.

Inspiration Interlude

These examples are here to inspire - with their humour, their commitment to showcase the company’s core values, and their dedication to ensuring candidates have a fantastic experience. The examples showcase a range of touch-points that can be approached with flair: from job placement, job descriptions, interviews, access to leaders and founders, and welcome kits. Executed well, recruitment initiatives can earn you kudos and build your reputation as a fantastic place to work.

  1. Apple regularly sets tests for engineers to crack. In this example, they posted a job ad in one of their publicly accessible, but hidden servers – the right candidates knew what to do!
  1. Method, an e-sports company, asks all candidates the interview question, “What will you do to keep Method weird?” This signals their commitment to keeping things quirky, no matter how large they grow.
  2. Lyka sets ‘work tests’ for every role - not just engineering! For its Customer Care roles, Lyka puts candidates through simulations, inspired by real-life scenarios. Lyka shares with candidates the information they need to represent Lyka, and then team members will call, email, and live chat the candidates with customer queries. The simulations of distressed customer calls will often have the team suppressing giggles!
Lyka makes human-grade dog food, helping puppers live their best lives
  1. Scopely is a mobile gaming studio known for its fun, irreverent culture. Scopely put out a call for “the most interesting engineer in the world”. Candidates were lured with a lavish welcome kit containing a tuxedo, sex panther cologne, a speargun, a year’s supply of beer, and $11,000 in cash, wrapped in bacon.
  2. When Halaxy launched in Ireland, they were an unknown brand and needed to build credibility locally. They hosted a launch event, and invited the Australian Ambassador and the Irish Deputy Prime Minister to open the local office. This got picked up by local news outlets, and built Halaxy’s credibility overnight.
AfterWork’s own Michael Malone with the Australian ambassador and the Irish Minister for Trade and Foreign Affairs
  1. Automattic has a playlist on Youtube with videos of employees – also known as Automatticians – describing in detail what it’s like to work at Automattic. Warby Parker uses the hashtag #teamwarby to scale its employee branding across Instagram and Twitter, giving candidates a taste of team culture.
  2. Airline Eurowing hosted a recruitment campaign on Tinder. They set up dating profiles that advertised roles and interacted with candidates who ‘swiped right’ for more information.
  3. CI Design, a digital marketing firm, cuts straight to the chase with their shameless statement, “We need a nerd”.

Intelligent Interrogation

Armed with this inspo, let’s step back into your business. These questions are designed to stretch you, and are best approached with an open mind. Remember you are an undergunned startup, and your business depends on punching above your weight in attracting talent. Being provocative is a necessity!

1.  What events (meetups, hackathons, panels) can you attend, to get your team talking publicly about the great work they are doing?

2. How could you place a hidden message in plain sight - one that only potential candidates would see?

3. How could you hero your current talent - make them the stars of the show and have them talk about life at your company? How could we get them to share what problems they’re solving and why the work is so thrilling?

4. How can you add humour to your job descriptions? What if you took the boring/unglamorous bits of the job and led with them?

5. What could you have to do to make someone feel like you got them completely and that they just had to work at your company?

6. How could you use social media creatively, (including dating apps, streaming/music apps, marketplace apps) to amplify your message?

7. What kind of questions could you ask in an interview that touch on your company’s values and culture?

8. Could you create a ‘hiring data room’ for prospective employees? What could you populate it with?

9. What would a “WANTED” poster for an employee look like? How could you dramatise this by dialling up all the language?

We love those retro WANTED posters from NASA

10.  What would you put in a dating profile for your business? What would you say to show yourself off?

Pulling it all together…

Once you have some ideas, narrow-in on those that will have the biggest impact on how you make your candidates feel.

As a resource-constrained startup, it may feel like a distraction to spend so much time investing in recruitment processes. But done correctly, recruitment will come more naturally - in time, candidates will actively seek you out. As you scale, the recruitment process will evolve, in line with your budget, ambition, and brand. With this in mind, go forth and turn the heads of some stellar candidates!