How to unlock the secret to Startup Hiring success

The number one challenge for any startup isn't raising finance or sales – it’s always hiring

Building a highly talented team that is right for your business at each particular phase of growth is the factor that can make or break a startup

And so many startups get this consistently wrong because they grow up too fast – and because it’s damned hard!

CB Insights researched failed startups identifying the top 20 reasons as to why startups fail - and not having the right team was 3rd

Building and running a startup is new territory for most founders – it’s a different game from being in an established business, and the old rules don’t apply

So here are the new rules -  starting with putting recruitment/HR/operational practices in place first!

Rule 1 - Start with a fully-fledged recruitment plan

Your recruitment plan is the bedrock of everything your company stands for. Its DNA, values, mission, employer brand – and the type of people you want on the journey

Your first employees will shape the future of your company.  You’ll need people who believe in the company mission, will do their utmost to fulfil it and can hit the ground running

When a significant amount of time is spent on marketing and sales - but not on a clear scalable recruitment plan – the result is likely to be that of failure.  If the talent isn’t there, how will the founder's vision come to life?

Tip - Organise your hiring from the start with an applicant tracking system

Streamline all of your recruiting activity from sourcing, job posting, interview scheduling and offers and analyse results with your team.  An ATS will free up your time, synchronise effort and help keep everyone in the loop.  So many startups struggle with chaos in the initial hiring stages with different hirers and processes for each team.  The addition of a simple ATS system from the start can help alleviate significant hiring pain

Rule 2 – Hire for attitude and high potential

After speaking to many startups.  The one thing they all agree on is that it is essential to hire for the right attitude and high potential – not skills or experience

Not hiring for experience may seem counterintuitive, but most employees can further their learning and skills.  Changing someone’s attitude in comparison is much harder, or nye on impossible

Nb. If you’re wondering how to assess a candidate’s ‘potential’ - scenario-based testing is the answer, where it adapts to your unique environment or team

Look to hire employees who understand what you’re trying to do and believe in something bigger than them. The ones with infectious energy levels, a willingness to learn, continuously adapt and take a risk (and fail)

If they’re a jack of all trades and will pitch in and get their hands dirty too – hire them now!

You may sometimes feel like the Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton advertising for men for his hazardous journey – but those are often the type of people you want

The ‘top talent’ on the market isn’t necessarily right for a startup

Experienced talent may arrive with preconceived notions and habits.  It is more vital to find someone who fits in with your company culture and vision

Rule 3 – Get buy-in for your recruitment plan

It is imperative to convince stakeholders not only to invest in recruiting the right people but to pay competitively

Nb.  If you’re using a recruitment agency ensure that they are sending the same message as HR on pay to strengthen your case

You’ll also need a transparent interview process with stakeholder commitment and agreement in advance as to who is accountable for which actions in the plan. CEOs generally look after far too much – understandably, it’s their baby, but this is where they need a recruitment expert

You will equally need buy-in from the team as new employees will have a profound effect on team culture

Rule 4 – Use different hiring tactics to compete against bigger brands and budgets

Startups have three key hiring issues

  • not knowing how to hire
  • having an unknown brand
  • having non-competitive salaries

Therefore you will have to hire using different tactics

Firstly carry out competitor analysis – what are they offering? How are they hiring?

Highlight how you can fulfil your employee’s goals and ambitions with your unique company culture, exciting work, learning and career progression

Offer flexible packages such as remote work or even exclusive perks adapted to suit the employee that larger competitors can’t 

Nb. If you’re hiring developers, you MUST allow pet/side projects

A typical advantage of joining a startup is the benefit of employee equity or share ownership. Owning part of the company can make up for smaller salaries and also act as an incentive to produce fantastic work while genuinely feeling part of the company

Sourcing candidates

If you’re looking for ‘hard to find’ candidates such as software developers you may want to use a specialist recruitment agency.  Ensure you have allocated budget correctly as the cost may be high, however, the time and energy saved may well be worth it

You can also search for candidates at meetups, community events, conferences and trade shows.  You could even start an internship program which would be very cost-effective and maybe a great way to hire

Let everyone share the vision (and refer!)

Everyone in the company should share the responsibility for hiring new people.  Get them involved and referring any great people that they know or meet;  from friends and family to peers in the tech community

Nb. Startups can even struggle to get candidates to interview.  Try offering an incentive to get the conversation started (several tech companies in the UK use this technique by offering free membership or product trials)

Always be on the hunt for talent/grow your pipeline

Don’t look for new employees just before you need them.  Concentrate your efforts on making connections and building relationships all year round and gently embedding your vision for the future in potential candidates' minds!  It will also look like a natural progression when you reach out to talk about a role

When you find your ideal candidate – move quickly

Great candidates get other offers, and although you mustn’t make a hasty decision you will need to act with haste to secure them

Rule 5 – Perfect your candidate experience

The candidate experience you provide is critical at every step in the process, and high engagement is vital from the business to keep the candidate interested and excited to join

Every impression counts; from the language used in job adverts to the story told for each role and about the business (ideally using video where you can)

Nb.  ensure that you test your advertising continuously with a mix of headlines and messages until  you know it works

Market your Employer Brand

Let the world know your bigger vision, what you’re all about, why you’re excited about the future and why they should believe in you and your mission

And to do that you’ve got to be visible in the market – on social media, news, industry sites and publications

You’ve also got to get out there and speak at and run industry events.  Show them that you’ve got something interesting to offer.   Build trust through your excellent work, and you should attract interested candidates who want to find out more about your company

Let your career site showcase your culture

Tell the story of your company so prospective employees can identify with your business.  Use creative media including photos, videos and testimonials and highlight the ethics, values, products, clients and individual team journeys and how future employees might fit in

Rule 6 – Phase your hiring

You must phase strategic hires, so each hire makes sense at each stage of the business evolution. Not having the right staff ready to work on each phase is easy to get wrong, and many startups do

There needs to be a strong founding team who can develop the business from ideas to products to a proven business model.  As the business scales, further employees are required to facilitate further growth 

Nb.  To find out more about hiring through the different startup phases - here’s a great article on recruiting before, during and after a round of funding here

Rule 7  – Put your team first – from onboarding onwards

You’ve hired a fantastic team due to your well thought through tactics -  but don’t stop there!

Keep your team motivated and enthusiastic by putting their expectations first.  Provide them with ample opportunity and support to learn more and help them showcase their leadership skills

If you’re bringing in new leaders as the business grows, ensure that they still fit the entrepreneurial nature and culture that has allowed the company to thrive so far

And remember

Celebrate your teams' successes and efforts - even the small wins


Look after them well, and they will look after your startup

Added 27-May-2022