Startups require a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get off the ground. And once they're up a running, the work doesn't get easier. But when it's time to grow your team and bring on new staff, startups can face an uphill battle for great talent. Probably the biggest logical difference between hiring in a startup and a larger corporation is the concept of specialists vs. generalists. This was a big theme of one of 2019’s most popular business books, Range, which argues that generalists triumph in an overly-specialized world. Big corporations have a lot of resources and can afford very specific silos in terms of roles, so that you have one person who manages one element of SEO or Google AdWords -- and while they of course collaborate with others, that is their specific lane and line of sight. Startups do not have that luxury; most times, everyone needs to be a generalist jack-of-all-trades as the business attempts to grow -- and one of the perks of that growth is that you can hire more specialists and take some responsibilities away from people who have been grinding in 40 different roles for a year or two.
But of course, even when well-funded, a startup cannot offer the compensation packages that a major enterprise company can (usually). So if you can’t necessarily compete on money, what are the main talent acquisition tips to consider if you’re just starting up?
The big 9 tips for startups
How can startups or small businesses stand out in a crowd and find quality candidates to hire? Let's break down some of the key tactics to think about:
- Even if you can’t compete on money, you still need to be fair: When you say startup, people often envision passionate entrepreneurs working round the clock without pay. In reality, we all know people won’t work for peanuts, and have immediate needs (and bills), so while dangling equity can be a nice gesture, there needs to be some basic compensation coming in semi-regularly so that someone can exist until the equity matters. If you are funded, talk to your funders about the importance of getting the best people, and money’s role within that play. It’s not typically a pre-eminent incentive for those inclined to work at startups, but it does matter.
- Culture is huge: We talk a lot about culture in business discussions, and some people don’t fully seem to understand it, because we live in this data-obsessed era, and “culture” is not easily quantified or translated into data points. Well, we can quantify it in one way and that's with the talent it attracts. Epic Systems, which handles a huge chunk of medical records, is a massive, multi-billion dollar company you’ve probably never heard of -- and they operate outside of Madison, Wisconsin. That’s a long way from Silicon Valley. Yet they get elite talent from top business schools globally. How? A lot of it is their unique culture. Take a look at this profile of them from CBS. Employees get important projects, and the campus feels like a giant video game! For startups that can't compete with cash, providing a stellar company culture can make a big impact.
- Target up-and-coming talent: Sometimes it pays to be proactive. Find pathways to build relationships and talent pipelines so that, once someone is done with their formal education, they will want to come and work with you. Consider tactics like sponsoring a high school STEM event, going to university talent fairs, working to hold events on campuses or even have a "doors open" day at the startup. There are lots of ways to reach out within your community and build these connections that may bear fruit long term. After all, you never know who will be a job seeker one day.
- Cultivate the employer brand: This is part of the culture discussion above, but an external representation of that culture. Make sure that Glassdoor reviews are positive -- and if any are not, respond to those that aren't to appear proactive to others glancing at reviews. Use your company's LinkedIn page to highlight cool projects people are working on, gatherings, happy hours, and fun events like office Olympics. Do the same on your blog and Facebook. The message that any candidate gets from you should be: “I will do interesting work and have fun with cool people if I end up at this place.” And once you have an employer brand, keep an eye on it and help it grow!
- Referral program: When you get Employee 2, 3, 4, and so on in the door … tap into their networks. Who have they worked with before? Who do they trust? Could someone be poached, even from a bigger company? And if their target cannot be poached, does the target know someone who might be interested -- maybe a junior employee at the bigger company? Use talent networks consistently. Referrals and assessments are usually your most predictable path to top talent.
- Avoid job boards: We like job boards overall, although they’ve gotten a bad rap of late as posting more commission-only and transactional-type jobs. However, top talent doesn't usually reside on job boards. You might get lucky and find a true diamond in the rough, but top talent is usually already employed -- and it’s up to you to convince them that your situation is better for them long-term. Plus, using job boards as a tech angle of your recruiting tends to get you a ton of resumes to sift through. That can be time-consuming and take away from more potentially-strategic initiatives. That said, when you're not sure what you're looking for and want all the options, job boards can be a tactic to consider.
- Recruitment marketing automation (RMA): When you have that culture-focused content -- team outings, work project descriptions, etc. -- make sure you schedule it to post in different ways on multiple platforms. Everything can be used for Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. but if you just post the same thing to every platform, people will get bored and candidates will disengage. Find a unique concept for each one -- IG might be a video of teammates dancing at a baseball game; LinkedIn might be a case study into a client problem you recently solved. Hit the candidates from all angles with varied messages that all tie back to one central concept: your company is the place to be.
- Better job descriptions: Most know that big company job descriptions are not often great. It’s usually just a series of bullet points, often recycled, and full of buzzwords. Try a different approach: explain the culture. Explain what you need now in a role, what an ideal skill set would be, and how new responsibilities will be common as the company is still starting up. Then explain where the role might evolve to in 1, 3, and 5 years -- give a sense of career progression and opportunities for growth. That’s a powerful motivator if candidates can see where they'll be going should they step into the role.
- Attitude, experience, or competence?: Think through this carefully. There are a few different pathways you can take when hiring early-stage employees. One is to hire for attitude -- this is a reflection of cultural fit and “can-do nature!” The person could be young and inexperienced, or they could have a meandering career. But it’s more about the impression you get and how you think they’d fit into the team. Experience is self-explanatory. That is long-term experience within a certain field or type of role. Competence is similar to experience, but it means a person that has displayed tangible ROI in previous roles -- so going above and beyond simply having experience. It’s good to have a mix of attitude people, those with experience in core functions, and those who tangibly display results at every stop. This will all help you grow.
Startups can make great hires at any size
There are thousands of articles out there about talent acquisition for startups. In truth, there is no perfect path or truly secret sauce when it comes to the recruitment process. It’s a mix of trial and error, broader strategy, and adaptation and evolution as the business changes and you have the capacity to bring in more people. Not every startup is in the same position or requires the same type of talent. But when in doubt these 10 factors are a good place to start when it comes to thinking more holistically about the hiring process. Great candidates are out there and many are willing to roll the dice on a startup. It's just a matter of reaching them with the right message. While it can be daunting to compete against established businesses for top talent, it's not an impossible task. Find which hiring approach works best for your business instead of trying to follow the herd and once you learn what's effective, fine-tune those strategies and repeat them. Staffing a startup with strong employees is possible at any size, you just need to know where to start.
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