How startups are changing the candidate experience game

How startups are changing the candidate experience game

Hiring requires a personal touch and that truth is becoming more important than ever before. Your brand’s “candidate experience” is a summation of all the touch points that someone has with you as they apply to work for you, notably around context, clarity on the process, and communication about where things stand. A positive candidate experience doesn’t mean the candidate necessarily got the job, it means the whole process from application to being hired or not was enjoyable for the person going through it. The idea has come en vogue in the last five years, and is increasingly a factor in both acquiring top talent and maintaining a strong employer brand reputation. So when it comes to talent acquisition, are you providing a great candidate experience or is there room for improvement? 

Candidate experience and brand size

As a company gets larger, protecting the candidate experience often gets harder.  After all, there are more people weighing in on different hires, which can lead to analysis paralysis. There are also a multitude of different attitudes about just how important the candidate experience is, which can muddy the process further. While some large brands can (and do!) have amazing candidate experiences, by and large it’s harder to image a 20,000-person company designing personalized processes for every job-seeker.

But startups have that flexibility to try different things faster, and hiring is massively important to them: the utility of hiring Employee No. 7 vs. Employee No. 17,000 is much larger. With so much on the line if they make a bad hire, startups need to find great, dedicated employees but they also have to wade through the war for talent to do so. How does a small company compete with an industry giant? Salary expectations will likely not be the field on which startups choose to fight. Candidate experience, however, is an arena where more and more small businesses are proving they have the edge. So how can startups change the candidate experience game? Here are some ideas. 

Example: HotelTonight – Build the brand into the process

HotelTonight wanted their applicants to feel like “a valued guest,” because that’s the essence of the brand itself. So they designed the entry point for candidates to look like a hotel:

McQuaig - Startups are changing the gameAnd they also put the values right on the wall when candidates walk in:

McQuaig - Startups are changing the game

It goes beyond the visuals, too:

“We try to find small ways to make the experience special when people are here,” says Ehrenberg. “We ask candidates to stay for lunch. We ask Sam {founder} and other members of our leadership team to check in with an informal meeting, to make sure that everything is going well. We conduct our interviews the way we work, in an open floor plan, and leave candidates a tray of snacks and drinks like you’d find in a hotel mini-bar.”

HotelTonight just got acquired by AirBNB, as an aside. Did that happen because of their candidate experience? No. But if HotelTonight had a weak brand in the market or a weak team, would the acquisition happen? In all likelihood, also no. And that’s in part driven by their commitment to candidate experience and hiring success.

Example: NerdWallet – High-context process

NerdWallet designs its candidate experience around “storytelling, not selling” and they want the entire process to be high-context, including:

“An interview day outline: NerdWallet sends every candidate an outline detailing their day at the office 48-hours before they arrive. It includes: the names and roles of the team members with whom they’ll meet, interview times and duration, and any activities they will be participating in throughout the day. The goal is to provide them with all of the information they’ll need to be excited to come in and have a great experience.”

 They also talk of “deliberately structuring the process in a way that increases your ability to understand where a candidate excels,” which many job-seekers would love to partake in.

Read more: Check out these interview strategies to improve the hiring experience

How can the average startup improve its candidate experience?

While it’s fun to look at some of the innovative ways of interviewing out there, not every company will be able to provide the “hotel” experience to their candidates. But don’t worry, there are tips and tricks you can leverage without breaking the bank. Here are three areas startups can use to their advantage when crafting their candidate experience.

Customized videos at the offer stage

Talent leader Michelle Hart, who has worked with a variety of startups, had this suggestion at a Lever Talent Summit:

“For every single offer your team extends, Michelle recommends sending that candidate a customized video featuring every single interviewer from their process. In the video, the interviewers can share information like: the values that every employee cares about, the benefits the candidate can look forward to, and even activities they can’t wait to do with the candidate (based on what they discussed throughout interviews). Overall, these videos can be hugely rewarding. When she implemented this on her former team, she remembers getting glowing feedback from candidates who ultimately accepted their offer.”

Personalization is hugely important in marketing. It’s why we often give up our data to brands — because we trust they will provide us with personalized recommendations based on that information. Now, recruiting and marketing are not exactly the same thing, that’s true. But sending an offered candidate a personalized video where all his/her interviewers discuss the culture is going to be a huge positive for that candidate. It will make them feel really good. And shouldn’t “feeling really good” be the end of the candidate experience arc? Indeed. Now, these videos might be somewhat time-consuming to produce but think of the return in terms of closing a first-choice candidate. This is one more way smaller companies can stand out in a crowd.


These days it’s all about transparency. It’s increasingly what candidates want from companies they’re applying to. Well, look at what Zapier does in terms of providing transparency about the hiring process:

McQuaig - Startups are changing the gameHiring is inherently rooted in trust. You are trusting that candidates will be honest about their skills and qualifications, and in exchange, you will compensate them and give them business-facing responsibilities. If the entire process is based on trust, why not be open from the start about how the interview process will work? Job seekers are savvy and if they perceive they’ve been dealt with honestly, then they will want to match that energy in return. So if you really want to learn about your candidate, walk your talk and be open about your process. And remember to keep candidates in the loop from recruitment to that exciting job offer. One of the biggest culprits of poor candidate experience is a lack of communication about the steps of the process and where candidates fall along that continuum. Be upfront through the whole recruiting process and your candidates will thank you for it. 

Read more: What impact does candidate experience have on employer branding? 

Reduce the hoop-jumping

Another common source of complaints about candidate experience from, well, candidates is the number of hoops they have to jump through. Primarily for compliance reasons, oftentimes a candidate will have to fill out 10+ screens of data in an Applicant Tracking System after uploading their resume, which often contains a lot of that information anyway. This frustrates candidates and can cause a high abandon rate. Who wants to keep clicking through screens when you’ve already piped the information over?

Sometimes, then, the key to a better candidate experience is simply simplifying the process, which SeatMe did by using tech partners. Just make it easy to apply and get into the process. Bonus points if your application is mobile friendly as well. Reducing the hoops required shows you’re valuing candidate’s time. Seeing as how time is our most valuable non-renewable resource, we all respond favorably when it’s respected. That’s the heart of good candidate experience.

You don’t have to be big to compete

When it comes to candidate experience, size isn’t the most important factor. Smaller startups are actually better positioned to provide a great experience because they have the time to do so and the ROI for doing so is higher with your first initial hires. And with so much on the line, isn’t ensure your candidates walk away smiling a good thing? If you want to breathe new life into your candidate experience, make things fun. Walk your talk, show future hires the man behind the curtain, and give them all the information they need to decide you’re the ones they want to work for. Candidates care about the entire process from advertising on social media, to streamlining the application process on mobile platforms, to planning out the right interview experience. If even no job offer is made in the end, it’s never a bad idea to show candidates you care. If nothing else, it helps strengthen your employer branding which will, in turn, attract top talent your way. There is no downside to caring about a positive candidate experience and when done well, every company from startups to enterprises can benefit. 


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