While the latest unemployment numbers are unnerving, there are still many companies struggling to find the right employees for their organizations—especially when it comes to startups.
There’s no such thing as a typical startup, which is why the startup environment is an adventure, but one thing is certain: The traditional route of placing an employment ad, accepting resumes, conducting interviews and making an offer isn’t the norm. Here are the success stories of several startups and how they found top talent.
1. Attend networking events
Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, a marketplace for local tutors, discovered that going to specific technical meetups and hangouts can bring success in finding top talent. “That’s not to say we didn’t try a lot of other things that failed rather badly. Most of the general purpose tech gatherings are pretty crummy, filled with people looking for engineers or who are just generally curious about startups.”
When you’re at a networking event and meet that perfect candidate, remember to have your pitch ready. Harris explains:
“We realized that developing a profile of the person we wanted and building the right pitch to excite them was critical. You’re always competing against the bigger tech companies for the best engineers. They have deeper pockets and some unbelievable technology. Startups have to sell the dream of what they’re building and the ownership that goes along with it. When you figure out the right way to sell that, then you’re ready to close the candidates when you find them. At every stage, you need to convince the candidate as much as they need to convince you.”
Don’t be afraid to create your own event. That’s what I Love Rewards, an SaaS-based employee recognition solution, is doing to fill positions for their San Francisco office.Razor Suleman, founder and CEO, says the company was hosting bi-weekly cocktail parties and happy hours at the swanky W Hotel in downtown San Francisco so job seekers could meet with current employees and executives and get a feel for company culture and expectations.
Suleman cited the nerve-racking interview-like scenarios as the reason for the event. “With recruiting happy hours, we alleviate the pressure for the talent and provide them with a fun and positive experience. Candidates can network and mingle in a great atmosphere and that way, if their takeaway isn't a career opportunity at I Love Rewards, they still have a positive experience with the company and opportunity to network with other people.”
But all this fun comes with a downside—time. Suleman explains, “I Love Rewards' recruiting and interview process is extremely diligent to ensure that we can find true A-players who will drive our business success and contribute to our unique company culture. Because of this, our interview process is longer than most organizations, taking nearly double the time to hire one person as it does for most other organizations. Although we have a rigorous process, it's a price we are happy to pay to find the right person; after all one A-player is more effective than five B-players.”
2. Work your personal network
Profitably CEO and founder Adam Neary says all of their recruiting comes from doing it the hard way—networking like crazy. “We’ve had zero luck with websites, zero luck with networking events and zero luck with social media.”
Neary tells the story of when Profitably, a New York based startup that helps small businesses free themselves of Excel when it comes to planning, managing and executing their business, was looking for an engineer. “When I was getting started, every other entrepreneur I knew was spending every conversation talking about their idea. I felt and still feel like ideas are cheap, and so I asked every engineer I knew who was the smartest engineer they knew. Half of the people said without hesitating, ‘I am.’ Interpret that as you will. But the other half said, ‘Francis Hwang.’ And those who said ‘I am,’ named Francis second. It was statistically improbable how many people held Francis in that regard. So, tactically, I had six different engineers introduce me to him, and he took the meeting. I courted him for three months before he quit his job. Now’s he’s our CTO and he rocks.”
That personal networking philosophy extends beyond the recruitment process. Neary explains, “We make it really tough to get into Profitably, but once you're in, you're family. We pay 100 percent of employees' health insurance. We let them buy whatever hardware they like. But the ‘family’ component comes from working well together, not just being smart. By tapping people's networks, we have much earlier and much more qualified sense of what that looks like, and by making sure everyone in the team is involved with every hire, we continue to cement our culture as we grow.”
While often times startups have to work their connections to find talent, sometimes the talent is right in front of them. Such was the case at Thumbtack.com, an online marketplace for local services like home contractors, wedding photographers, SAT tutors, etc. Sander Daniels, co-founder of Thumbtack.com tells the story of how he found his lead engineer. “Two years ago, one of our CEO’s friends introduced us to an engineer from a big tech company. We didn’t think much of it—he was happy with his job, and we weren’t looking to hire anyone at the time.
However, he started coming to our offices on Friday nights to hang out with the team. We provided the drinks and the fun conversation. He saw over time how we talked about our company—how excited we were about our progress, how rapidly we improved our product, how big our dreams were. Although neither of us intended it, he soon caught the startup bug. Skip ahead two years to today—he’s now our lead engineer. And he also recruited his roommate—another big tech firm engineer—to our team.”
It’s tough to persuade superstar talent to leave their safe jobs at big tech companies for the big risk of a startup. “We’ve found this can only be done in a social setting—the more they hang out with your team, the more they see your excitement," Daniels says. "Soon they’ll catch the bug too.”
When it comes to personal networks, Adrian Salamunovic, co-founder of DNA11, the original creator of DNA Art, believes the key is staying connected with remarkable people even when you don’t have an opening. That’s how he found their public relations manager. “We met at a 40 Under 40 awards gala over a year ago. I knew she was a superstar, and we stayed in touch via e-mails, Twitter and Facebook. I eventually convinced her to come in for an interview, and she joined the company a few months ago.”
3. Make your company a great target
Finding talent doesn’t always have to be about companies making the first move. Creating an environment that entices candidates to come work for you is a sound strategy (and great perks help). Jason Henrichs, chief operating officer of PerkStreet Financial, a firm changing the banking business by giving customers rewards and tools for spending responsibility, says superstars find them versus the other way around. “Our head of community development was a customer first and then sent us a passionate letter about why she wanted to work at PerkStreet. Those who weren't customers have come to us through our network that evangelizes the PerkStreet mission to fix banking for the average American—over half our team was recruited this way.”
Henrichs attributes this to creating a culture with a high emphasis on value, not just doing things. “Recruiting based on a specific job description puts the emphasis on the task an individual will perform, versus our approach which requires a joint prioritization about where this new team member can drive the biggest return. The stars on our team have helped define the roles they fill.”
Another way to effectively bring talent to your doorstep is with an employee referral program. Ryan Howard, chief executive officer at Practice Fusion, a fast-growing electronic medical records community in the U.S., says their “intellectual athletes” (a.k.a. employees) are well-versed in the company’s core values, which include “be scrappy,” “give to your community” and “exhibit integrity with no compromise.” To thank employees for candidate referrals, Practice Fusion offers monetary rewards ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, depending upon the position.
Practice Fusion is adding more than 10 employees a month. Even with their rapid growth, it places a tremendous emphasis on finding talent that is a great cultural fit and who will continue to grow with the company. Howard has a goal for zero attrition, ensuring that each person at Practice Fusion has a career path, a voice and a true passion for the company.
In addition to their career path, employees at Practice Fusion participate in an internal mentorship program connecting executives with younger colleagues to shape future career growth. A monthly "Phenomenal Friday" event is dedicated to independent projects, presentations and shared meals. Their kitchen is stocked with healthy food and the latest newspapers. Lunch and dinner are catered. Employees have health stock option plans. Dogs are welcome at the office, and cubicles are banned. According to Howard, “All of these pieces not only help find talent but keep it.”
No matter what kind of startup you are, the rules to finding talent come down to one thing—who you know. It’s about getting out and meeting people, staying connected and spreading the word about what a terrific organization you are. In fact, as your organization grows, you’ll find this really doesn’t change. It’s all about meeting top talent, finding a couple of chairs and saying “Let’s talk.”
Image credit: P_Wei, Burton