Congrats on growing your company. Your great idea is resonating and now you need great people. However, most startups don’t know how to put their best foot forward when recruiting. It’s incredibly unfortunate because it’s so crucial.
When you start out you’re probably only looking to hire a few people, not an army. With a small team, it’s critical to get only the very best players, but too many founders, busy bootstrapping, see that as intimidating. That thinking needs to be changed — founders need to play offense instead of defense.
Don’t ever think that you are working from a disadvantage — that what you are working on isn’t great enough to attract top talent. Instead, understand you are working from a position of strength. It’s all about attitude. Operate from mindset that demonstrates what you are building is very rare and special. Think about how you are offering a once-in-a-lifetime ground floor opportunity to those who are qualified to participate. It’s like having front row seats at the Super Bowl — you only have two open seats — which of your friends will be lucky enough to be invited?
A few rules regarding recruiting:
1. Always be recruiting.
I was always looking for talent and generally had one or two “ready-now” recruits whom I could woo for any critical position that worked for me. I learned this from Meg Whitman who knew eBay was growing quickly and therefore would hire people whom she had no jobs for, but whom she knew she’d have a job for in the future. Full disclosure, sometimes this created tension because they wanted to do something, but there wasn’t a defined role when they immediately joined so they had to focus on “special projects.” But more often than not, they soon landed big operating roles.
2. Own the process.
Recruiting is not just HR’s job. Heck, you probably don’t even have an HR department or even an HR position. It’s your job to recruit. Invest your own focus and time. When I was CEO at LiveOps, an exec at one of our biggest customers suggested I meet with Mike Bergelson, a talented entrepreneur who had recently sold his company to Cisco. I sent Mike several emails inviting him to get together to speak. When he finally responded, I made a pitch for him to join us, but he gave me the Heisman. However, we agreed to stay in touch. When I founded WIN, Mike expressed that he wanted to join as an affiliate — something against the “house rules” as we had never worked together — but he agreed to do some consulting for one of the portfolio companies and we agreed to let him join WIN. Not long after, I started to talk with him about my idea for a mentoring service and within a few months he became the co-founder of Everwise. The lesson to that long story: You always have to be on the lookout for talent you resonate with — you can’t just wait for what HR brings you.
3. Treat people well.
Being superior or arrogant will hurt you. Yes, you get to make the decision on whether someone will be asked to join or not, but there’s no reason to have them embarrassed or insulted by the process. One of my friends recently had a bad recruiting experience and told her friend about it. Coincidently, her friend ended up being contacted about the position and refused to even consider it because of what happened. In the end, that company didn’t even get a chance with her because of the way they treated someone else. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, and give them helpful feedback. You want everyone to leave feeling good and wishing they get the chance to come back sometime later. (We practice what we preach at WIN too, where we have to say “No” often, but we do so in a very friendly way. Because of that we’ve often had other deals referred to us by the same folks we’ve said no to.)
4. Personally take the lead.
Don’t hide behind the people or the process. Maybe outsourcing these pieces of the process is more efficient and it gets you out of giving bad news, but it’s not human. Gain credibility by treating prospective hires like human beings.
5. Look for the right folks to grow the company.
- Don’t look for people who are just like you. Look for people with the skills you need and the types of people who will fit into your culture.
- Don’t be swayed by big names. Just because somebody works for a great company it doesn’t mean that they are great or will be right for your startup. There’s a big difference from being on the bus at a great company and someone who is driving the bus. There are also great talents out there who don’t always work for brand name companies.
- Pay extra-attention to those with a “chip on their shoulder.” The best hires often have something to prove, and are motivated by a profound desire to excel in their jobs.
- Rule out people motivated mostly by money. If your candidate is focused a high salary, you should be questioning whether or not it’s the right fit. (Being motivated by equity is a different story as that’s tied to performance and demonstrates a belief in the company.)
6. Make your company attractive to join.
Be the place people are clamoring to join. There’s no entitlement for employees anymore, and there’s no entitlement for companies. It’s not about massages and gourmet food; it’s about what was accomplished, what was learned, and how well people were treated. How do you attract and retain them?
- Have huge aspirations. Be inspirational with what you are trying to accomplish.
- Be humble. Never stop trying to get better.
- Be fun to hang with. Care about your people. Treat anyone you bring on like a family member. When former employees look back on their career, you want them to think that yours was the best and most fulfilling job they ever had. That’s never about money; it’s about being a part of something meaningful.