The most pervasive challenge for startups today is hiring. It's the most talked about, blogged about and generally frustrating topic in tech. However, Andrew Stoe, Head of Talent at Asana, believes that very specific types of recruiters can help transform a company into a recruiting machine — and get over the hiring hurdle. Hint, it's not just looking for someone with "Google" on their resume.
Recruiting at a startup, just like building software, is different than at big tech companies and requires a fundamentally different skillset. Stoe notes, “if you’re a founder and you're looking for a great startup recruiter, you want to find someone who has the ambition to really build a company. If they have that drive, then they'll want to work on everything." He continues, "They'll want to know everything that's going on within the company, from the product roadmap, sales numbers and metrics to the history on each employee and why they joined your company."
A great recruiter should want to dive into all parts of the business. According to Stoe, "you want them to be as invested in the company as possible because when they message that out to people that enthusiasm will come through.”
When It's Time
Changes in the recruiting process occur once a company surpasses 15 employees and wants to hire eight to ten more in the next few months. At this point, it's time for the founders to step back from taking full responsibility fro the entire recruiting process and consider a dedicated recruiter to manage the funnel.
That doesn’t mean the founder isn’t active in recruiting or that the function of building the team can be outsourced. However, it does mean there is the opportunity to get more leverage and scale through a dedicated resource around hiring. Throughout the early stages of a company’s life, the founding team should continue to spend at least 30% to 40% of their time recruiting. If you're not, then it's not a priority and you can't expect to build a great team.
Stoe joined Rockmelt two weeks before they released their original product from stealth. The founding team had exhaused their own networks and needed to go outbound — and also wanted to make sure they made the most of their big press launch.
Often founders forget that press is a great tool to drive not only customer adoption, but also recruiting. For example, in preparation for launch, Stoe built up an outbound list of star candidates Rockmelt wanted to recruit the first week they launched, right as the press hit. Rockmelt then had an instant pipeline of technical talent, which converted into a few hires and carried the company over to their next milestone six months later, their Series B. Stoe then turned to building a recruiting team for the company to reach the following milestone and the process continued.
How to Interview a Startup Recruiter
At a startup, your job as a recruiter is to be an extension of the founding team and help craft the story of the company as well as build the entire process from scratch. It's a method of recruiting that’s more like an all-encompassing sales mission than the rote processing of matching resumes to requirements.
When a founder is going to hire that first recruiter, they have to believe that person can share the vision of the company as well as they can.
Stoe went on to share, “The most important thing is finding someone with a lot of enthusiasm who can get people excited about your company. There are tons of cool startups, tons of cool technology, and so many great opportunities in the Valley, especially right now. What's going to set that one company apart from everything else? A recruiter should be able to pitch that in a genuine way.”
Can They Tell the Story?
One of the easiest ways to figure out if a recruiter can effectively tell the story of the company is to ask them to pitch their current company and then ask them to pitch your company. This approach should also allow you to both understand how good this person is at story telling as well as help you understand how much research the potential recruiter has done on your company.
While their pitch won’t be perfect, you can often get a sense for the potential and the passion. Also consider asking:
How would you communicate our company’s brand to candidates? What support from marketing would you need to spread that message?
How would you sell our company to different types of candidates?
When do you start the closing process? (hint: you should always be closing)
How do you close a candidate?
Are They Team Builders?
A recruiter at a startup should want to build the team with the same care and thoughtfulness that the product organization wants to build the product and the engineering organization wants to build the infrastructure. Great startup recruiters are passionate about building the actual company and scaling the team. That means they need to care about everything from employer branding (how talent thinks about your company) to the entire recruiting process, from first touch point to close and through onboarding.
When trying to identify recruiters who are real team builders, look for people with experience in actually building entirely new teams, not just recruiting for one role at a big company. For example, someone who helped build out the entire original Android team at Google is way more valuable to a startup than someone who has only been hiring for front-end engineers. Here are some additional questions to dive into during the interview around building the team:
How do you create a great experience for candidates going through the hiring process?
What types of programs have you built to attract talent? What programs would you build for us?
If you are coming from a large company, what groups did you recruit for at your previous employers?
What’s a realistic hiring plan for our company?
What’s your opinion on using external recruiting agencies?
How do you follow up with candidates throughout the recruiting process?
While you don’t want to get too caught up on recruiting metrics, as each company is so unique, it’s always a good idea to ask the potential recruiter about their close rates for candidates and funnel numbers. It should be reasonable to make an offer to one out of every three to five candidates that make it through your entire process. A few questions to consider asking:
How many positions have you filled over the last year? What was your close rate?
How long did it take on average for a candidate to make it through your process?
What metric did you use to asses candidate quality post hire?
Walk me through your hiring funnel metrics, meaning number that got to a first call, then second, onsite, etc.
They're around your perfect candidates
Given that the optimal size for a recruiter to join a startup is anywhere from 15 to 30 people, the company’s culture is established at that point. The ‘bar’ for talent has been set and you should have a sense for the profile of talent you’re recruiting. Stoe says, “If you're a startup that focuses on having top talent in a particular area, make sure the recruiter's been around it before.”
It’s more important that the recruiter be able to assess talent for the particular domain that you’re trying to fill than to have recruiting experience alone." That may come from their previous employers, their personal networks, or both.
Spend time trying to understand how your potential recruiter thinks about top talent and how to find it:
What’s your definition of top talent?
How do you discover top talent?
What were the backgrounds of the team that you recruited for?
What type of network do you have to build a pipeline of candidates immediately?
Domain experience in certain areas that the startup needs, while not always necessary, is often hugely helpful to a startup. Recruiters themselves don’t need to be technical experts, but they should be capable of speaking the same language as the recruits and able to ask relevant questions about the discipline that they’re hiring for. This is particularly crucial at startups because interviews cost expensive labor time for existing employees who are already time strapped as it is. Consider asking your potential recruiter some base level technical questions to get a better sense for their technical expertise — however, realize that recruiters won't have the technical depth of an engineer.
An aside: Stoe has also found that, amongst recruiters, membership in sports teams and other community organizations tends to be a positive signal. It indicates that the recruiter is competitive, driven, socially-minded, team-spirited and extroverted enough to be social in constructive ways.
To put all of this into a handful of bullet points, when searching for a recruiter who is going to move the needle at a startup, look for:
Someone who is incredibly driven
A story teller, someone who can pitch your company nearly as well as you can in a genuine way
A pattern of building entire teams and processes from the ground up
A desire to build the company the way the product team wants to build the product
Basic metrics that show they can recruit