Editor’s note: Chris Rickborn is the COO and co-founder of Unrabble, which offers a hiring software solution for small- to medium-sized businesses, especially startups. You can follow Unrabble on Twitter @unrabble.
Tech companies in Silicon Valley and in tech hubs across the United States are at war against each other, to find and hire quality talent that is in short supply. The competition is particularly fierce among startups, which means that it’s ever so important to make the right decisions when hiring your next rock star.
Here are six tips to set you on the right course:
1. Make sure it’s time to hire
Deciding when to hire is as important as knowing that you need to hire at all. The problem is that too many entrepreneurs with funding start hiring because it was part of the business plan. The first sign of trouble is when there is too much emphasis on filling out the org chart and making sure all of the key titles are in place. Most entrepreneurs get put through the ringer trying to raise money and they’ve lived and died by their models and forecasts. But when it comes to hiring, sometimes you just need to throw the model in the trash and let the reality of what’s happening in your business determine your true need to hire. As they say in the military, “every plan is good until the first shot is fired.”
My advice is to not think about titles, org charts and empty seats. I’m not suggesting that anyone should throw discipline and planning out the window, but don’t repeat the mistakes of failed startups and waste your resources filling positions that you don’t need today. Make sure its time to hire.
2. Make a commitment to invest your time
Once you’ve made the decision that the time is right, make a commitment to invest your time.
Like it or not, hiring is a time-consuming process and cutting corners on time will lead to bad hires. In a startup, the pace is fast and everyone is stretched to the limit. Adding to your team will require a significant amount of time to screen candidates and conduct interviews. Even if you use recruiters, you won’t save that much time, as you still have to read resumes and make phone calls.
In a recent conversation with a CEO, he told me that he was trying to hire a new VP of Marketing for his software company. He advertised on LinkedIn and got 216 applicants. The good news is he had a lot of potential candidates, but the bad news is he hadn’t even started looking at his applicants. I wonder how many good candidates will go overlooked because he just wants to get it done.
I recommend setting aside an hour each morning and another hour late in the afternoon devoted completely to your search. Invest your time and you will find the candidates that will “move the needle” in your business. Shortcut on time and you will find a candidate to “fill the spot.”
3. Think before you advertise
Since hiring is time-consuming, it makes sense to not waste time looking at unqualified candidates. Conventional wisdom suggests to write a long and detailed job description when you advertise so that only qualified candidates will apply – right? Wrong! These days, that thinking is completely flawed.
Job seekers are coached to take the published job description and weave it into their resume. They know that Applicant Tracking software will parse their resume and score them based on the match between it and the job description. There are even websites that will take your resume and a job description and mash them together to increase their score.
So in the case of the CEO who is hiring for a VP of Marketing, he now has 216 candidates with the exact skills he needs. That would be great if it were true – but it’s not. My advice is to think before you advertise. Promote your company and your vision. Give candidates a high-level list of responsibilities but leave out all of the detailed skills and requirements. Do that, and when you get a candidate that matches what you really need; you might just have a winner.
4. Find candidates who work like a startup
It seems like everyone likes the idea of working in a startup but for many different reasons. Some want the financial upside; some want a challenge and others like being involved in a business where they can make a direct impact. Whatever the reason, it’s important to make sure that your candidates know what to expect.
If you’re hiring someone that has worked in a startup before, it’s probably a non-issue but it’s unlikely that everyone you hire will have previous startup experience. I like talking to candidates about all of the things they will have to do without help from anyone else. I remember the first day on the job for a new hire in my last venture. About 30 minutes into the day, he came into my office and asked who would be setting up his office. I think my response was “one of the two people in this room.” It was an eye-opening experience for both of us and not a mistake I will likely make again in the future. In my opinion, anyone that goes to work for a startup should work like a startup and just do what it takes to succeed.
5. Make a buy-versus-build decision
Sometimes I think of hiring as a buy-versus-build decision and I believe that approach can really make a difference in a startup. Do you need someone with skills that can make an immediate impact or are you willing to just hire smart people who you can train? A lot depends on the size, stage and specialization of your startup but you should decide if it’s a buy or a build before you start.
If you already have a lot of specific industry knowledge in your organization, you may be better off hiring someone with unrelated experience that can bring a unique perspective and can add some unexpected value. A colleague of mine recently asked me to look at a job description he had written. The first thing I noticed was that he wanted 10+ years of experience in his specific industry. I pointed out that most of the employees at his company already had deep industry knowledge. I said, “Don’t you already have the market cornered on industry expertise?”
I don’t know if he listened but I suggested a “build decision” and urged him to hire the smartest, most skilled person he could find, and let his organization spread the knowledge. Maybe it would be a learning experience both ways.
6. Engage your top candidates
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen made in the hiring process is the failure to directly engage job seekers in the process. There’s way too much emphasis on “screening” and not enough time devoted to “communicating”.
If you’re running or managing in a startup and you delegate the screening to someone else – good luck. If you’re making the ultimate decision, you need to engage your candidates. A brief telephone interview to screen candidates is not what I consider engaging. It’s too rehearsed. I like to skip the traditional first telephone interview and shoot candidates a message to start a conversation string. I might even include some candidates that don’t look qualified on paper but have a successful track record. I would hate to hire someone just because they paid to have their resume professionally written and overlook a potentially great hire that didn’t.
During the hiring process at Unrabble, I sent the top 10 candidates some questions before I had ever made a phone call. Two responded by asking if we could just schedule a phone call and three decided to voluntarily drop out of the process. The conversation continued with the five remaining candidates with a mix of written correspondence and brief telephone calls. It wasn’t long before it came clear who was qualified and would be a good fit with the organization.
When you hire someone for your startup, remember that they will ultimately be communicating with other employees, customers and business partners. I’ve seen qualified and skilled people fail simply because of their inability to communicate effectively. Make sure they meet your standards.