How To Get Top Engineers To Open Your Email Then Join Your Company

Editor’s note: Adam Jackson is a San Francisco-based serial entrepreneur and angel investor. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjacksonsf.

No part of building a startup is tougher than recruiting your team. Current supply is not meeting the demand for qualified people. Even President Obama is aware of this. And while innovative approaches, such as Google’s Summer of Code, to increase the number of experienced engineers will help in the long term, they aren’t of much consolation to those of us in the entrepreneurial trenches who need engineers to help us build products.

Companies have to compete against every other venture-backed startup, as well as big companies like Google, Twitter and Square that are willing to throw big salaries and perks at top talent. In addition, strategies for recruiting top talent often represent a moving target, as the best strategy five years ago might not be optimal today. For example, in recent years the visibility of talented engineers has increased, with many of them posting detailed profiles on sites like GitHub and Stack Overflow. This increased visibility impacts recruiting strategy.

Even more challenging for our startup in particular is that we are trying to keep a low profile about what we do, so reaching out to engineers is harder at this stage. That said, over the last few months we’ve managed to recruit some incredible folks to join our team. It wasn’t always easy but after some trial and error, we developed a method that worked well for us.

The Job Board Route

I’ve always taken to heart Michael Arrington’s advice to hire the right people and watch every penny, and so it was important to me to focus on strategies that were both effective and offered good ROI. I started by posting to a number of job boards using (an excellent candidate tracking system that also syndicates your listing to dozens of job boards) and quantity wasn’t an issue as lots of resumes came rolling in. However, the quality of the candidates and fit for the roles I was looking to fill wasn’t there.

The next step for me was A/B testing subject headers. If the email never got opened, its contents didn’t matter at all.

One of our primary needs is mobile engineers with 3-5 years of native app experience. Simply put, there aren’t that many folks out there who have that background, and the odds that someone with that background happens to be surfing a job board and comes across our posting are pretty small. So while we didn’t have the success we were hoping for, we also weren’t all that surprised.

Targeted Searching

I then began to search directly for potential candidates. There are a lot of ways to do this – Google, LinkedIn, etc. LinkedIn gave me visibility into possible fits, but unfortunately the InMails I sent didn’t get any response. It’s possible that this was due to my initial messaging, but it also could have been due to the fact that the types of people I wanted to reach typically receive a lot of InMails and often just ignore them altogether.

I ended up settling on a tool from a company called Entelo. Entelo gave me the ability to find candidates by showing me their relevant social profiles (e.g., their profile on GitHub), and it also provided, in many cases, contact information. Armed with that information, I was now able to begin to scale my outreach efforts.

Grabbing Their Attention

The next step for me was A/B testing subject headers. If the email never got opened, its contents didn’t matter at all. So I grouped my potential candidates into batches and tested various subject headers against each other. After a number of iterations I discovered that a subject header containing the name of one of our investors performed the highest in terms of response rate.

My final step then was to hone messaging. Unlike most recruiting pitch emails I’ve seen, I worked to focus as much as I could on the candidate instead of simply listing all the reasons why our company was awesome. The goal was to make the email feel personable and to open a dialogue. I wasn’t trying to sell them on anything but rather hoping for an initial conversation.

Within a matter of weeks I had a full pipeline of potential candidates and was in the enviable position of having to reject candidates that I would have previously considered “perfect 10s.” It was a ton of work, especially in the early days, but we now have a team that’s firing on all cylinders and is heads down on building some amazing, scalable software.

Recruiting is certainly daunting and tough at times but also incredibly rewarding. It had been a number of years since I’d built an early-stage team and consider myself lucky to have quickly found a method that worked well. Here’s hoping that some of what I learned will be helpful to you if you’re tasked with building a team of your own.