The Real Reason Why Startups Struggle to Recruit Talent

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Yes, hiring is hard, but many of us at startups make it harder than it has to be. We have no idea about market conditions, but somehow miraculously expect to be competitive. Some of us pay no attention to candidates and then have to battle with a horrible reputation on GlassDoor or Valleywag.

We’re attracted to hiring people just like us (‘a perfect culture fit!’), but then complain about the lack of diversity in tech. Startups can hire just like the big boys, but we have to see past our common shortcomings.

Here’s a few ways you can realign your reality distortion field to the talent market in order to accelerate your growth curve.

Understand Your Role

No, not your own role – the role you need to hire. You need to understand what you want someone to do, and what success looks like. Too many people post for a senior software engineer and then expect them to do mid-level duties. Or they post for an office manager when they really need an HR coordinator.

Some of the problem is that one person’s interpretation of a job title and the responsibilities associated with it can be wildly different to another’s. We found this out somewhat hilariously a couple of months ago. We decided to hire for someone who would manage our entire sales lead process. We wanted this person to be technical, so we decided to call the role a “Lead Hacker.”

It wasn’t until after we posted the role that we realized that “Lead Hacker” could also mean a head technologist! So we changed the title to “Sales Hacker” and got much better results.

If you want to find – and keep – the right talent, you need to make a comprehensive list of what you expect them to do, then figure out the job title. If you’re having trouble, try Googling a few of the more specific responsibilities and see what titles other companies use. Then post your role under the title that seems most appropriate for your list of responsibilities. You’ll get many more qualified applicants with the right job title and requirements.

Know the Market

Where is your startup located? Believe it or not, that’s one of the most important questions when you’re trying to figure out how much salary and equity to offer. A company in the East Bay will generally have to pay more for a senior developer (in either salary or equity, if not both) than one in central San Francisco.

If you’re in Boston, you’ll have to pay more for a growth hacker than you would in Seattle (although you might have to pay more for a developer in Seattle, since you’re competing with Microsoft and Amazon!)

Nothing will be as good as doing the market research yourself (and tools like can help you here), but there are a few rules that will tell you when you’ll need to offer more salary and equity in order to attract top talent.

  1. The less trendy your location, the more you’ll have to pay.

  2. The less accessible (via public transportation or main access roads) your office, the more you’ll have to pay.

  3. The fewer cool things your company offers (e.g. free lunch and beer), the more you’ll have to pay.

  4. And, of course, supply and demand applies – the fewer candidates there are in comparison to the number of companies hiring for that kind of role, the more you’ll have to pay.

Prioritize Hiring

Fundraising. Sales. Product. Networking. You’re constantly busy! Believe me, I know the feeling. But the only way you’re going to land awesome candidates will be to make sure that you and anyone else involved in hiring prioritizes it. Otherwise, your candidates will feel unloved and fall out of your hiring funnel before you can even think about making them an offer.

We won one of our recent hires just because we managed to get back to them before another company did! After he started, he shared that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to work for us at first, but when we consistently followed up after interviews, sent him email just to check in, and had different people from the company check in with him, we won him over. We also got him an offer before the other company did, despite starting him in our process three weeks after the other company.

Everyone who hires in your startup needs to be crystal clear that every candidate could be The One. Or at least a customer someday. Candidates need to be treated with courtesy at every step in the process, including having the courtesy to get back to them when you say you will. That includes getting back to them with bad news. If you can’t be timely and courteous with candidates, you’ll find yourself with an unfortunate story on GlassDoor or Valleywag, which definitely won’t help with your hiring problem!

Hire for Team Strength

Our first hire wasn’t anything like our founding team. I mean, we hired a woman from the US, and we were four guys who started a company in Australia. And yet she’s a great ‘culture fit’, even though most things about her are wildly different to us as individuals – from her communication style to the slang she uses.

The reason that we hired someone who wasn’t much like the rest of us was that we hired for team strength. We needed to grow, so we hired a Head of Growth with the background and skillset we needed. Even though I’d been running marketing, she had more experience and approached things differently. And that was okay. Actually, it was better than okay – it was necessary in order to build a strong team.

To hire for strength, you need to take an honest look at your own team’s weaknesses. Where are the holes? What is your cofounder doing right now that he really hates doing? What is no one doing because no one has any idea where to start? What’s falling off of your VP of Sales’s plate? Hire to fill the gaps and strengthen the team.

There’s no question that hiring is hard. Our startup brought on 10 people in the past year (we were just the founding team before that), so I’ve felt your pain! Startups have to put more time and attention into hiring than we think we can afford, but with a little work, we can definitely fix most of our own hiring problem

About the Author: Michael Overell is the CEO and co-founder of RecruitLoop, an online recruitment marketplace based in San Francisco and Australia. He is a former McKinsey Consultant. Michael is passionate about startups, health, and technology. Surfs when he can; rides a bike most days. Follow him @mboverell, and talk to him on Clarity about talent management and recruiting.

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