A Founder's Guide to Early-Stage Startup Recruiting

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting the 2015 class of Techstars Boston, a mentorship-driven accelerator that holds 13-week programs for startups. Advising the most recent Techstars class, as well as mentoring the founders of early stage companies at both the Harvard Innovation Lab and prior Techstars classes, reminds me of the consistent and unique challenges that early stage companies face: with very limited resources and conflicting priorities, how do you identify, attract, and screen the best talent to advance your startup?

It’s important for any company to have the right talent, but it’s especially critical at an early stage startup, when every person makes up a significant portion of your team. At the same time, it’s difficult to prioritize your hiring needs in the midst of the chaos of a startup, when you’re already being pulled in many different directions. The key is to develop a game plan that is tailored your startup’s needs.

Visualize your target candidate

It’s nearly impossible to find the perfect candidates for your organization when you haven’t figured out what your target candidate looks like. To help determine your hiring needs, use the simple framework of the acronym CAPS, which stands for capacity, attitude, personality, and skills.  You can think of it like a pyramid, with capacity at the bottom (high priority) and skills at the top (important, but lowest relative priority).

Capacity: Does this person possess the capabilities of doing the job? Are they mentally able to complete what’s required of them? If the job requires a person to read and write at a high level, for example, a candidate must have the cognitive capacity to do so. They don’t necessarily have to have the skill, but at the very least, they must have the aptitude to learn. The ability to learn is particularly important for a startup, since an employee will most likely be doing a variety of different tasks on a day-to-day basis.

Attitude: A candidate’s capacity is useless, however, if they don’t have the right attitude for the position. Is the candidate honest? Hardworking? A team player? Someone with a positive attitude will be much easier to train and will likely be a cultural fit for your organization.

Personality: It’s important to determine if a candidate’s personality will complement the rest of your team, but it’s even more crucial to determine how they manage their personality. For example, if someone with a strong attention to detail must work quickly, can they adapt their qualities to complete the task at hand?

Skills: Skills are the easiest to identify—they’re also easily taught and acquired, so they’re nice-to-haves rather than must-haves.

For a startup, we have found the following attitudes  and personality factors are critical for success.

Adaptable: Someone that would work well in an ever-changing environment

Self-motivated: Someone that doesn’t need constant direction, who is comfortable taking charge and can self-direct

Self-assured: Someone who is confident in their abilities and character

Passionate: Someone who is not only passionate about your company values and core beliefs, but also about the position itself. A passionate person will be dedicated to your vision because they feel just as invested as you do.

Take a marketing approach to recruiting

Now that you know who you’re looking for, develop a compelling message that will attract those people. When you’re competing for the best talent, you’ll have to take a marketing approach to recruiting in order to differentiate yourself from other startups that are targeting similar candidates.

Before you begin recruiting, establish a value proposition and branding message that portrays the best qualities of your startup. Why would a candidate want to work for your company? Be able to execute an elevator pitch and tell a story that is simultaneously compelling and genuine, so your prospective employees will be able to get equally excited.

Your startup probably hasn’t gained the credibility of larger companies or the ability to offer better benefits or perks, so at an early stage, focus on getting candidates excited about the founding team and your company’s mission and vision.

Get the message out

The traditional method of posting jobs online and sorting through resumes can be tiresome and ineffective, especially when you have so many other things to focus in order to get your startup off the ground. Get creative with your sourcing strategies to find the ones that work best for your organization:

Use your current network: The best way to determine what it will be like to work with an individual is to experience it yourself. Have there been former colleagues you’ve worked especially well with?  Reach out to your second and third degree connections, too. Don’t be shy about asking everyone you know to share the opportunity with their networks.

Find a partner: Every functioning company must have a few trusted resources, like a legal partner (i.e., WilmerHale, Foley Hoag, Goodwin Procter, Cooley), banking partner (i.e., Silicon Valley Bank) and accounting partner. Similarly, you should have a strong recruiting partner to help you meet your hiring needs. Many firms offer basic services to startups for free or at a significantly reduced cost (such as Argosight, etc.) as you are getting your business off the ground.

Make it easy for candidates to apply: For any company, but especially an early stage venture, it’s important to make it  easy for candidates to access or express interest in working for your startup. Rather than requiring your candidates to apply through a confusing online system, just connect with them via LinkedIn or email. Many passive candidates don’t have an updated resume.  Do you really need one?  Move fast to engage candidates.

Set a Recruiting Goal

Overall, it’s vital to make recruiting a priority on the long list of your startup goals. Dedicate a time each day to strategizing your recruitment process, and make sure to track your progress. Like your sales pipeline, you should manage your recruiting pipeline with vigor and track your performance to a certain goal. And always keep the end goal in mind: obtaining top talent. The people you bring into your organization can take your startup to the next level, so be sure that you’re being careful and attentive in every step of your hiring process.