Companies with the best record and most success at hiring top people don’t sit around and wait for those people to show up. They go out and grab them by the throats. OK, it’s fair to say that grabbing someone by the throat and dragging them to your office for a job isn’t going to work, but sourcing talent is extremely important.
Sourcing talent means actively recruiting. It means going out there, finding prospects, reeling them in, and getting them on board. Sure you can wait around for the top candidates to find your crappy job descriptions on crappy job boards and somehow be miraculously incentivized at that very moment to eagerly apply … but that’s like sitting around in a ghost town watching tumbleweeds roll by. Yawn…
Without great people a startup cannot succeed.
Startups generally do a very bad job of sourcing talent. There are two simple (but inexcusable) reasons:
- They don’t know how
- They’re too busy
Those are both poor excuses, but I hear them quite regularly. The worst is, “I don’t have time to spend on recruiting, but I need people!” I’d argue that startup CEOs need to spend anywhere from 25-35% of their time recruiting (if not more!) It depends on the stage of the startup, but even as it scales and additional people get more actively involved in the process, startup CEOs and founders can’t delegate the responsibility. It might make sense to bring in a recruiting firm, but the ultimate responsibility and investment of time and energy must be made by the startup CEO and founders.
So how should a startup source talent?
Here’s how I’d go about it:
Build a Target Company List
- Make a list of competitors. This probably already exists, which is great. If not, put a list together. Make it broad. Things you need to know per competitor include: size (# of employees), location (relative to yours), how well it’s doing (track stock prices for publicly traded companies, or record anecdotal evidence), who you know there.
- Make a list of similar, local startups. Using the same criteria as above, make a list of similar startups in your area. “Local” might mean just within your city, but you could increase the geographic range as well. “Similar” means startups working with the same technologies, in the same area/space/industry, or those that have many of the same types of roles.
- Make a list of bigger, similar, local companies. See #2 above, but instead of the companies being startups, make a list of all the bigger companies that have similarities of interest.
In rank order from most valuable to least valuable, you now have a pool of potential companies to poach from. That’s right, you’re about to go out and steal people from other companies! But think of yourself like Robin Hood, robbing others for the greater good! At least your greater good…
- Assign someone to manage the lists. This could be a great job for an intern, or someone else within the organization. Tracking companies isn’t the key component of this process, it’s just for laying the groundwork. If there’s no one you can delegate this to, then you have to do it yourself. The lists need to be constantly updated and refreshed.
- Leverage friends outside the target companies. With a target list of companies, you need to find friends that don’t work at those companies that can provide you with intel and introductions. You’re now starting to build a list of potential prospects.
- Leverage friends inside the companies. Go right to the source. Find people you know within the target companies and see what you can find out. You’re looking for intel and introductions. Friends within the target list of companies may have loyalties to their existing employers, and that’s fine, you can respect that. But remember: You’re not doing anything wrong. Poaching talent is the name of the game.
One of the best questions you can ask friends is, “Anyone entrepreneurial there?” You’re looking for people that might have an entrepreneurial spark; the types of people that won’t ignore startup jobs, but may actually jump at the opportunity. Your friends can at least tell you if there’s ever been any watercooler or after-hours chatter about startups and entrepreneurship amongst the people they recommend.
Create a Target List of Prospects
- Do your own research. Don’t rely exclusively on friends; do your own homework. LinkedIn is a great resource for this. It’s becoming easier and easier to find people, how they’re tied to specific companies, similar people to the people you’ve found, etc. Use Google too. And Twitter. Facebook has some interesting data as well.
- Create a list of prospects. First off, it’s important to think of these people as prospects. Just like you would selling your wares to someone. That means it’s most likely going to take a few “pings” before the prospect is receptive, and you have to make sure the value proposition to the prospect is clear. Sell benefits, not features. In the case of recruitment that means you have to sell the benefits of the job, not the job requirements.
Next, you need to decide what information about someone you want to collect. Name, email address, phone number — that’s fairly obvious. Social network participation could be worthwhile (so you can follow prospects on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) Their resume may be online, or at least they have a LinkedIn profile. Save that URL. I also like to take note of their career path and how long they’ve stayed at various jobs, especially the last one. Startup people tend to hop around, so after 2-3 years they may be getting antsy. That’s potentially the perfect time to pitch someone on switching.
The health of their current company is also a potential indicator that a prospect might be ready to jump ship. There are lots of ways to track that information.
- Rank the prospects. Using the criteria above (and maybe some of your own), you want to rank the prospects. This doesn’t have to be a superbly scientific exercise, but it’s going to be helpful from a time management perspective for yourself (and your existing employees.)
Work the List
- Follow the prospects. Follow your prospects on Twitter, Facebook, etc. If they have blogs, add them to your RSS Reader. You want to get a feel for people over time, which will impact how you rank them.
- Deploy your staff. You shouldn’t be the only one sourcing for your startup. Get others involved as well. They can follow some of the key prospects, especially if it’s in a shared domain space. Get your system administrator to follow and track the system administrator prospects.
- Find multiple routes to the prospects. One introduction might be all it takes, especially if it’s a very strong one. But if you can only get a light introduction, look for other ways to connect. In some cases you can do this through social networking alone – a prospect might reciprocate a Twitter follow action, for example. But you also want to look for more people and stronger connections through your social graph. Who do you know that the prospect knows? What are the relationships? How can they be strengthened and leveraged?
Go for the Sale
- Make your intentions clear. You can’t wait forever or be sneaky with a prospect about the recruitment process. Make it clear, pretty quickly, that you’re interested in speaking to a prospect about a job opportunity. You’re not offering a job at this stage; just trying to get to know the person better. You may have broader intentions too: Interested in sharing startup war stories, building your network, talking “shop”, etc. And those are great reasons for constantly building and nurturing your network. But I wouldn’t hide the fact that you’ve got job positions you’re looking to fill.
- Get them hooked. As you build relationships with prospects you do want to move them into the recruitment funnel as quickly as possible. Sure, dating is fun, but you need to get married. Remember: Sell the benefits. By this point in time you should know what makes a prospect tick and you can tailor your pitch appropriately.
This is neither a quick or easy process — nor should it be. Plus it’s ongoing and essentially never stops. Recruiting great people is very hard. Doing it on a consistent basis is almost impossible. It takes more work than most people realize, and definitely more work than most people are willing to put in. But if you’re running a startup and not actively tapped into the talent market you’re going to lose out on the best people. Someone else is putting in more work, being smarter and more aggressive about recruiting people, and that leaves you in a dangerous spot. Without great people a startup can’t win.
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