The Key to Startup Hiring: Build a Magnet

Hiring at startups is hard. Get a handful of startup people in a room and ask them about their biggest challenges and hiring is always at (or near) the top of the list.

Typically startups don’t offer the same salaries and benefits found at larger companies. Some argue that the risk is higher (although I don’t think so). At minimum, there’s a perceived higher risk working at a startup. And in a lot of cases (especially in markets that aren’t as startup-centric), university graduates don’t even realize that startup opportunities exist.

So how can you hire successfully for your startup?

First and foremost it takes work. Sorry, there’s no easy answer. When it’s time to hire for your startup, you need to invest a significant amount of time on it. I’m speaking directly to founders. Don’t delegate the task. Don’t rely exclusively on recruiters. It’s your startup – you find the right people to fit in.

And one of the best ways to improve your odds of finding people is to build a magnet.

Magnets attract things to them. Your startup needs to do the same — but instead of attracting shiny, metal things, it needs to attract an even more previous resource: people.

Get successful enough at turning your startup into a magnet and people will be coming to you for a job. That’s right, people will be asking you to hire them, even if you haven’t posted job openings; people will be referring their friends, recommending your company and more.

And how do you turn your startup into a recruiting magnet?

It really comes down to building buzz. You have to be careful that you don’t get overwhelmed or overly inspired by your own hype (because hype on its own is empty, and hype isn’t an end goal or measure of success) — but it definitely helps. You need local buzz. And it has to be as grassroots as possible, because that’s where the talent is hanging out.


I’m convinced that in less-than-uber-startup markets like Montreal (and anywhere for that matter, outside of Silicon Valley and Boston) there are a significant number of highly qualified people working in small, unknown companies, just waiting to be plucked out of their boring environments and thrown into startup life. These small companies are breeding grounds for startup employees. For one, these people already recognize some of the benefits working in small companies. Secondly, these small companies are often not gaining any significant momentum, so their employees’ eyes are wandering.

Here are 10 ideas on how you can build local buzz and turn your startup into a recruiting magnet:

  1. Attend events. This is obvious. Go to as many relevant events as you can. Even some that don’t seem totally relevant; go to those too. But you have to maximize your attendance…
  2. Have your pitch ready. Pitches aren’t just for investors. They’re for candidates too. Actually, you want your pitch ready for pretty much everyone you speak to. You never know when you’re going to speak to someone that knows someone that knows someone that’s a superstar startup person looking for new opportunities.
  3. Know the talent. If you’re hiring Ruby on Rails developers, you should have a list of 20 top ones in your area. It’s not hard to find them. Get the list, memorize it and make sure you go out and meet those people. Meet their friends. Get yourself involved with the best talent; even if they’re not ready to jump ship, they might know someone else.
  4. Know the competition. I’m not referring to competition for your business, but competition for talent. Who else is hiring? What are they doing? How are they doing it?
  5. Sponsor events. Sometimes attendance isn’t enough. Think about sponsoring a local event. Or volunteer and meet the other volunteers.
  6. Speak at events. Don’t have the money to sponsor an event? Try and get a speaking gig then. Maybe it’s a pitch event (if it is, pitch at it.) Speaking, in general, is a great way of demonstrating a certain amount of expertise, and building your reputation.
  7. It’s not just about the company’s reputation. Companies do have their own brands, but the founders better be damn sure they’re building and promoting their own personal brands as well. A lot of startup employees will base a significant portion of their decision to work for you based on you (and the other founders).
  8. Get buzz outside the local area. Sometimes the best way of building buzz within your own city is to build buzz outside your city. Getting written up on relevant blogs, for example, can build up awareness at a local level. Another good idea: Get a guest writing gig on a popular, relevant blog. Promote that yourself, after the fact.
  9. Write your own blog. I believe that company founders should be blogging. Again, it comes down to building and promoting of your reputation in order to attract others to you. People naturally want to work with other smart, successful people. So get out there and build that up as quickly as you can.
  10. Attract local media. Meet and network with the local reporters. Pitch them stories. Offer to be a source for relevant stories where your expertise might be useful. Soon you’ll be quoted in the newspaper and may have your own feature piece about your startup as well. That’s great press.

I told you it would take work. But honestly, there’s no excuse for not doing this stuff.

Three other key points:

  1. Make it easy for people to apply. Don’t go to all the effort to build up buzz around your company and yourself (and other founders) only to realize that no one can find your job postings online, or a way to apply. Make it dead simple and very obvious how people should apply to your company. And I’d think about making the process interesting, fun and unique. That’s just going to add to the buzz around your startup.
  2. Referrals are key. Most early employees at a startup are there because of a referral. And most of the time those referrals are one degree away – you know someone that knows the perfect person. But if you don’t have a big network, or you’re looking for someone that’s not a match for your network, you need to think wider. A startup magnet can be so powerful that it gets people through the door via referrals from people you might not even know. It’s possible.
  3. Building buzz is good for business too. Building buzz has obvious benefits for your startup beyond recruiting. Just don’t “believe the hype” to the point where you think you’ve won before the game has really started.

Even in a relatively small startup community like Montreal, I’m always surprised at how many startups I don’t know. In some ways I’m pleasantly surprised because it’s an indication of the growing startup community in Montreal. But in other ways I’m disappointed because it means these companies haven’t built up enough local buzz. And I can almost guarantee that as a result of that, they’re not finding the people they need to grow their companies and succeed.

Without top talent you’ll fail. That’s about as close to guaranteed as they come. So if that’s the case, why aren’t you investing more time in recruiting?

Build a startup magnet. Attract the right people. It works.

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  • KrisMcDougall

    Great Post! Agreed that founders and execs within young companies need to build brand for their companies to attract talent.
    But in the same way that strong marketing will kill a company that is not ready for the attention and demand, a young company needs to be sure that they are ready for the attention that will come from those attracted to the magnet. A start-up needs to be very selective in who they hire, because the incremental contribution of each new hire is HUGE. The executives doing the hiring need to keep the bar high and be ready to invest time in weeding through the 'noise' of resumes, looking for the few great people among the many good applicants.

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  • Will

    Ive always heard that the success of an organization depends on the managers ability to find and retain talent. Good article.

  • Nick

    Of all your points I like “make it easy for people to apply” the most. One company I knew used “unsolicited employment applications” as a key metric by which they measured success. It kind of summed up all their buzz activities – if people want to work here, we must be doing something right.

  • jfcouture

    As a ruby on rails developer here in Montreal, I've met a few startups in the last 2 months. I should probably write a full post about my experiences, but here's a few quick thoughts.

    All your points are so very true. Startups, you need to market yourselves to prospective employees! It seems you expect developers to want to work for you, just because you're a startup. That's not how it works. And if you want top talent, guess what? Top talent probably has many other options too.

    Also, if you're “under the radar” and have not built buzz yet, you need to tell me more about you want to build than just “it's about social networks”. Working in a startup can be great, but you need to get me excited about the product.

  • wq0

    It is incomprehensible tradition, sometimes I think that just need a little more to grow to understand this

  • DA

    Thanks – really helpful. Gets me thinking …..

  • Locksmith

    Another good tip would be to work with local university career resource offices. They are always looking for opportunities for grads and current students.

  • MAS

    Yup! Liked the inclusion about folks working in boring companies. The excitement and a reasonable promise of future growth and income can attract good people.

  • kevins23

    I think that it would realize the need to explore the psychology of some people

  • anika_vegan

    You probably don’t want to recruit people based too strongly on the idea you are pursuing now. As passionate as you may be about the idea, chances are, it’s going to change. The right individual will continue to be the right individual even when this change happens.

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Anika – Interesting. The ideas around your startup certainly will change but nevertheless you have to be able to sell the idea strongly enough for people to believe in it. You often hear the following advice (when looking for co-founders, but it applies to early employees too) — If you can't convince a single person to join your startup early on, you might want to re-think it completely. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    My experience with career resource offices is that they're not effective, because they're too slow moving, and involved primarily with large companies. So for startups they need to find other ways to access the student population. I agree 100% that accessing students can be very valuable, but going through the normal channels may not work well enough.

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Thank you for the honest comment. Especially from a Rails developer in Montreal – since part of my post was directed specifically at local startups (having recently attended a StartupCamp unconference where recruiting was a key issue).

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    The reality is that HR isn't “hard” in the sense that you don't need 10 years in university and 5 PHDs to come together and crack the nut. But it does take commitment and work, and the use of common sense. All three of those things are often not applied to HR/recruitment, which is often why it falls to the wayside.

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Kris – You're absolutely correct. Early hires have to be top-notch. The idea that you “always hire smarter than yourself” isn't meant to be funny. It's what you should be gunning for.

  • anika_vegan

    definitely – the leaders passion and clear vision must emit from everything he/she does. Thanks for the reply

  • Hot Tubs Wales

    Some very good advice, many thanks, I find it very difficult to attract quality staff to a startup business.

  • Hot Tubs Wales

    Some very good advice, many thanks, I find it very difficult to attract quality staff to a startup business.

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