How to Source Talent to Build a Rock-Solid Startup Team

At a startup of 10-100 people, one hire has the potential to make or break a team. A good hire will contribute to company growth, be a team leader, and help take the business to the next level, while a bad one will cost you time and resources you can’t afford to waste. 

Needless to say, the fear of choosing the wrong person for the wrong job at the wrong time is enough to keep you up at night. 

Since the stakes are so high, it’s important to find people who share your vision and align with your company culture. However, there’s a strong chance that the people you’re searching for are already working at a major brand and aren’t looking for a new job. 

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So, how do you get them to work for your company? We interviewed two successful startup recruiters to find out. In this article, we’ll share with you some of their insights and ways you can source talent to build a killer startup team. 

Source Candidates with These Strategies

Candidate sourcing involves proactively searching for and engaging qualified candidates. When it comes to finding the best talent for your startup, they likely won’t be coming to you. “Only 36 percent of the workforce is actively looking for a new opportunity at any given time, but an incredible 90 percent is willing to talk and learn more.” 

This is where candidate sourcing comes into place. Sourcing can open you up to a larger candidate pool that would never have been possible with just a job posting.

Warm Outreach: Get in Touch with People You Already Know

Start by reaching out to your own personal network when you’re looking to fill roles. If you think someone you know might be a great candidate, send them a casual email or message to pique their interest. Try to keep it informal, but personal. In fact, research shows that puns, memes, and jokes get a higher response rate than generic messages, so don’t be afraid to express your personality. Touch on your favorite part of working for the start-up and why you think this person would be a great addition to the team, or share an interesting article relevant to your work or industry.

It’s very possible someone will write you back letting you know that they aren’t interested or already have a job they enjoy. Rather than end your outreach, use this as an opportunity to ask them if they know of anyone who might be right for the job.

Cold Outreach: Connect with People You’d Like to Get to Know 

When you reach out to people you don’t know, be sure to keep it short and sweet. It needs to be personalized enough so you get that person’s attention, but you don’t want to write a novel. Remember, these people aren’t currently looking for jobs. You need to send something compelling that makes them want to learn more, but don’t be so persistent or over the top that you scare them away.

With cold outreach, it’s all about making that initial connection. Take it slow and nurture the relationship. Don’t immediately ask them to come in for an interview. Instead offer to share some more information about the company and why it’s such a great place to work. 

Although this outreach method takes a bit longer as you have to develop a relationship with the person, if done right, it can be incredibly successful.

Follow-Up: Keep Up Your Communication Efforts

Be sure to follow-up with all cold-outreach candidates. Everyone is busy and juggling several responsibilities, so they might not respond to your first message, but they very well may respond to your second or third message. When you send your last message, let the person know that this is the final time you will reach out. This often provides some incentive for them to reply when they would typically put it off or forget.

When you do follow-up, make sure it’s in a way that’s respectful, earnest, and not too persistent. You don’t want to scare away potential hires. Remember, you’re building a talent pipeline, so it’s crucial to keep the door open in case they are looking for a new opportunity down the road or want to recommend someone else to work for you.

Build a Strong, Wide Network

As a startup, you need to constantly be networking. Try to meet as many people as you can and talk to them about your startup and vision for the company. Be sure to mention that you’re hiring for open roles.   

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The more people you meet, the better your chances are that you’ll be able to leverage your network to find the perfect talent when the time comes. Your close colleague might not know someone, but a friend of their friend could have the perfect person for you. 

Attend networking events, connect with people on LinkedIn, and ask people in your network if they know of anyone who might be a good fit for your company. Once you’ve built out your network, it will be easier to source potential candidates as you’ll have a wider, more diverse pool of talent to reach out to.

Leverage Social Media

LinkedIn is a great tool for sourcing potential candidates. You can clearly see a person’s work history, accomplishments, and find out if they’ve had previous startup experience. Github, the world’s largest social coding site, is another great place to scan candidate profiles and projects. Moreover, because personal branding has become a huge trend in the past few years, people open to opportunities will often showcase portfolios, blogs, or a personal website through social media where you can learn more.

Prioritize Employee Referrals

Lastly, employee referrals are a great way to find top tier talent. “Referrals account for between 30 and 50% of hires in the US.” Ask current employees to refer people who might be a great fit for the job.  

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Consider creating an employee referral program to give current employees an incentive for bringing people onboard. Your incentives don’t have to be cash, you could offer extra time off or a fun offsite activity instead. Simply providing recognition through emails, leaderboards, and team announcements prove great results as well.

You hired your employee for a reason and you trust their judgement, so this is an easy, inexpensive way to bring new talent to your startup.

Recruiters Share What You Need To Know

We spoke with two influential recruiters to get their take on how to best source talent for your startup— Sam Wholley of Riviera Partners, a global executive recruiting firm specializing in Engineering, Product and Design leadership, and Tech Recruiter, Alex Treister, who manages SWE, Product Design, Product Management and Hardware recruiting teams at various startups in ride-share, robotics, e-commerce, and the food industry.

When it comes to the recruiting process, Wholley emphasizes the importance of networking.

“Talk to as many people as you can who are considered experts, start that before you embark on a formal search, and canvas the market as broadly as you can when looking for candidates.  Don’t be afraid to ask people who aren’t candidates who they would recommend based on the requirements - not only who might be looking.”

Again, chances are that the candidates you’re searching for will not currently be looking for a new position. 

When you do talk to candidates, Treister emphasizes the importance of giving every potential hire the “white-glove” experience.

“I treat them as if I will give them an offer starting at the initial conversation and train the hiring teams to do the same.” 

During those initial conversations, the idea of a company’s “culture” might be brought up. Rather than focusing on if a candidate is a good “culture fit”, Wholley recommends a different approach:

“Define the company’s values and assess a candidate’s fit with the values you’re matching against”.  

He also stresses the importance of growth.

”Don’t just look for what candidates HAVE done, look for what they CAN do.”

And Treister seconds this.

“It’s important to identify skills that can be learned vs. those that require experience...think about how you will mentor or train fresh talent.”

This is an ongoing theme. If you only pay attention to candidates with the exact experience you’re searching for, you’ll miss out on untapped talent with incredible potential. For example, your first hires at a startup will often require specific experience. After you make these initial hires, you can work with your team to identify when you can make bets on people versus hiring for potential. 

Both Treister and Wholley’s number one piece of advice for finding that untapped talent: referrals!

“Ask top candidates for people they have seen who are most likely to be the future ‘them’. Another question to ask is: ‘who might I not know that you would take a bet on?’”

This is a great way to find candidates who may not have been previously on your radar. 

It’s also important to find those candidates with a growth mindset— Candidates who are scrappy (will the candidate be willing to get into the trenches with the team?), inquisitive (‘recursive why’ questioning), growth (what don’t I know I don’t know, and how will I find that out?), low ego and intrinsic confidence (I’m fine saying I don’t know, and I’m better if my team knows more than I do), and a desire to win as a team more than as an individual (the classic ‘We’ vs ‘I’ leadership style.)”

Ultimately, at the end of the day, Wholley and Treister both recommend looking for the “step-up” candidate. Treister says:

“Often at startups, people are in the biggest roles of their careers. They have to hustle to prove themselves and overcome learning curves, so they’ll need strong mentors to succeed,”

Wholley also reminds us that although—

“you may be ‘taking a risk’ on them, they are definitely taking a risk on you, so the incentives to help each party be successful are completely aligned. Look for people who saw great things happen at companies that built great products, executed great sales motion responses, had exceptional customer interactions, and hired strong teams.”

If you ask the right questions and seek out the right qualities, Wholley and Treister are confident that you’ll be able to find that missing piece of the puzzle to complete your team.

Bottom line 

Sourcing is one of the most difficult parts at a startup, yet it’s one of the most important. It has the power to make or break a company, so it’s necessary to dedicate the time and energy to it. 

If you use the above methods to source candidates, chances are you’ll widen your pool of potential hires and find that perfect person for the job.

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