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Founder Insight

Best Practices

Recruiting when you don’t have an HR department

Shilling Team
27 December 2021

How to attract, hire, and retain top talent before you have an HR department

Hiring is hard. From large corporations, to pre-seed stage startups, everyone is struggling with the same challenges: a small pool of highly-sought after talent; high competition from other companies; not to mention an ever changing business landscape. 

This is why we sat down with People Experience experts, Liliana Cardoso and Rita Gouveia from KI Group, for a workshop on Recruitment Best Practices. Besides getting recruitment tips from experts, our goal was to add value to our portfolio by fostering an open discussion between founders about common recruitment challenges.

Setting up a traditional HR department is usually a low priority for startups, since to maximize growth it’s essential that your organization remains lean and product focused. That’s where the concept of People Experience comes in. According to Liliana and Rita, and in contrast to traditional HR, People Experience is a holistic approach that focuses on creating the kind of company where the best talent is naturally drawn to.

Because sharing is caring, we are offering five key takeaways from the workshop to help with your recruiting efforts.

1. Don’t underestimate the importance of employer branding

When you only have a team of 7 people, building your company’s employer branding may not seem like such a priority. After all, if you’re focused on keeping a car running, you’re not really worried about making it a nice ride. Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, employer branding includes everything your company is doing. For example, it includes the company’s reputation as a place to work, and how potential candidates perceive the company’s values and work environment. Having a strong employer brand reduces your sourcing efforts, since candidates are more likely to apply to the company, reduces time to hire, improves retention, and ensures you’re attracting top talent. 

A LinkedIn survey shows how impactful employer branding can be:

So, what are some quick wins to establish a strong employer brand from the start?

  • Ambassadors - Empower the most passionate members of your team to become your company’s brand ambassadors.
  • PR - Leverage key PR moments like funding rounds and public speaking events to show off and promote the company as a whole.
  • Culture - Show off your company culture to potential employees, whether it means beers on Fridays or free surf lessons. 
  • Consistency - Give all candidates a good experience when interacting with your company by managing expectations (the golden rule: If you say you will give feedback in two days, do it.)

2. Build a recruitment strategy

Usually the first key hires come from a pool of friends and acquaintances of the founders, but soon you find yourself exhausting that resource. It’s at that point that you should sit down and draw your recruitment strategy. It’s ingrained into startup culture that you need to have measurable, actionable goals to achieve success. Well, if it works when building a product, it is also true when building a recruitment pipeline. Start with setting your goals. These may range from simple (ie. “Hire a product manager,”) to more complex goals once your organization grows (ie. “Improve candidate experience.”)

At the end of the day, your goals should reflect where you are right now, and how you are planning to grow. If you’re looking for the eighth person to join your team, it might make sense to hire a junior all-rounder that is a great culture fit and passionate about your product. That person will be able to grow along with your company. Later, when hiring for technical or senior positions, hard skills may be more valuable than cultural fit, and specialization will become key.

Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to define an ideal candidate persona, and use that profile when considering what channels will be more effective for targeting them.

Some key metrics to consider are:

  • Cost of hire
  • Time to hire
  • Culture fit
  • Average time between each phase of the recruitment process (also known as Candidate Experience)

3. Recruitment channels beyond LinkedIn

Posting job offers on LinkedIn and company websites is always recommended, but attracting top talent means thinking outside the box. Now that you’ve drawn your recruitment strategy, and are bolstered by your employer branding, it’s time to make sure your job openings reach the right candidates.

From the challenges shared during our workshop, it was clear that hiring for highly complex tech roles is one of the biggest pains in any industry. The skilled candidate pool is limited, and there’s a lot of stiff competition for their attention. 

When hiring for tech roles, consider other social media platforms like Twitter, Discord, and even GitHub. Instead of just posting a straightforward job description and waiting for applications, put in the time to build public coding challenges that entice developers and create a buzz around your tech stack and product. For example, having an open source project is a great way to attract tech talent, while building a strong employer brand.

Other channels that you may want to explore include:

  • Job fairs and alumni speaking engagements at Universities
  • When scaling up teams in a short amount of time, working with recruiment agencies to join efforts can be worth it. (Just make sure to clearly agree on terms and fees from the start.)
  • Build a robust referral program from the beginning, leveraging your team’s contacts to find the perfect people at lower cost (compared to agencies)
  • For non-tech jobs (such as Marketing and Operations,) focus on LinkedIn and job boards

4. People experience doesn’t happen in a silo

One important challenge nearly all founders mentioned during our workshop was how to ensure that hiring processes don’t drag on for months at the time, creating a frustrating experience both for you and the candidates, and may end up damaging your reputation. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize People Experience from the start, way before you’re even thinking of hiring your first talent. It ensures that the recruitment process doesn’t get stuck in a silo, or even worse, that different teams end up hiring in totally different ways.

A key component to this is to ensure you build a streamlined hiring process, with each step having clear ownership and deadlines. You want to avoid decision paralysis, and to ensure every applicant has a consistent experience when dealing with your company. That’s why it’s helpful to draw a “simple” recruitment funnel such as this one:

If that looks overwhelming, you can break it down into three distinct stages:

  • Step 1: Culture fit
  • The first interview should address practical concerns like salary expectations, but also assess soft skills.
  • Step 2: Technical challenge and review
  • Make sure you leverage your most knowledgeable team members, but also the ones who are truly passionate about your product.
  • Step 3: Final team interview
  • This stage should be high-level, to go over details and see if any red flags come up. In early-stage startups, this step can be done by one of the founders.

5. Find out what works for your company, before replicating it

One thing that became clear from our Recruitment Best Practices workshop, is that there is no one-size fits all recruitment solution. Maybe for your highly technical team it makes more sense to assess candidates on a technical challenge before you even bring up “soft skills.” Maybe culture is the most important aspect to you, and you have the patience to teach or train a junior hire on the technical aspects of your product.

Whatever your goals are, give them some thought and write them down somewhere. Someday, you’ll be able to look at them and see the company you’ve built reflected on the people you’ve hired. The most important thing is to always document every decision and process you take. One day you’ll need it. 

If you’re looking for investment so that you can grow your core team, reach out to us:

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