Why startup hiring today needs a clear purpose. And luck.

Thanks to Alan Furley, Director at ISL Recruitment for this guest blog. Make sure to sign up to Hiring with Limited Resources at BTF on Tuesday12th October to learn more.

Having helped 100+ startups hire great people, what would I do differently post pandemic? 

Hiring has always been hard, which is why people like me gain work and have built a recruitment business – to help solve a problem that so many startups and scaleups have. 

But this year I think it’s been harder than ever for many people. 

That’s partly because everyone seems to be hiring, with tech hiring at it’s highest level in five years1.

Also because there’s many people who have taken the brave step to start their own business (nearly 100 businesses formed per hour in the UK this year2) and got enough momentum to be able to get people to join them. 

And a lot of those people are new to the game. And it’s a game that has changed in many ways over the last 2 years.  

I was chatting to a founder last week who had taken the leap of faith to build something. She had assembled a strong team of advisors but was struggling to get traction on her hiring. I think a lot of her struggles were because she wasn’t sure about the market for talent as it stands today. 

“I read so much about remote working, purpose over profit, etc but I’m a lost as to which bits to focus on to find the right people.” 

She’s not alone in finding it hard to get a handle on the new recruitment market. When so much about how, where, and why we work has changed, we do need a new approach to hiring; a way that’s relevant to today and tomorrow, not one for yesterday. 

So here’s what I’ve been seeing that’s helping new founders attract great people, with some advice on how to run a process that helps you hire them. 

Realise that we value different things now 

Many people would previously view work and personal life as two separate circles operating in separate spaces (even if the work circle would often squash and put pressure on the personal one!). But in the last 18 months, we’ve all lost something – a loved one, a job, or our liberty. And as part of that regrouping process a lot of people have asked themselves some big questions about what they value, like how our time is spent and on what. 

The lines between work and personal have blurred – I see those circles that were once viewed separately now existing as one. Many people are determined that work and life operate in harmony, or even work fitting around life. Not life being at the expense of work life before. That means you need to cover the flexibility I’ve already mentioned, but also be aware that the mental health of your team is something that’s got to be in your thinking. 

When it comes to the purpose and impact of our work, the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already there. I’ve spoken to countless candidates who are now focusing on purpose over salary and job title, or social impact more than the tech stack. 

Supporting your team with time and space for purpose outside of work, for example volunteering work or caring for family, is important but it’s not the key. Your priority is to be clear about how you will give your employees a sense of meaning and purpose from the work they are doing. 

If your startup is tackling climate change maybe that feels easy, but whatever your industry then it’s essential to address purpose with potential hires. You can do that by showing how what someone would do each day ties into the bigger picture of the change your business wants to make in the world. And by telling stories about the customers you’re serving and being clearer about what you’re helping them to achieve or overcome. 

Zara Nanu, Founder and CEO of recently acquired Gapsquare who develop fair pay software, is a great example of how to personally give a sense of purpose to potential employees. Her Twitter bio includes “orchestrating the future of fairness at work” and you’ll find her talking about data on pay gaps, diverse intern hires within her business, and a book she read 20 years ago on low paid jobs in the US. I think anyone thinking of joining Gapsquare would be doing so partly based on sharing Zara and Gapsquare’s sense of purpose.

But it doesn’t need to be all about you, the founder or CEO. At Ultraleap, their engineering careers page shows many of their projects as well as pictures of the team, and gives a sense of the energy and enthusiasm they all have for their work redefining how people interact with the digital world.

Make your process work for you, not against you 

As with many things in the startup world, there is a need for speed. You must have a hiring process that allows you hire with velocity. That doesn’t mean it’s light touch and fails to assess people properly. You can’t afford to waste your limited resources on people that aren’t right. But right now we’re seeing so many startups lose the chance to secure good hires because they’re not moving at pace.

So block out the time for interviews and make it a priority. Get back to candidates with feedback, good or bad, quickly. Don’t put in 4 stages of which the first 3 repeat when you can make the same judgement with 2 interviews. 

Don’t overestimate the value of a CV. I’ve written before on the limits of the CV in the hiring process so won’t repeat here, but the general point is that you can make better and often quicker judgements by focusing on other things – work samples, github profiles, neurodiversity assessments. 

You have to offer flexibility 

Be flexible with how, where and when work is done. Please don’t force people into the office full time. Maybe in some sectors but this will not work in tech. Right now, we wouldn’t commit our resources to hiring for a startup that wanted someone 5 days a week in the office, because it won’t appeal to more than 1 in 20 candidates. 

But more than that – look at how you use the office you do have people come in. Don’t follow the masses blindly and go fully remote if it doesn’t suit you, but do think about both what your business needs and what your employees value. We set out our plans against the needs of working environment – recruitment, retention, collaboration, productivity etc – trying to balance what people want individually vs what the business needs, and I’d suggest you do the same.

Full time permanent jobs aren’t disappearing just yet, but I feel from both a supply and demand perspective more startups will end up hiring people who don’t fit that mould. A lot of this has been driven by the flexibility that’s come from the pandemic. 

A couple of other implications from the supply angle which favour those who are prepared to prioritise flexibility. More candidates working from home, feeling able to work with multiple companies now they don’t need to be in one office full time. More value on family time, meaning that people aren’t as willing to sign their whole week away to their job. 

From a demand perspective there are also a couple of factors. With a shift in mindset to paying for someone’s productivity vs their hours, leaders are more open to people who aren’t full time. And letting go of having everyone in the office all the time opens the door to people that might not be with you all the time, i.e., freelancers, fractional CXOs, part-timers. 

Progression isn’t only promotion 

Although titles are often thrown around without meaning in the early days of a startup, many people would look to job titles to show to the world that they’re making progress. Tying into what we value now, explain how you can develop someone and create the space for them to do more of what they’re good at and what they enjoy. Show potential candidates how they could grow with you. Not just a job, but a great career move.

Be transparent on pay. Ideally you’re paying in line with market but that’s not always the case and doesn’t have to be. Some people value things other than money, but not everyone can or will take a cut in salary. Be upfront about what you can offer so attract people that this fits for and deter those it won’t. 

As part of your reward if you’re offering equity or options make it make it real, not a token offer, particularly if you feel it’s going to be key to attracting people. Make sure you explain what the scheme looks like, or least the principles of it. Saying “of course we’ll give the good people a share” without substance behind it is unlikely to have the impact you’re looking for. 

Showcase your talent 

With everything you’re offering you need to make it real and authentic. People will quickly see through words on a page if you can’t back them up. It’s show, not tell when it comes to your employee development. Show how you create an inclusive culture, or demonstrate your regular employee engagement. That could be on the careers page of your website, or on your Instagram feed. Tell stories of the people who’ve already joined you on your journey. Attract new talent by showing the great people you’ve got right now. 

Maybe that’s just two of you, maybe it’s a handful – but it’s a case of show don’t tell when it comes to the talent and shared values within your startup.  

Recruitment isn’t only an in-person game 

It might not be a new thing, but your online presence has gained even more importance over the last 18 months. People are researching and making at least some of the decisions on whether they want to work from you based on what they see digitally. 

Before you might have relied on meeting people at interview or networking, then hit your flow and told your story to help them consider joining you on your journey. 

Over the past year we’ve all had a lot fewer opportunities to get out and connect with new people. 

But even as those face-to-face chances are hopefully returning, your best channel to reaching the right people at the right time is not going to be a physical one. 

You need to approach your hiring in a similar way to your hunt for customers. You shouldn’t be hoping to appeal to everyone, or you’ll probably interest no-one. You’ll need a plan to create content and be positioned well in the spaces they operate. 

So this could be regular LinkedIn posts from you as founder. Or showcasing your great team on Instagram. Creating some great threads on Twitter. Speaking at online event. Creating a Substack newsletter.  

Think about the story you want to tell potential hires, and make sure it’s out there for them to find without needing to bump into you at a tech meetup. And when they do meet you in real life, 80% of their decision will have already been made! 

Your go-to-market strategy for talent  

A lot of what’s good in a hiring strategy is similar to how you win at sales and marketing.  

If you’re going for investment or asking people to trust in your ability to build something special, it’s likely they will want to know how you’re going to be pro-active in battling for the best talent. How will you make sure you bring the best diverse talent into your startup? 

How will you leverage your network, and that of your team and advisors, while maintaining a consistent hiring process that is designed to hire diverse talent not just people who feel familiar?

What’s your plan for outreach? How can you partner with communities of under-represented groups to reach those with potential, not just focus on those with credentials? 

In summary 

There’s arguably much of what I’m advising that was good pre-pandemic as well as now. But most startups struggled to hire then, and clearly it’s got harder now. 

As with many things, there aren’t quick fixes or bits that you can set and forget. Hiring and retaining great people needs constant effort, and hopefully it’s clear that you need to adapt your playbook post pandemic to one with purpose at its core.

My quick summary – make sure you are: 

Making the purpose of what you’re building clear to the wider world

Offering genuine and relevant value to employees 

With true flexibility 

And speedy and effective hiring process 

Do all this and you might not suddenly see hiring as easy, but you will see it as a game you’re more confident of winning. And as with many games, cross your fingers for a bit of luck along the way!

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