Successful Candidate - StartUp Recruiting

The average person spends about 112 hours per week awake and anywhere from a third to half (or more) of that time at work. In that light, it is easy to see how important our coworkers are to our quality of life.

People Are The Most Important Thing 

In the context of the startup ecosystem, the importance of people is further magnified. This is exemplified in the common notion amongst startup gurus: those hired on the ground floor set the tone for company culture.

It is then no surprise that many enterprises exist solely for the purpose of revolutionizing various aspects of the recruiting efforts out there. Companies such as Lever, Scoutible, and Triplebyte. 

Technical recruiting and hiring (e.g., engineers, scientists, and other technical professionals), is a whole other beast which I will address in StartUp Recruiting (Part II). 


I spent much of my 20's as an agency recruiter for various industries including medical, bio-pharma, software, hardware, and education. I'd spend my days scouring the web for candidates with various levels of skill, personality types, and levels of education in an effort to meet a client's needs.

I learned very quickly how to spot a good client, a reasonable job description, and effective hiring manager.  

The single most important characteristic of all three was the same: understanding when and where to be picky.

The following are three common expressions of this truth that I noticed in my most successful searches.

I. Person over Pedigree

MIT. Harvard. Oxford. Cambridge. 2 years as a Technical PM at Uber. 3 years as a product manager at YouTube. Back-End Lead at Pandora.  

Impressive, but not imperative.

I’ve worked with clients that specifically stated to me that they will not consider candidates unless they went to XYZ school and took a such-and-such class from Professor so-and-so. This is how some hiring managers assured themselves and those above them that a candidate is "strong."

I found three candidates for this client, all spitting images of their ideal hire, but at the end of the day, they hired someone with no such pedigree. Such a dramatic about-face was not without its reasons. After walking the client through the logic of simply looking for a candidate that could do the job very well, the shape a dried ink made on diploma paper didn't seem as important.

Regardless of how bleeding edge your IP is or how complex the work, I would never recommend disqualifying a candidate because they don’t stack up to the hiring manager’s ideal education requirements.

II. Transparency of Expectations

“I’m looking for a warm body” and “This position would essentially define our IP and manage internal efforts to minimize technical debt” are statements I've heard within hours of each other from different clients.

Neither client was terribly clear in terms of what skillset I was supposed to look for. The details came later, but the level of honesty about their expectations helped tremendously. Despite the perceived difference in importance of these roles, there are people that are perfectly happy filling either role.

The success of the search itself was dependent upon being honest with candidates and saying: “Hey, this is the job of your dreams and if you are interested, you better bring your A game,” as well as, “You won’t brag about this, but it’ll pay the bills and won't be a lot of pressure.” 

You might be thinking: “But wait, won’t I lose leverage by being that forthright? Shouldn’t I make a lower level job sound nobler? Or a leadership role more humble?”

Nope. In this context honesty is like compound interest -- time only increases its value. Being straightforward will immediately save you time, candidates self-select which leads to decrease the number of interviews with "bad attitudes" for the role. Another benefit is long term social currency. Honesty leads to trust, which leads to better brand awareness and a unique identity from competitors. 

III.  Is it Special or Surplus?

Picture a standing desk burgeoning with screens, two mobile devices, coffee circle stains and an overworked cofounder rifling through an endless list of emails and text messages and upcoming production dates.

The work is not out of the ordinary for their team, but lately, there is simply too much of it. You can imagine the relief that they would feel upon hiring a much-needed team member. The cofounder copies and pastes an old job description and off it goes! Ads for the opening are posted, networks tapped and talent acquisition agencies are making calls on this cofounders' behalf.

The search is on, but the situation is skewed. Interviews are lined up with candidates that fit the job description, but not the real need. They hire a promising candidate, the workload balances off, deadlines are met, but a few months later the new hire leaves or is let go, and things start to snowball again.

Why Didn’t This Placement Work Out?

What mistake did the hiring manager make? They conducted a skill search to solve a bandwidth problem. The search was framed by a very capable, but new-ish, manager as a way to create a better version of the team - but the work itself is not new, there is just more of it. 

Eventually, the new hire realizes this and begins to feel slighted because the situation was not as advertised. Something must change to continue justifying the cost of this new team member. They might be asked to do work they weren't hired for or be constantly underutilized. Or the new-hire may be utilized, but never receive the credit for the work because it wasn't in their job description in the first place. Any time these situaitons occur the feelings and perceptions of the new-hire can turn into resentment of the situation. 

Less stress while under deadlines, more reasonable benchmarks for candidates and a self-filtering candidate pool are the benefits of instilling reasonable flexibility to your candidate search.