How to Build Out a Recruiting Function in a Startup

November 26, 2014

Living in San Francisco, it’s hard for a day to go by without meeting someone and hearing, “I work at a startup.” There’s a lot that’s appealing about startups – they’re exciting, new and hold numerous opportunities – but they also tend to be fast-paced and somewhat chaotic.

So how do recruiters navigate these environments and build a successful recruiting function? During Talent Connect, the annual LinkedIn recruiting conference, a panel of talent acquisition leaders from ChartBeat, FireEye and AppDirect, gave insight into how they overcome the challenges of recruiting at a startup. Responses to questions from Unbridled Talent’s Jennifer McClure had differing takeaways based on what stages of growth each company was in and their resources at hand.

How to overcome challenges with scalability

As a startup you likely have to start building out a recruiting team from scratch, and while this can be a challenge, it’s also a great opportunity. Cat Hernandez, Head of Talent at Chartbeat, an early-stage startup, recommends you start off on the right foot by building a recruiting function that reflects the leadership team’s ideals.

“Think about their mentality before you go, go, go,” she said. Chartbeat’s CEO wanted the company built with no hierarchy or fancy titles. By listening to what’s important to the leadership team early on, you’ll have a better chance at building a culture where everyone understands it’s their job to bring in people too.

At FireEye, an established startup, Director of Talent Acquisition Jim Lawrence says it’s important to first get hiring managers to all work together. Your team will be coming from many different backgrounds, often bigger companies, and you should encourage them to leave their egos at the door. “Everyone thinks they have THE one way to recruit, but you need to get them thinking on the same page,” stressed Jim.

How to be successful as the company grows

Growth can happen pretty quickly at a startup, so it’s important to establish your core values early on in order to know what to look for most in a candidate. With more than 200 employees, AppDirect’s Head of Recruitment Anthony Kline hires for traits, not skills, since traits can’t be taught. For his own recruitment team, Anthony focuses on finding people who are data-driven, take ownership and have a sense of urgency. “I can teach someone how to source and walk them through the candidate experience, but they need to have those traits,” he shared. Determine what traits and values your candidates require, and hire for those rather than experience alone.

For Cat, being successful in a rapid growth environment comes from securing the trust of the leadership team. She listened early on to what’s important to them, and by aligning those views she’s able to hire for the type of company they want to build. “It’s not about closing reqs,” she said, “it’s about making those hires count.”

How to effectively connect with the talent your startup needs 

Employee referrals are Jim’s power move at FireEye. No one even knew the company had a referral program when he started. By adding a social element through gamification and swag, he was able to revitalize the program. Startups don’t always have a lot of resources for branded gear, so FireEye made those items exclusive by raffling off swag at quarterly events with tickets that can only be earned through referrals. As a result, referrals now account for 55-60% of hires.

Having a strong network is also important for referrals, as it makes it much easier to find great talent because people are looking out for you. Cat continuously nurtures and grows her network and connects with the people she meets every day. Through this wide access to talent, referrals make up 40% of Cat’s hires for Chartbeat.

How to deliver a great candidate experience

A great candidate experience plays a big role in a startup’s talent brand. When candidates come in for interviews, AppDirect rolls out the red carpet and encourages its employees to act as if they are a “concierge at a really nice hotel.” You only have one opportunity to make a great first impression, capture attention and spark loyalty. Rather than thinking of it as an interview, think of it as a performance that reflects on your company.

Even though she’s a one-woman show, Cat ensures she shows candidates respect by taking the time to respond to everyone that applies. She says the little time it takes to explain why a candidate isn’t a good fit is invaluable to them and pays in dividends. In fact, her current Head of Finance was referred by a candidate who didn’t work out.

How to organize chaos with only one tool

It was interesting to hear what tools are most important for each startup’s recruitment efforts. Anthony takes pride in a well-organized calendar. He plans his day the night before and knows exactly what he’s set out to do before he even walks into the office. The more you own your day, the more effective you’ll be with time-management and will be able to accomplish more.

Cat’s biggest tool is her investment in talent brand. Investing in building your company’s employer brand and culture is time-consuming and doesn’t necessarily reap rewards right away, but once in place, it shapes how you do things.

For Jim, one tool isn’t any better than the other if you don’t know how to use it. He discovered this was true when he started ramping up his LinkedIn efforts. He was shocked to learn how willing his LinkedIn rep was to walk through exactly what solution made the most sense for FireEye’s needs and how to execute on that. Become a master at whatever tool you’re using.

Startups have the reputation of being unstructured, but they don’t have to be. No matter what growth stage you’re in, putting the right processes in place (or improving them) and mastering your tools will help you attract the talent you’re after.

To see what other companies are mastering startup chaos, check out this year’s 10 Most InDemand Startups to see where Bay Area software engineers and IT professionals want to work the most. Bonus: it comes with a summer mixtape and a taste of each startup’s employer brand.

* image by Heisenberg Media

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