How to Differentiate Your Startup to Win Top Talent

November 30, 2015

There’s one question that every single interviewer at a startup should know the answer to: “Why should I choose you over any of the hundreds of other startups or established companies next door?”

In today’s talent market where candidates run the show, it takes serious differentiation to compete. If you can’t articulate what makes your startup unique, you’ll never attract as many top candidates as you want to.  

We spoke with four successful founders and talent leaders to find out how to approach the question of differentiation. Here’s what they had to say:

Focus on creating a stellar candidate experience

Candidates care a lot about their recruitment experience. In fact, nine out of 10 professionals say a good interview experience can change their mind about a company they had doubts about.

Arum Kang, CEO of Coffee Meets Bagel, is hyper-aware of this. “Every step of the way, from the moment you interact via email, candidates are evaluating you,” she says. Everything from how fast you respond, to how the candidate is greeted onsite and how excited you are in general, can make a huge difference in the candidate’s impression of your company.

Great candidate experiences of course come in many different flavors. Even if every company invested in candidate experience (they don’t), your company’s unique “flavor” would still be enough to set you apart. Arum, for example, takes extra care to keep people informed of where they are in the process, and will always send updates as soon as she can to minimize any anxiety the candidate might have. Additionally, Arum announces the candidates who are coming in for onsite interviews at the beginning of every week to make sure everybody gets a friendly welcome.

Sell your vision

A large draw of working at a startup is the opportunity to have a real impact on building a product you believe in and, ideally, being a part of the next big success story. Candidates aren’t just buying into your job, they’re buying into your vision.

“I love to get people excited about Kinnek,” says Karthik Sridharan, Kinnek’s CEO. “We have such a big vision, there’s so much room for creativity and exciting new areas we can explore. It’s impossible to get bored.”

Karthik says he hasn’t done well enough if people don’t walk away thinking, “Yes! I want to be a part of that!” If you can sell a candidate on your vision and get them to connect with it, another recruiter will be hard pressed to sway them in a different direction.

Focus on the tech

Some techies are way more concerned with your company’s tech – and how they’ll get to work with it – than they are by mission and vision. So, before you capitalize on what you think is a huge selling point, find out what makes your candidate tick.

Getaround, for example, has an almost 100 percent proprietary tech stack, and they know it’s a big selling point for many of their technical candidates. “For someone who wants broad exposure, you’re going to get it here,” says Getaround’s Talent Manager, Scott Zindell. He doesn’t let any candidate go without sussing out how important Getaround’s unique tech stack is to them, and capitalizing on it when their ears perk up – which is usually always.  

Hire from your customer base

If you’re lucky enough to have a product with a loyal customer base, hire from it!

“When customers reach out to us, they’re already fans of the product and vision. It usually checks off the culture fit question right away,” says John Coogan, CTO and Co-Founder of Soylent.

Not every company has this luxury, but if you do, keep an eye out for applicants who already love what you do. You’ll find dedicated employees, all without any differentiation needed.

Focus on transparency

A surefire way to make your employees feel disillusioned and wary is to shut them out of important company discussions. Karthik swears by transparency and makes sure during the interview process that candidates understand what transparency means at Kinnek.

“As a founder, I make sure to let everyone in on the important details related to building the company,” he says. That includes transparency about how much money is in the bank, progress towards critical milestones, which VCs bite and which don’t, and even making sure employees get a chance to meet the investors. When candidates are considering dedicating so much of their lives to your startup, it helps many to know they’ll be treated with respect, instead of whispers behind closed doors.

The way you differentiate your company will in fact vary from candidate to candidate. Depending on what each person cares about, you’ll naturally stress different points more than others – mission, the nitty gritty role details, culture, etc. Think about these questions before you find yourself courting your dream candidates to best set yourself up for winning them over.  

Download Lever's free ebook, “The Ultimate Guide to Startup Hiring” for more exclusive insight straight from the mouths of founders and talent leaders on hiring dos, don’ts, and absolute musts.

*Image by Robert S. Donovan

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