A few weeks ago I posted about all the companies that I have the pleasure to be an investor in that are hiring. With unemployment, especially in the tech sector, at a long-term low, several of those companies and several other friends and former colleagues have reached out asking about how to generate a steady flow of qualified, high-quality applicants. This is something we spent a lot of time working on at my former company, Nestoria, and I’ve consulted for a few companies specifically about this problem. Rather than respond to each individually I thought I’d write down the things that worked for us so that in the future I can just share this post.

With the barriers for creation of a start-ups continually getting lower, there is ever more competition for talent, especially in start-ups hubs like London, Barcelona, and Berlin, the three cities I focus my activity on. I see a lot of advice about how to run good interviews, etc, and that is of course useful, but only once you have good candidates to begin with, so that’s what I’m going to write about today. I hope you find it useful.

So, how can you make your start-up stand out and get the right candidates interested in your roles?

First up notice in the line above I said “the right” candidates. The goal is not to get many candidates, it is to get people actually qualified and motivated for the role you are offering.

Creating a great position description##

1. Compelling content

A first major mistake I see founders making is assuming visitors to your position descriptions already know what your company does or will take the time to inform themselves once they read the position description. That is, unfortunately, wishful thinking. Humans are lazy. Assume they have very little idea of what your company does. Each position description should include a brief description of what your business does and why that is exciting, and links to the compelling content you have created where they can learn more.

What do I mean by compelling content? Well, you need to make it easy for potential applicants to understand what your company is up to. Remember the old writing advice “Show, don’t tell”. Every company says “We do really interesting work”, and no doubt many actually do. But showing the work you do is far more convincing and helps candidates know they would be a good fit for you. So how can we show? Have a well written blog, a lively social media presence. If technical hiring is critical have a seperate tech blog and contribute to open source.

One company I was fortunate to work with for a while that has done this exactly right is MyBuilder. Have a look at the MyBuilder tech blog, and their github page. It is great and allows a technical candidate to quickly get a good understanding of what MyBuilder is up to, what problems they face, etc. I use them as an example frequently (not least because they are also great people).

Something important to note is that what you absolutely do not want to do is content spamming. You do not need a new dev blog post every day. You need one or two good posts per month. Do that for a few months and you have a body of work that allows potential candidates to clearly see what you work on, how you solve your problems, and most critically: is this the type of place they would like to work. It is about regular quality, not quantity.

Some companies make the mistake of only using social media for things like press releases. It’s great when you announce a big deal, but why not also show what life is actually like in your organisation. Pictures of the team summer event or the farewell party for someone going on maternity leave, a note of thanks for a student who did a work-placement with you for a semester, etc. It all adds up to let people really see this is a place they might like to work. It may be in your sector a blog is not the right thing, it might be Facebook, or LinkedIn, or whatever. That’s up to you to know, but the point is you need to create a way for candidates to actually see what life is like in your company,

You may object that all of this takes a lot of time and effort. Yes, it does. Attracting great people takes time and effort. Accept that. But building it up over time is a competitive advantage. It is something most companies are too lazy to do. If done correctly, over time we build up an unfakable picture of life in the company that attracts new, relevant candidates.

2. Informative content

Secondly, the position description should definitely include things like

  • Where is this role based, or is remote work possible? (if you allow remote work, how you do remote work is a topic you should go into great detail on)
  • Is it full time or would part time be ok?
  • Will you sponsor a work permit or similar for someone from another country?

A question that continually comes up is whether or not to include salary. My experience is that you should definitely include a range for expected salary. This goes a long way towards helping qualify the candidates. If you can only pay X, you don’t want to spend time and effort on candidates who may be great but will demand 3X.

Main point: you do not want 100 candidates, that is a ton of work to process. You want 5-10 realistic, qualified candidates for each role.

Many position descriptions I see are basically just a list of tasks the role will involve and skills needed. Does that sound exciting to you? No, it sounds like work. Of course your position description needs to have those things, but they are in no way sufficient. Put yourself in the shoes of the candidate and think about why a motivated person would want this role. I don’t mean grand fluffy phrases about how you are changing the world, I mean things specific to them and this role. Is there some special skill they will learn? If they do this job for a year or two, what will they then be qualified to do? Who will train them, some expert? Will they work on open source code (and thus have a public body of work they can show people in the future)? Will they be able to (or indeed, expected to) talk about their work at industry events? Will they get to travel for the role? Are there team lunches? Etc, etc, etc. List every advantage of this specific role

Next, move on to specific benefits of your company. More is more. Don’t just list things like stock options, etc. That is obvious. What perks and benefits does your company offer (One shameless plug, if you are in the UK, you should immediately sign your company up for Perkbox, it is a very cost effective, low-effort way to offer your team great perks). Think of non-obvious things. One simple example: does your company offer secure bike-parking? If yes, list it. These kinds of things are not relevant for every employee, but they are relevant for some, and more importantly they help potential candidates get an understanding of what life is like at your company. A good source of ideas is to ask all current employees to brainstorm what they like about working for your company. Every single answer is something that should go on your position description.

3. Explain your hiring process

One other thing is CRITICAL about your position description. And it is something most companies overlook. Include a description of what your hiring process is. One of the most common complaints that candidates have is they have no clarity on where they are in the hiring process. They submit a CV and then just wait. Will they hear back in an hour? A day? A week?

Define an explicit process. Be public about it, in the position description And then, VERY IMPORTANT, do what you promised! There is no better way to give candidates confidence they are dealing with a well run organization. Again, you are “showing, not telling” that you do what you say.

Here is the process I recommend for startups:

  1. Candidate applies
  2. If the candidate’s background looks at all relevant, send candidate some basic questions, give them a week to answer, in writing. Questions should take them max one hour. Goal of questions is simply to eliminate time-wasters, see how enthusiastic they are, prove they can read/write English, they can follow basic instructions, they do not write 20 pages, etc.
  3. If answers are good, do a 45 min call (even if the candidate is nearby)
  4. If call is good, have the candidate come to office for half a day (or whatever length of time is appropriate for the role) interview with various people, and work with you on an actual problem, talk with people in the team, go to lunch with some future peers, etc.
  5. If everyone agrees, make an offer immediately.

The key benefits of this process

  • You don’t waste the time of your team interviewing people who you can eliminate through the test and the call.
  • You treat every candidate the same, there is no favoritism
  • Everyone, including the candidate, knows where the candidate is in the process
  • It is easy to administer.

If this process isn’t right for your company, by all means change it to something that is. But then communicate the new process and stick to it.

Having - and communicating! - a clear process will save you an immense amount of time, but will also differentiate you positively from the vast majority of other companies.

Spread the word

Once you have great content (a compelling, informative position description with clear hiring process) make it very easy to share. Each position should be its own page, so it is easy to send to someone. At the bottom of the position descriptions literally write “Not the right role for you? Maybe it’s right for one of your friends - please share with anyone you know who might be qualified.’ Add the various social links for sharing (in practice this can/should be done via a template in your CMS. Occasionally a founder will send me a position description as a pdf or word file and ask me to share it. That absolutely will not work.

In your regular communications with investors, advisors, friends of the business, etc include the links and ask them to share it far and wide. Include a link to your jobs page in your email footer, in all communications with customers, users, suppliers, etc. Put it at the bottom of your invoices.

Every talk you give should end with a slide that says “We are hiring” and include the URL. Add it to your twitter bio, linkedin bio, etc, etc. It all adds up. It should be no surprise to anyone you come into contact with regularly that your business is hiring. This is the best possible source of leads.

Next - you (and your team) need to get out of the office. Go to relevant industry events. Encourage team members to speak about what you are up to. Again, the key is showing, not telling, the relevant community what you are doing and why it is interesting. And then at the end ALWAYS mention that you are hiring,

A brief note about advertising

It may make sense to pay to advertise the role. That’s a whole separate discussion outside of the scope of this post, but ideally you are generating enough noise in the market. Nevertheless here is my brief advice on paying to promote a role: only advertise in HIGHLY RELEVANT places. Do not advertise in a generic tech job board. Instead, sponsor the next meetup of developers of the specific programming language your business uses. Generic advertising will, best case, get generic responses. That is not what you want. If there is no good local meetup for your niche, perhaps you should start it? (another shameless plug, if you are looking for location based service developers in London, you should sponsor #geomob, the meetup I run)

The other point I have about advertising is to get creative. For example, if you are trying to hire in Barcelona, why not target people who left a few years ago and now might want to come back. How? Why not run Facebook ads targeting computer science grads who speak Catalan and live in London? My point is there are ways to cost-effectively reach your target audience. Get clever and try those before you just throw money at the problem.

Final thoughts

Ok, this post is already to long, but the final point I always tell companies is now that you have a great candidate joining your company, make sure you put the effort into on-boarding. Getting them settled into your company well and being productive quickly. It makes a huge difference, but that’s the subject for a future post.

Happy hiring, Ed