101 Hiring Hacks For Startups

By Michael Overell - Jan. 22, 2013
Improve Your Company Branding With Zippia

Hiring at a startup can be a challenge: it needs to be fast, incredibly high quality, and generally low cost. We work with many startups, but are more often asked how they can improve hiring themselves.

Here are 101 practical, actionable ideas that have worked for us (or someone else). They won’t all work for every company; but the emphasis is on fast, low-cost hacks you can quickly trial in your own startup.

Design Your Employer Brand
(aka, why people want to work here)

  1. Offer a base-level of benefits and perks. For many startups this is a case of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. In a competitive environment, many perks are considered a price of entry. Research what your main competitors offer and ensure you at least match it. This Quora thread has a good list of ideas for early stage startups.
  2. Offer unlimited vacation. Nothing says ‘we respect your judgement’ more than giving employees total discretion on their holidays. Besides, if you’re hiring people with the right mindset they’re unlikely to abuse it. See how Evernote made this work.
  3. Offer a PAID paid vacation. If you find unlimited vacation doesn’t help your hardworking team take a break, consider paying them to take time off. This is a hack initiated by Foundry startup FullContact, which has been quickly followed by others (including SEOMoz).
  4. Take an annual one-month company retreat.  Expensify take their entire team to a (low-cost) location each year for a full month. Anywhere that has the ‘holy trinity of power, internet and beach’. This year was Thailand. Sure, you probably need some funding for this one: it costs Expensify $30K. But that’s really only 2 typical recruitment agency fees, with much wider benefit.
  5. Don’t work Fridays.  Another extreme approach, that seems to be working for Treehouse, where everyone works a 4-day week. It’s a commitment that starts from the top, and they make work with aggressive use of tools like Trello and GoogleApps.
  6. Give a day off on birthdays.  This might be an easier hack for most startups than a 4-day week. Give employees their birthday off (or the day either side of it), so they can celebrate outside of work. It’s just another way that shows them you encourage them to enjoy life outside of work.
  7. Celebrate anniversaries with the company.  People often spend more time at work and with their colleagues than they do with their own families. It’s easy to recognise the anniversaries of the date they started with you either with a gift (that gets better as the years go by), and / or with day in lieu that they can take any time in the month of their anniversary every year.
  8. Open a tab at a nearby café.  If you don’t want to invest in a Nespresso machine for the office, open an account a nearby café and let your staff get their daily caffeine fix ‘on the company’ – within reason of course.
  9. Have fresh fruit delivered to the office regularly.  Startup teams work hard, with many long hours. You want them healthy and productive. Avoid sugary snacks, and try fresh ‘fruit at work’ to give a regular health boost.
  10. Cover team members’ gym memberships.  Nothing beats having a fit and healthy team. Offer an incentive where you will cover individual gym memberships (up to a certain dollar amount) for all employees once they have passed their probation. Better yet – encourage them to take time out and head to the gym during the day.
  11. Provide Genuine Flexibility. Github is famous for the distributed work environment and lack of structure. They’re doing something right…
  12. Create an employee handbook, and make it good.  Putting some real effort into an employee handbook shows real commitment to people (and company culture). A few famous examples include Valve and Zappos.
  13. Document your company values, and share publicly.  This is the #1 advice from Michael Fox, cofounder of Shoes of Prey (their example here).
  14. Tell good stories.  This is the #1 piece of advice from Dan Portillo, ‘talent whisperer’ at Greylock Partners. Tell your stories through every medium: in person, blogs, twitter, publications and overall design.
  15. Demonstrate social awareness.  As a company, select a charity that the team supports either through donations or through volunteer work. You can also offer every team member one day off every year where they can go and volunteer for their charity of choice.
  16. Create a video of a ‘day in the life’.  This needs to be transparent and authentic, with no BS. Give people a feel for your team culture and work environment. Here’s a good example from Zendesk.

Deliver an Awesome Candidate Experience

  1. Treat every candidate like they will become a future customer.  This is a helpful mental hack to help shape all of your candidate interactions, and everything below. Read how Dharmesh Shah uses this (and others) to deliver an awesome candidate experience.
  2. Single click to apply.  Startups spend so much time and resources on optimising customer acquisition, but next to none on talent acquisition. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) make your customers fill out pages of fields just to register their interest in your product. Embed an ‘Apply with LinkedIn’ button onto your website, to remove any barrier to applicants.
  3. Setup an autoresponder with a personal note from the CEO.  This is easy to setup in Gmail, and ensures candidates have an immediate response. Thank them for applying, spell out the next steps and when they should expect to hear from you.
  4. Pick up the phone and speak to candidates.  Even in a tech startup environment, a personal call from the CEO (or a cofounder) to a candidate can have a huge impact. Think of where the priorities of a potential new staff member would lie if they have received an email outlining next steps vs a call from a cofounder to schedule in a time to meet.
  5. Set internal deadlines for all responses.  Don’t keep candidates waiting. They’re not only talking to you. 24 hours is a good target – remember, fastest may not always win, but slowest will almost always lose.
  6. Have a ‘guest’ tablet available for candidates in reception.  Treat candidates like a guest from the minute they walk in the door. You don’t want them nervously waiting in reception, fidgeting, without a wifi code. Give them a tablet to do whatever they want, including play angry birds (suggests Shah again). For bonus points, give them limited access to an internal Yammer feed or intranet, so they get a feel for the internal culture.
  7. Never keep a candidate waiting.  Even if you have given them a wifi code or other distractions, never keep a candidate waiting. This is the first impression they will have of how you run your business – make it good.
  8. Remember the little things.  You will often be in a hurry (and not all startups will have the luxury of a receptionist). But remember to offer your candidate a glass of water (or perhaps even a coffee). And at the end of the interview, remember to see them to the lift or to the door personally.
  9. Send a personal note (with meaningful feedback) to every person you interview.  Thank them for their time, be transparent with your decision (whether successful or not), and if appropriate, offer constructive feedback. The last point won’t work for everyone, but will be appreciated by most (reasonable) candidates, by giving them something to work on.
  10. Where appropriate, pick up the phone to provide feedback.  It’s important to not only provide constructive feedback to appropriate candidates, but to also solicit feedback about their interview experience. It’s amazing what insights or potential competitor information a candidate will share with you over the phone that they wouldn’t even consider including in an email.

Build an Internal Recruiting Engine

  1. As CEO, allocate time every week for ‘recruiting’.  This allows fixed time every week for interviews, coffees, or phone calls. Even if no interviews are scheduled, work on the top of the funnel — events, blogging, but with a candidate attraction focus.
  2. Define specific roles for each of your team members.  Hiring impacts the entire team, and they need to be involved. Map a process that will work for you, including who will conduct each round of interviews, who gives the office tour, and at what stage any full team engagement will take place.
  3. Add a ‘Careers’ page to your website.  Show what it’s like to work at your company. Even if not recruiting, build your pipeline by allowing people to express interest. We like the examples from HubSpot, Kissmetrics and Etsy.
  4. Use Trello to track all applicants.  Most startups don’t need an ATS (applicant tracking system). What we do need is speed and visibility. Trello is a fantastic tool for this, used by Treehouse to hire +30 staff at a sprint. They kindly shared a public Trello board that any startup can copy and use.
  5. Measure your recruiting funnel like your customer acquisition funnel.  We all measure customer acquisition funnels. What about candidates? Look at the stages in the Trello board above. Once you start measuring conversion from one stage to another, you can identify where to focus efforts for improvement.
  6. Build a bench.  Whatever you call it — bench, pipeline, talent community, network — every startup should have one. Have a mental (or even better, a documented) shortlist of ideal candidates for your upcoming roles. Or even those you just feel would be perfect for your business even if it means creating a role for them later on down the track. Then like any sales target, nurture them: with coffees, shared content, or invitations to your events.

Source The Top Candidates
(aka, think like a headhunter)

  1. Fish where the fish are (hint: they’re not trawling Monster or Craigslist). Where do the rockstars in your space hangout? Designers: Dribble, Behance. Developers: Github, Stackoverflow. B2B Salesguys: expensive restaurants every Friday from 1pm. This Techcrunch post from the founder of Entelo expands on the point.
  2. Follow the “Rule of 100”. You need to touch 100 candidates to make one great hire.
  3. Be visible at events and meetups.  Send your team to events in their space, where they can spread the word in a relaxed environment. Make sure they’re in branded swag, in a mood to meet people, and come back with cards and/or notes of the people who impressed them.
  4. Take a fraction of a typical recruiting fee and invest it on hosting meetups and events.  Hosting your own events brings great visibility, credibility, and contact details for all attendees. To hack this idea further: litter the room with a few posters or notes that ‘We’re Hiring’.
  5. Ask your community for referrals.  Your existing customers, followers and ambassadors are a great place to start. Drop a reference to your openings in a regular newsletter, or on Twitter/Facebook.
  6. Learn the basics of searching LinkedIn.  With a little knowledge, you can search for almost any public profile on LinkedIn. Learn the basics of Boolean Search to uncover people well outside your network.
  7. “Flirt” with People on LinkedIn. Browse profiles of candidates, and if someone browses back, ask for connection.
  8. Craft personalised emails to target candidates, and follow up.  Do some research, and make it clear why you’ve contacted them. Elaine Wherry (founder of Meebo) shares some good example emails from the best recruiters she analysed.
  9. Add a note to your email signature, with the roles you’re hiring.  Example: ‘Know any awesome Ruby developers? I’d love to buy you dinner for an intro’. Think how many emails you send in a month. If .0001% of those people made a referral… well, you do the math.
  10. Get creative with job ads.  Job ads are boring, but sometimes necessary. Try making your ads less boring. We particularly like this example, from an Australian tech recruiter working for BigCommerce: How hypnotoad increased CTR by 40%. For more of the basics, read: The Ultimate Guide to Recruitment Advertising.
  11. Try Innovative Sourcing Channels. Use sponsored Tweets or Facebook ads to reach your target audience.
  12. Comment (first) on relevant blogs, with a note that ‘We’re Hiring’.  Find the blogs your candidates will be reading, and just hustle to get in front of them (Hint: make sure you have something smart to say).
  13. A/B test your job title and description.  Are you torn between ‘growth hacker’, ‘ninja rockstar marketer’, or ‘engineer who knows marketing’? Like any copy on your site, try A/B testing. See a simple example from CEO of the Microsoft Accelerator in India.
  14. Offer a referral bonus/incentive, but make it creative.  Anyone can offer ‘$5K for referrals’, but you want to stand out. Try dinner at the best restaurant in town; 12 months supply of PBR; or a weekend trip to Tahoe. Like employee bonuses, make it something people will enjoy, but are unlikely to buy for themselves.

Fast-Track Your Shortlist
(aka, save time screening)

  1. Ask applicants for links to their full social identify.  LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog, Quora, Github, BeHance. These all provide invaluable information, and will save you time searching for it all yourself. Union Square Ventures only ask for social links from applicants (no CVs wanted!).
  2. Measure the influence and reach of candidates.  Depending on the role, a bit of sleuthing can also help. Whether you buy into them or not, measures like Klout give a directional sense of someone’s activity on the social webs. Controversially, Salesforce recently made Klout scores one of the criteria for a marketing role.
  3. Set games or challenges for people to apply.  SeatGeek (a NYC ticketing startup) was receiving hundreds of dodgy applications for developer roles. So they set a challenge: “All applicants must submit their resume by hacking into our backend jobs admin panel”. It worked so well, they extended it to non-tech roles — asking PR candidates to write a creative article using an internal dataset.
  4. Set simple rules for disqualification.  Ask candidates to follow simple, but very clear steps in submitting their application. If they can’t, don’t even read it. A simple example: including a custom message in an email subject.
  5. Don’t look for the 10X engineer.  This is a controversial idea advocated by Rand at SEOmoz. Rather than finding the rare 10X engineer, focus on building a superstar team.
  6. Use video to screen some roles.  For roles with many applicants (not the elusive rockstar, ninja, weapon growth hacker), swap time-consuming phone interviews for automated video screening. They can save +30-40 minutes per applicant. (Disclaimer: RecruitLoop offers a video interview product, free for startups).

Interview Like A Boss

  1. Teach your engineers how to interview.  Your best engineer is unlikely to your best interviewer. But you want them involved in the hiring process. Make sure they understand the overall process, goals for each interview, and the types and style of questions (read: The Complete Managers’ Interview Guide).
  2. Create a standard template for all interviews.  A template gives all interviewers a framework to work from — especially important if they’re new to interviewing. Leave space for notes and answers throughout the interview, and ratings (to be completed afterwards). Once finished, scan the paper and attach to your candidates’ notes (or Trello card, see above).
  3. Pre-plan your structured questions. Plan a core set of behavioural questions in advance, and sync this with your team. Use this to dig deeper in certain areas; and make sure no candidate answers the same question twice (to different people).
  4. Ask candidates how they would improve your product/ marketing/ UI. You want to learn how they think; about the quality of their ideas; and whether they’ve invested real time and effort into learning about your company. You could ask this as an interview question, or have them prepare thoughts in advance.
  5. Work through a case study together. Management consulting firms are famous for their ‘case study’ interview approach, where candidates work through a 15-30 minute problem. Interviewers care less about the answer to the problem than the thought process used to get there. Startups can do the same, with a twist: Ask a Product Manager ‘How they would design a metrics dashboard’; or a marketer to ‘Develop the launch plan for a new product feature”.
  6. Have a whiteboard in any interview room. Whether doing a case study or not, encourage candidates to sketch out solutions to any big responses. You’ll quickly get great insight into their ability to structure and communicate an answer.
  7. Have a team member call you 15 minutes into the interview. Answer the call if you want an excuse to end it early. Ignore the call if you like where it’s headed (controversial, yes). Protip: to show a strong candidate you really value their time, pull the phone out of your pocket and put it face down on the table, without even looking at the screen.
  8. Finally, ask these 5 questions, to any candidate currently in another role.

Select For Success

  1. Hire for cultural fit over competence, suggests Brad Feld. The toughest decision is candidates who are highly competent but don’t fit the culture. His advice is to pass.
  2. Set a small project. Unstructured interviews are notoriously inaccurate in predicting future performance. A better method: observing real work from a candidate. Set a small, real-world project relevant to their role, and give them a few days to work on it. You’ll get much richer insight into their actual ability and style.
  3. A/B test your candidates. Extending the concept of a small project: give the same project to multiple candidates. Hiten Shah (Kissmetrics) asked 5 designers to build the same infographic, then could make a more data-driven decision about who to hire.
  4. Check out the source code of potential hires. Ask them to provide verified code or a github account. A more objective (but expensive!) option is Gild, which evaluates and ranks the technical chops of millions of developers in 200 countries.
  5. Look for honeybadgers, who, according to the famous video, don’t give a shit about anything. You don’t want employees who think working in a startup is cool. It’s hard work. Really. You want people who’ll get smacked, work through the pain, and keep smiling at the end of the day. Read how Gigwalk applies this filter to all their hires.
  6. Introduce them to the entire team. Early. Every new hire impacts your culture, so get the team involved in all decisions.
  7. Personally Call Their References. A candidate will never provide a negative reference, but you’ll be surprised what you can learn from a phone call.
  8. Conduct Back-Channel References. Don’t just call references they provide. Search deep for other connections you have to the candidate, to get the real inside word.
  9. Setup a one-day trial. Invite the 2-3 candidates in for a full working day (on different days, obviously). Include them in product discussions, sessions with their team, and general day-to-day operations. After working with 2-3 candidates for a full day, you’ll be surprised how clear a cultural fit (or misfit) becomes.
  10. Walk Them Through a “Week in the Life” of the Role. Watch carefully for how they engage, and the type of questions they ask.

Negotiate The Offer

  1. Create a consistent offer letter for all candidates. Make sure it’s legal, and includes all benefits and perks. Ideally, your lawyers can provide a template as part of any standard documentation. If not, there are plenty of generic templates around (eg here or here).
  2. Understand industry benchmarks for salary and equity. Understand general industry ranges, then check AngelList for a market comparison. If your offers are significantly different to other startups, you’ll need a good reason when talking to the best candidates.
  3. Don’t Focus on Salary. Find out what motivates someone, and pitch to their passion. You might find them willing to budge; and also that they’re worth more than you think.
  4. If offering equity, include both the # and % breakdown. The absolute number of shares/options on their own are meaningless. Although we’ve heard of some founders withholding the % breakdown, and waiting for the candidate to ask (which is a good sign).
  5. Vest the equity for every employee. If you’ve got an option plan and a lawyer, this should be a given. If you don’t, figure out how to make it happen. This should be non-negotiable.
  6. Expect to answer these questions from any candidate with a basic understanding of the startup world.

Close Your Top Candidate

  1. Sell the Role’s Difficulty. Tell them how the role will be difficult, and gauge their reactions. The right person will be energized when they hear that.
  2. Give the Candidates the Full Scope of the Problem… And let them write their own job description.
  3. Understand Your Competition. Then Beat Them. Ask what other roles / companies your candidate is considering. Develop a winning game plan in response. 
  4. Send a pack to their house. Remind them of the awesome culture they’re considering joining. You could include a press kit, branded swag, bottle of wine, or Kindle. If they’re tossing up a few other roles, it’s small things like this that can tip the balance in your favour.
  5. Send a handwritten note. If you’re bootstrapping hard, a simple hand-written note could have a similar effect. Anyone can send an email — you need to be memorable.
  6. Have dinner with their partner. This is someone who’s going to have a big impact on the ultimate decision, but you’ve probably never met. Get to know them, let them learn more about your startup, and show you care about life outside of work.
  7. Introduce them to your high-profile investors or advisers. This can be a big swing factor for the right candidates, who might take a lower salary for an opportunity to work with big names in the game. You did the hard work getting these folk on board – so use them to your advantage.
  8. Invite them to a team event. Friday drinks, mid-week meetup, weekend event. Show them the great team environment they’ll be joining, and a chance to hangout with future colleagues in an informal setting.
  9. Take a walk together and share the vision for your company. Remember the Steve Jobs ‘sugared water’ moment? This is your job as CEO, but might be harder to pull off in a meeting room or office.

Hit The Ground Running

  1. Create a welcome kit that reinforces your values and culture. Give new employees something to open on the first day, to signify a new beginning. See how Jack Dorsey welcomes all employees at Square.
  2. Setup their workspace completely. Unless you want new candidates ‘building their own chair’, make them feel physically welcome, and instantly productive.
  3. Setup their virtual workspace. Have a checklist with everything they need to be working productively. This includes email address, passwords and logins to all SaaS apps. Setting everything up in advance shows them you’ve prepared properly for their start.
  4. Have new people start on a Thursday. This may sound bizarre. But early in the week, there’s often too much going on. By Thursday the team is usually more relaxed and will generally be more receptive to spending time with the new kid on the block. The weekend isn’t too far away and they can really start afresh with you the following week.
  5. Create a week one boot camp. Run a structured induction with introductions, training sessions, and one-on-ones with all key members of the team. Use this to ensure everyone receives a consistent intro to your company. See how Atlassian runs an induction bootcamp for all new employees.
  6. Write a blog post welcoming new hires to the team. Announce their arrival to your customers, partners and audience. Shoes of Prey do a pretty good job here.
  7. Have new hires write their own introductory post on the intranet or internal mailing list. This lets them show personality, their life outside of work, while formalising their introduction to the full team. Atlassian (again) advocates this approach.

Drive For Performance

  1. Use the Pygmalian Effect to get the best from your team. When you expect people to perform well, it turns out they do (the Pygmalian Effect). The initial study showed results with school students, but the same applies at work. There’s a catch however: your high expectations need to be realistic and achievable, or they could have the opposite effect.
  2. Rotate new employees through several key functions. Zappos requires all new employees to spend 2 weeks in the call center. You could do similar, in formal cycles, or just by have new employees sit in on a weekly meeting with a different team. You want them to understand and appreciate the work happening across the business, not just in their role.
  3. Have structured (2-way) feedback sessions at the end of their first week, then after 30, 60 and 90 days (if not more regularly). Make sure to get their feedback on your performance, and their feelings about the team.
  4. Pay employees to leave after 3 weeks. This is another famous hack from Zappos. They report 97% of employees turn down the offer (of a few thousand dollars). For those who take it, the cost is viewed as an investment in only keeping the right people.
  5. Program your company culture and be a Good Place to Work.  2 chunky bits of advice from Ben Horowitz.
  6. Recognise efforts regularly. Don’t just wait until the end of the month or quarter to recognise those who’ve done something well. Real-time recognition works wonders, whether in person, or virtually on an internal feed (like Yammer, Wooboard or Work.com).
  7. Act on Hiring Mistakes Quickly. “Hire fast, fire faster.”
  8. Hold a weekly ‘all-hands’ meeting. Bring the entire company together to introduce new hires, share goals and milestones, and discuss strategy. Bijan Sabet claims the best startups run these meetings consistently, with full transparency.
  9. Conduct Quarterly Pulse Checks of Culture and Satisfaction. Despite all of these hacks, never lost sight of the big picture.

Above all, if you can only do one thing to hack hiring at your startup: Make sure you’re doing great things. This will be the biggest factor for someone deciding whether to work with you.

What else have you tried, or seen work in a startup? We’d love to hear.


Michael Overell

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