One of the biggest challenges a company faces as it scales is to revamp its recruiting and employee onboarding processes. When Twitter bought my startup it had just 90 employees. By the time I left two and half years later, Twitter had grown to close to 1,500 people—93% of the employees were new.
In order to add 500 people a year you need to change the way you approach and scale your recruiting organization, you need to think deeply about employee onboarding, and you need to maintain and evolve your culture.
Recruiting best practices
As you scale from hiring 10 people a year to 10 people a week, a small number of recruiting processes can go a long way in maintaining a high bar and expediting key hires.
Write a job description for every role
Many companies start off recruiting via personal networks for a small number of roles—e.g., engineers and designers. As a company scales beyond individual contributors in a handful of functions, it is important for people hiring for a role to understand what is important in the person they hire. For example, if you are hiring a business development person for the first time (see “how to hire great BD people,”), what should people look for in that person and role? An engineer on the interview panel might not know the difference between a business development and a sales person. Clarifying skill set and role is important so everyone is looking for the same type of candidate.
For each role you should write a job description that explains what the role will do, and what experience and background you are looking for. You can also list the things you are not looking for, or consider less important. This description should be circulated to people interviewing for the role with a short note explaining what the hiring manager is looking for and prioritizing. If your team subsequently raises questions about who to hire for the role, you can refer back to the original job description to correct any bad assumptions.
Ask every candidate the same questions
For each candidate for a given role, ask the same or similar interview questions. This will allow you to calibrate candidates across identical questions.
Assign focus areas to interviewers prior to the interview
Often you want to interview candidates for specific aspects of their role. For example, you might interview a product manager on their product insights, past accomplishments, culture fit, etc. Rather than have every person the candidate interviews with ask the same set of questions for every area, you could have three or four interviewers each focus on a different area that you assign to them before the interview. This will allow for an in-depth view of each area, versus a shallow view of all areas.
Additionally, if you bring the person back for a second round of interviews, you can double down on areas of concern with more focused interviews.
One of the biggest determinants of candidate conversion is how quickly you interview them and how quickly you can make an offer.
Work product interviews
For some roles, the best way to assess a candidate (outside of direct prior knowledge working with them) is to have them develop a work product as part of the interview. This could happen either onsite or as a take home. For example, an engineer could do a coding exercise, or a designer could be asked to do a quick set of wire frames or workflow for a hypothetical product. A marketing person could be asked to generate a hypothetical product marketing plan. In general, it is good to avoid asking for work or output on an existing company product to avoid the perception of getting free labor out of a candidate.
As each person finishes their interview, it is good for them to enter feedback about the candidate before talking to other interviewers. This avoids people biasing each other and forces each interviewer to take a written stance on a candidate. You can also adopt a numeric ranking system (e.g., 1–5 points) or a simple “hire, no hire” scale. The key is consistency, as well as providing interviewers with a clear definition of what these outputs should mean. Consistent scoring can allow you to quickly reject or pursue candidates. In general, your scoring system prevents interviewers from having the easy out of a “neutral” option. Hence the “hire/no hire” framework would lack a “no opinion” option.
Every company I have ever worked for, or with, has realized that one of the biggest determinants of candidate conversion is how quickly you interview them and how quickly you can make an offer. Beyond conversion, a key metric to track is how long candidates spend in each step of the interview process. You should optimize for shorter times between each step and for rapidly getting offers out.
Check candidates’ references
Reference checks are often the clearest signal on a candidate. You should reference check everyone. Be careful with businesspeople—they tend to provide friends in their organization as references, and in general will get glowing recommendations from their friends. I have found engineering and other functions to be more direct/honest when providing references for their friends. To compensate for this, try to broaden the scope of references you check for businesspeople to other functions to ensure clarity of their skills and areas for improvement.
Ensuring diversity (of gender, race or ethnic background, sexual orientation, social class and background, and more) in your employee base and interview process is the subject of numerous books and blogs. One excellent resource for this is Joelle Emerson’s Paradigm Strategy website, whose focus is diverse hiring practices. You can also read the interview with Joelle later on in this book.
There is a lot of detail and nuance in getting to a diverse workforce. A few key items:
1. Ensure that you have diverse candidates for each role. You will never have a diverse employee base if you do not ensure diverse candidates in your funnel. Building a diverse funnel means not only sourcing a broader spectrum of candidates, but also thinking through the language in your job descriptions, how employees are represented on your website, and other factors that will impact who applies.
2. Focus on eliminating biases from your interview approach. A number of biases exist in standard interviewing approaches. A simple example would be whether the names and gender of candidates is blinded at the resume review stage.
3. Provide benefits that support the needs of underrepresented employees. Paid parental leave is one simple example. Think through your broader potential employee pool and what benefits would support their ability to focus on their work at your company.
Scaling a recruiting organization
The use of recruiters by a startup will shift dramatically over the lifetime of the company.
As a small startup (e.g., 3–10 people), using a recruiter is usually not as useful as direct founder or employee networking, using LinkedIn and other tools. In contrast, when I was at Twitter, the company grew from ~90 to ~1,500 people over a 2.5 year period. As your company scales into the hundreds and thousands of people, you will want to bring specialized recruiters, sourcers, university programs managers, etc. inhouse and potentially use retained external recruiters for executive hires.
Early days: Your team as recruiters
Early on, the best approach to recruiting is to have people on your team actively refer in people from their network. Similarly, many founders & early employees spend as much as 30–50% of their time early on (e.g., when scaling from 3 to 15 people) on recruiting. There is no easy fix around it. You need to just grind through large numbers of people (via networking, LinkedIn, friends, etc.) to find the handful of people to join your team.
Some startups I know successfully hire someone who is a mix of office manager/social media manager/recruiting coordinator. This person will often spend a lot of time scheduling referred candidates and reaching out to passive candidates via email and LinkedIn. Once the candidate expresses interest they pass them off to a founder or hiring manager.
Initial scaling: The in-house recruiter
Once a company hits a certain scale and is growing fast enough (adding 15–20 people per year or more), hiring in-house recruiters makes a lot of sense. The recruiter initially plays a few different roles that in larger stage companies will get split up including
- Running the recruiting process (scheduling, collating feedback, coordinating with hiring manager etc.).
- In some cases delivering offers (although I think often hiring managers or founders can do this).
Depending on the strength of the recruiter (and, importantly, the company branding with your candidates), the recruiter will be able to hire 1–4 engineers per month. This shifts as the company scales and adds more differentiated roles (see below).
“The importance of the hiring manager and other executives being involved in the recruiting process cannot be over-emphasized.”
This means that if you are hiring fewer than 15 engineers a year, you may want to have a part-time or split-role recruiter, grow organically via company referrals, or find an alternative structure with external recruiters.
For non-engineering roles (e.g., sales) a single recruiter may be able to hire a larger number of people per month. This is driven in part by the referral-heavy nature of sales hiring as well as the fact that there are fewer high-growth companies for sales, marketing, and business development people to go to. In contrast, every startup is trying to hire engineers and designers.
Things that impact the ability of the recruiter to be effective include:
- Brand of the startup with candidates.
- Strength of the hiring manager and executive team as recruiters. If they are active and engaged, it makes recruiting run smoother and will help to source and close more candidates.
- Breadth of network of the employees at the company.
The importance of the hiring manager and other executives being involved in the recruiting process (through informal conversations, extending offers, meeting for lunch, etc.) cannot be overemphasized, no matter how strong a recruiting org you have. The candidates will always want exposure to people in key roles in the company (Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook is famous for his “closing walks” with mid-level candidates).
High-growth: Multiple recruiting org roles
When a company is growing really fast, the set of roles on the recruiting team tends to fragment and you need to start to specialize the types of people on your recruiting team.
1. Sourcers. Sourcers research, cold-call, email, and otherwise create a path to passive candidates. In some cases they then transfer the candidates over to recruiters who will feed the candidate into a coordinated interview process. Some sourcers manage candidates up through an onsite interview, but seldom beyond.
2. Recruiters. Recruiters manage the process of coordination of the candidate through scheduling various interviews (phone screens, onsite, executive, etc.) and then circling with the team or hiring manager to determine whether an offer will be extended. At some companies the recruiter may extend the offer, in others the hiring manager does so.
Your first few in-house recruiters should have experience sourcing as well. This helps in a number of ways:
- The recruiter will likely be more effective in sourcing and recruiting specialized engineering roles.
- There will be fewer hand offs between people on the team (e.g., sourcer, recruiter, hiring manager, etc.) which means less friction to the candidate and fewer people fall through the cracks.
Splitting the recruiter and sourcer roles tends to work best when you are hiring large number of people of a specific type. For example, if you need to hire 50 backend engineers, 30 front-end engineers, and 20 PMs, starting to segment recruiting roles makes a big difference.
3. Candidate researchers. These people may scrub LinkedIn for all the engineers at Google, prioritize them, put them into a spreadsheet, and then hand off the spreadsheet to the sourcers to actually do the outreach/pitch the candidates to interview.
These people usually only really get added to the team as it scales from 100+ to 1,000+ people, and you are hiring large numbers of people in the same role.
4. Recruiting marketing. These are the folks who develop marketing materials, run ads, organize recruiting events, hackathons, website content, etc. to create an inbound pipeline of candidates. At a startup, this is usually driven by someone on the team you are recruiting for (e.g., an engineering manager for engineering candidates). Alternatively, the marketing team at the startup may be responsible for this as part of their overall marketing efforts. Only as a company scales to a few hundred people or more does the possibility of a standalone coordinating recruiting marketing role emerge.
5. University programs. Given the specific timing and cadence of new graduate and intern hiring, some companies will specialize sourcers and recruiters specifically for coordination and hiring of new grads. When your startup is still small, instead of hiring dedicated university programs people, you can have your existing recruiting staff pivot to cover this area for the few months when it is most relevant.
Executive hires: Retained recruiter
For executive hires, a retained search using an executive recruiting firm may work well. While you will continue to mine your investors and employees for leads, specialized recruiting firms have networks tailored to fill your general counsel, CFO, or other role that may simply be outside of your founder network.
For a retained search, you may pay an external recruiter some upfront fee or retainer to find candidates for you. In general, these sorts of searches work best if you are hiring an executive for the company versus an individual contributor. One reason is that executive hires may be outside of your core network, or that executives may be more willing to talk to recruiters from a brand-name firm than to someone from a less well-known startup.
There are a number of brand-name executive recruiters your angels, VCs, or advisors can connect you to.
Many companies make the mistake of spending months building a pipeline for recruiting the very best people, but then spend little time actually onboarding them to make sure they are successful.
Here are some simple ideas your office manager or head of people can try as you onboard new people.
Send out a welcome letter
Send a welcome letter to the new employee—and cc all the teams that person will be working with closely. The letter will explain the person, their role, who they will report to, what their goals are for the quarter, as well as potentially one interesting fact about them they are willing to share. The idea is to ensure each new person has a clear role and responsibilities, and that the rest of the organization is aware of these things. The interesting fact creates an ice breaker for their coworkers to be able to start a conversation with the new hire.
Create a checklist of items that each new person receives as they show up for their first day at the company. This should extend beyond the utilitarian items of laptop and email address. Include a book on management the company aspires to emulate, a T-shirt or hoodie, and if they have a newborn leave them a onesie. You can also have a handwritten (or signed) note welcoming the individual to the company.
High-growth companies tend to have their own jargon, internal tools, and random processes that are unique to them. Pair a new hire with a “buddy”—someone who is not in the reporting chain of command with them who can take them to lunch, introduce them to people, and importantly answer any “stupid” questions they may have. Buddies tend be paired for one to three months.
Make sure they have real ownership
The biggest obstacles to happy employee onboarding tend to be (1) a bad manager/ employee relationship, and (2) a lack of feeling of ownership for the area they were hired to do. The prior owner of a project may linger longer then is needed in order to get credit for the prior work done. Acknowledge their work but ramp them down as quickly as is reasonable so the new employee can find their legs. If it is a short time window (two weeks to launch) you can have the original owner launch the product or do the work. If it is a longer time-frame (two months) you should transition the project.
Each manager can set 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals for new employees. This gives a sense of direction, context, and structure for the new employee. It also emphasizes what is important to get done and that individual’s priorities.