After 7 years working in VC, and now as the founder of Sourcing Sprints, I’ve seen countless founders try to hire first team members. Let’s start with a short story about how this usually goes.
You’re a founder that’s raised some money and you need to hire, so you ask your network for referrals. This generates a few candidates, but more often than not, you don’t find the quantity or quality of people you’re looking for.
So, you post a job ad, people apply, and you find someone great, right?
Usually not! Almost always, few of the applicants are a great fit because most candidates aren’t applying to new roles. Most candidates are passive candidates. They’re open to changing jobs, they just aren’t actively applying.
Surveys show this is the majority of people – over 80% of them.
To get access to these candidates, you need to find them, get on a call with them, and pitch them your vision. This is called outbound sourcing, and it works great but it’s time intensive and easy to get wrong. Read on for 6 rules to follow so you can find better people in the shortest possible time.
Some founders try to build teams made from “bricks” – they create very specific roles and then search for people who match these requirements.
This isn’t a great strategy because in an early-stage startup, you don’t actually know what the role requires yet, so it doesn’t make sense to hire based on a narrow checklist of skills.
What you really want to optimize for is outlier performance and startup culture fit – generalists who are excited by your mission; who take initiative and ownership.
Because of this, It’s better to think of early stage hiring like building a stone wall. The first person you hire will determine the shape of the second which will determine the 3rd and so-on.
I’d recommend creating a job description that’s a little flexible to the exact seniority and skills you’re looking for – e.g. I’m a big fan of “founding engineer” titles because it doesn’t over constrain your search and helps attract people who are interested in early stage startups.
You might also set a minimum number of qualified candidates to speak with before making a decision. In my experience, 15 - 25 usually feels about right. That may sound like a lot, but for a key early hire, it’s important to spend extra time making sure it’s the right person.
To have 15 - 25 conversations with quality candidates, you’ll need to identify maybe 200 - 400 relevant people.
The most efficient way to do this isn’t by searching LinkedIn for keywords, it’s by building a list of companies where this person currently works or has worked in the past. Ask yourself “Where has someone solved similar problems and been immersed in startup culture?” Once you find a relevant company, you’ll identify many people at once.
To find good companies to look at, you might start with research on Crunchbase. Use LinkedIn (I recommend Sales Navigator) to search by current + past company and remember that building this list is an iterative process. Once you find a few great profiles, just look at every company they’ve worked at in the past, turning up more leads.
Focusing on work history isn’t just an efficient way to find many people at once, it’s also important because most candidates have very sparse LinkedIn profiles with few keywords.
Take, for example, this candidate we found for one of our clients. His profile has no info about his skills, but because we researched the company he worked for, we could infer that his tech stack was relevant and he understood what working in an early stage startup was like.
People like this are the best to reach out to because they’re not being found as often by other recruiters. By focusing on where a candidate has worked, you’ll unearth more people, including those that are receiving less recruiter spam because they’re less likely to turn up in other people’s searches.
When you do use keywords, I’d recommend using startup-centric keywords like “founding engineer” or “first hire” over skill centric keywords. These will help you find people who will understand what early stage startups are like and can hit the ground running.
In a very early stage startup, the hardest part isn’t finding great people though, it’s convincing them to join you. To do that, you need to look for people who care about the problem you’re solving.
For example, one of our clients was an early stage startup building a computer science degree program for students in Africa.
They spent 6 months trying to find their first full-time CS professor before we started working with them. They had a high quality bar and struggled to convince people to leave their cushy academic jobs for lower pay at a risky startup.
They eventually hired a candidate we found, but we didn’t find him by searching for his skills. He only came up when we looked for professors who had worked at historically black colleges and universities.
When we saw his experience at the peace corps, we knew that this was an opportunity he’d likely be interested in. For your early hires, you’ll have more luck recruiting missionaries, not mercenaries, so it helps to search for them explicitly.
Once you’ve found good people, you need to engage them, and you can only do that by creating multi-stage, exceptional outreach.
By multi-stage I mean you need to send email followups. The data shows that you can double your reply rates by sending 3 messages instead of just one.
By exceptional outreach I mean you need to stand out from the crowd. You can do this by making sure your outreach is:
For example, here’s a first outreach sent for one of our clients:
And here was the second email sent:
Of course, for outreach to work well, the job description itself also needs to be compelling.
Remember that the point of a job description is to sell candidates on why they should engage in an interview process, not list out your requirements for the role. Make sure you include:
As a rule of thumb, I wouldn’t make an early hire until I’ve spoken with about 15 qualified people. How much work does it take to get 15 great candidates in your pipeline? Here’s the typical funnel:
If you want to have 15 calls, and about 7% of candidates are open to exploring a role with you, you’ll need to reach out to at least 200 qualified leads and send about 600 emails. Depending on the market you’re recruiting in and scarcity of talent, the numbers could also be 2x this.
There’s no sugar coating it, this is an incredibly time intensive process. But, you can make it more efficient with outreach automation and email databases.
For outreach automation, we use Lemlist. It allows you to send multi-stage campaigns in a personalized way. However, there are many other email sequencing tools to choose from like Gem, Reply, Mixmax, etc.
For email finding, we like SalesQL and ContactOut. Make sure to use a tool like Bouncer to validate the emails you find so you don’t get a high bounce rate and have your emails sent to spam. For maximum email deliverability also make sure you have SPF, DMARC, and DKIM records set up.
Once you start outreach, it’s important to keep track of everything. We like google sheets, but Airtable and Notion work just as well.
Don’t spend too much time setting up the perfect tracker, because sending emails and keeping track of candidates is pretty easy. The harder, more time intensive task is sourcing good candidates.
Finding good profiles is a massive time sink. For the projects we work on, we typically assign a dedicated sourcer to look for people full-time.
As a founder, you can try to source them yourself, but you’re probably super busy with product development, fundraising, and customer acquisition. You’re also not likely to unearth great people unless you’ve had a bit of experience sourcing. So, in my view you have 3 options:
Note: I do not recommend working with a contingency fee based recruiting agency for your first few hires. Outside of the high cost, the model is misaligned with the needs of early stage startups, because as a founder, you want to learn how to repeatably hire, not just fill one open role. Agencies prevent you from doing this by screening candidates for you, sending you a small number of leads, and not being transparent about how they’re sourcing.
However, as you grow and better define what you’re looking for, agencies can be an efficient (albeit expensive) way to fill roles, especially exec-level ones.
Last, keep in mind that while outbound sourcing is often the right approach, it’s not always. If you’re hiring for more junior roles, like an entry-level sales role for example, focusing on applications may be best.
This operates on a continuum. If you’re hiring for a mid-level role where some candidates are active and some are passive, maybe you want to spread the job application far and wide at the same time that you’re also reaching out to high potential leads directly.
That's it! Thanks for reading and feel free to reach out if we might be helpful to you!