April 1, 2021

Building Your Talent Pipeline

When most people think about the duties and obligations of a startup founder, they usually think about fundraising, big sales, and vision. These are all important — but talent development is firmly in the founder’s wheelhouse and often neglected until it’s too late. I’ve written elsewhere on common startup talent mistakes. Avoiding those is only half the battle. 

You have to actively build and cultivate a talent pipeline, even (especially) if you’re not currently hiring. One of the main questions we ask during our diligence on investments is, “who do you need to hire and do you have people in mind?” Once the wire hits your account, investors want to see that you’re growing your team and selling that vision to new employees.

This urgency of talent development goes both for technical and nontechnical talent. That being said, it’s rare that we see a team hire technical talent too early. If you have early indicators of strong traction — happy customers, people requesting new features, etc. — you’re going to need that product talent sooner than you think. Product talent also fetches a higher rate on the open market, so it often takes longer to recruit outstanding product people than it does marketing, sales, or customer success talent. You also have to keep in mind that people often want to stay at a company until the end of a vesting period or until after a quarterly or annual bonus.

Building that talent pipeline can look like so much more than just posting a job on Angel List or tweeting out, “we’re hiring!” Here are some strategies we’ve seen work well.

Job Postings that Actually Work

A job posting should be more than just a job description and a set of requirements. Too many teams just look up the general description for a job, like “python software engineer,” and change a few items and post it online. Instead, think of your job posting as a sales page for your company and your job. You want the right candidate to see a job posting and say “oh, this company actually sounds interesting” (alternatively, you also want the wrong candidates to look at that job posting and say, “this job isn’t for me”).

Well-written job postings include a pitch about your company, a pitch for the role, and a reason for somebody to identify themselves or people they know in the posting. You want this to be shared to the right people when people who know those people see it. 

Loom does a good job at giving candidates a reason to be excited about joining the team in their postings:

They go on to say how the role plays into the broader team, too, not simply what is involved in the day-to-day:

For a startup, it’s especially important that you sell candidates on the “why us” in the description. Chances are that their friends and family have never heard of your company and would expect them to go get a job at a recognizable technology company. Give them validation that you are doing something big. You don’t have to have the numbers and names that Loom does (they’re a later stage startup, after all), but you do want to give readers a reason to get excited and tell their friends and family about the application over dinner.

Your postings are you pitching your company to the right talent. Don’t make them simple checklists.

Honeypot Job Postings When You Aren’t Hiring

One of my favorite high-leverage moves a startup can make is making a “general” or “open” job posting and sharing it around. These work as honeypots for good talent that self-selects into the category of people who are going to be interested in working for you.

What I mean by “general” or “open” job postings is a post that allows anybody to apply for a future opening at your company or create their own job. You don’t have to actually have a position open to post these. These allow people who are excited about your company to write in to you easily and say, “I would love to interview here.”

These are particularly useful if the niche you serve includes your potential employees (i.e., devtools are a good example of this) or can develop good organic traffic to your careers page. 

Memberstack has a future positions form on their careers page, for example, that allows them to collect names and talent information for people who are interested in working there in the future:

nTopology has something similar: a “Name Your Job” job posting on their careers page. This lets interested talent still write in even though they don’t see the job they want on the site.

Outbound - Yes, Outbound

As the founder, you want to know what roles you’re going to have to hire for next, even if you don’t plan on hiring for those roles for a few weeks or months. This lets you keep your eyes peeled for good talent when it crosses your desk. 

Figure out where this talent will hang out online and actively reach out to people who look interesting. This likely means hawking projects you find interesting on GitHub, looking for talent by parameters on LinkedIn search, and spending time occasionally in Facebook groups or Discord servers.  When you come across talent that piques your interest, reach out to them and start the conversation about their background and skills. As you grow, you obviously won’t be able to do this for every new hire, but you’ll still want to do something like this with senior hires (at least, until you can afford to hire an executive headhunter). As you grow, you should encourage your EVPs to do this, as well, so that they have a sense for what the top talent out there wants and expects from the marketplace.

Build Your Own Community and Hire from It

Consider starting a community of your customers. You can use this for product development and feedback but also for talent development and acquisition. This is particularly true for companies whose customers make ideal employees — communities with events, talent, aesthetic, niche interest, or devtool components are good examples of this. 

If your customers love your product, chances are those with the right skills would be interested in working with you at some point. Make it easy to have these conversations with them and let them know when you’re hiring. Something like a Facebook group, a Discord server, or a Slack channel is a good, low-noise way to notify them of these opportunities.

Next Gen runs a Facebook group for their community with over 4000 members. This makes it easier for them to hire as they can hire from their own community members or get community members to easily refer them over to other people. 

Referral, Referral, Referral

The reality is that a lot of your best talent will come through referrals. Startups need unique people — people with specific skills and interests and a certain risk profile that you don’t find in the general population — and often those unique people know other unique people. Keep a list of people whom you know know likely candidates. When you’re getting ready to hire, specifically go to these people and ask them directly, “do you know anybody who would fit this role?”

You can also offer a referral program — usually several hundred dollars if you refer the right candidate — to the public at large. This dovetails well into using a community and social media to help you hire.

Lean on Your Investors

Your investors should be able to help you hire. Investors talk to a lot of talent through their day-to-day work and often get inbound talent that is interested in working at portfolio companies. When you diligence an investor, investigate whether or not they can help you with top-of-funnel issues in hiring. In other words, you don’t necessarily need to have them to play recruiter for you, but you should see whether or not they can send talent to your careers pages. At 1517, we try to do this through our jobs board, our community of 3000+ folks, and a digital reach in the tens of thousands per month. Later stage investors often have staff on hand that can help specifically with executive headhunting.

Beyond failing to find product market fit and running out of runway, failing to hire good enough talent fast enough is one of the biggest reasons early stage startups fail. Get started building your talent pipeline as early as you can.