"We need more people in the pipeline," I said as we got our recruiting efforts underway. "How can we attract talented and diverse people to a company no one's ever heard of?"
Welcome to the life of a founder. Hiring amazing humans is one of a founder’s most important jobs. A startup is nothing without passionate, talented people who are all excited to be doing meaningful work.
But I’m here to tell you: sourcing, recruiting, and hiring is really, really hard. You have to find people who are not only open to a new opportunity, but are also passionate about what you’re doing and interested in joining your startup stage.
As cofounder of Hoop, in addition to hiring amazing humans, I aspire to bring in candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences, making our initial team resemble the kinds of dynamic teams who will be using our product.
As I looked beyond my initial network, I realized what I needed to do was become a technical recruiter.
Here’s what I learned:
What is inbound vs outbound recruiting?
In recruiting, “inbound candidates” represent people who opt into applying for a job by seeing a job listing. If Sally Mae submits her resume and cover letter for a role at your company, you can assume she's done at least some research and qualified her interest in the job.
“Outbound sourcing” refers to reaching out to people outside of your own network and trying to convince them to apply for a job at your company.
Often, startups hire external recruiting agencies to help with outbound because it’s time consuming and difficult. As startups grow, they’ll hire in house recruiters to help them scale rapidly growing teams by focusing on outbound full time.
Inbound candidates tend to have higher interest in a role because they are themselves opting into the recruiting process. But they are also more likely to resemble the networks of the founders and therefore can lack diversity (and by diversity I mean all kinds: geographic, age, race, gender, even outside of companies where the founders have worked). Outbound is where we needed to start spending time, so I started by learning as much as I could about what kinds of skills candidates needed to have to be successful at Hoop.
Define the candidate skillset
Today, we’re hiring a Front End Engineer. Alas, I’m not an engineer, but my colleagues are.
Step one: We sat down and defined exactly what skillsets we would be looking for on people’s LinkedIn profiles that might be a fit for our job description.
While we want to hire amazing talent, we also want to be cognizant of certain signals and biases that prevent us from considering candidates who may not have the advantages of others. That means a fancy school is certainly a signal, but doesn’t outweigh years of relevant work experience or accomplishments elsewhere. We focused on four areas to help me source candidates:
- Front end and full stack experience: Someone mentioning they were a front end engineer who is comfortable working in all parts of the tech stack.
- Years of relevant work experience: For this role, we’re looking for mid to senior level professionals which translates to at least 5 years of relevant work experience.
- Startup proclivity: Something that would indicate they’re open to and/or excited about a startup. That could be previous startup experience or writing in their profiles that they’re excited about an opportunity at a startup
- Based in the US: We’re limiting hiring to the US right now.
Source and repeat (and repeat!)
By far, the hardest part of outbound is sourcing. I never really understood what “sourcing” meant so here it is:
Combing through LinkedIn profiles looking for people who match the criteria you’ve defined. That’s it. It’s pounding the pavement (not literally!) and putting in the blood, sweat, and tears (ok, yes to tears but not the other two) to find people.
Initially, I signed up for LinkedIn Recruiter Lite and tried to source using their filters. I did a search for Full Stack Engineers,” based in the US, and “Open to Work.” This is a designation LinkedIn has where people can opt into being more visible to those on the hiring side.
I hit enter and millions of profiles came up. I quickly closed the tab and took a few deep breaths. This was going to take a while!
After trying again, I challenged myself to find 20 people who matched the criteria above from the search. This took a very long time - hours. It was manually going through profiles and checking the criteria, then pasting their profiles into a spreadsheet.
Why a spreadsheet? LI Recruiter Lite doesn’t have collaboration (ugh). So if I wanted help it couldn’t be done on the platform.
I had my colleague Travis (a full stack engineer!) go through the spreadsheet and give me feedback on the initial round of candidates. It was super helpful to get his reasoning on why a candidate would or wouldn’t be a fit so the next time around I could qualify candidates on my own. After several rounds, I let Travis get back to writing code and began the next phase of this process.
Begin candidate outreach
LinkedIn recruiter sits in a different part of the website and is built for a hiring pipeline. You can save candidates to a project and then categorize them by where they are in the pipeline. You can also build templates by role so outreach is relevant to the role you’re working on.
After workshopping my initial outreach message, I settled on a short description of who I am, the company, and a call to action asking the potential candidate to let me know if they wanted to see a job description (screenshot below). Including the job description in the initial post felt spammy because it would pop up a preview that took away from my message.
I created a template for my project and began sending to candidates in my project. After each message, I moved a candidate to the “contacted” status in Recruiter and held my breath.
So much time, so few responses
Out of the initial 20 candidates, 2 responded. TWO! I spent hours sourcing those initial candidates, poring over their profiles, and only two responded. According to a recruiter friend, that’s not a bad ratio. The reality is:
- Most people, especially engineers, aren’t looking at LinkedIn a lot
- Most people, especially engineers, are wary of recruiters or any type of sales interaction
- Nobody really cares about who you are or what you’re doing
Cue the sad violin. However, I can’t express how amazing it felt when those two candidates…(people who never knew about Hoop until my message to them!) actually applied for the role. Their backgrounds were different than our inbound candidates. Mission (kind of?) accomplished? Not really. Back to work.
More sourcing, more outreach
Trying to find people who are actually looking for a job means you may have a higher hit rate on your outreach. For my next round of outreach, I turned to Layoffs.fyi to look at lists of laid off engineers at companies that have strong engineering cultures. This was much faster than searching LinkedIn (I’m sure there is a learning curve for better targeted searches, but again, I’m not a recruiter!). I was able to source 30 more high quality candidates in a fraction of the time.
I went back to Recruiter, messaged them, and this time got 5 responses! Yay! #winning! But here’s the reality:
I spent hours perfecting this process, for a total of 4 outbound candidates applying for the job. Four!
Did I mention this was a grind?
So, what did I learn?
One thing I also learned is that inbound candidates have a different mindset than outbound candidates and you have to tailor your approach to that mindset.
Inbound candidates are excited about your company and the job. They’ve done their research and taken that initial step to show interest. Outbound candidates have to be sold on the opportunity. Your interview process should likely be different for inbound vs outbound candidates, at least in the beginning stages.
Another learning is how important it is for founders to have a robust online presence. Obviously, there’s limited information on the company, so the founders’ reputation is a proxy for company reputation.
Finally, I never realized how important of a role LinkedIn plays in this whole song and dance. As a job seeker, make sure your LinkedIn profile reflects exactly the type of role you’d be excited to learn about, because recruiters are looking!
Ultimately, I have so much more respect for recruiters after this process. There is so much inefficiency and information asymmetry in the job market that getting an exciting job in front of as many qualified people as possible is super important for a startup.