Recruitment in start-ups: When two plus three needs to equal six

For any start-up business, one element equally important to adequate funding is having the right people. The smaller the number of employees currently, I would argue, the more significant the implications of each new recruitment decision made. The qualifications, skills and aspirations of each new employee should optimally fit the role available and complement the competencies of the existing employees. Start-ups in particular aim for synergies. The deliverables need to be more than the sum of their parts. In most cases that is still easier to accomplish than getting the 25th hour into a day. So how should a start-up go about finding their next star performer?

First and foremost, spend enough time in planning the recruitment. Even though the owners of the business may have their sights set so far on the horizon that pausing for something as seemingly low-key as a job description is difficult, it will pay off in the process outcome. Pay attention to how you describe the position at hand. Clarity is important in attracting the desired candidates. What will the person in this role be responsible for? What are the deliverables? To what extent is it a team effort? What degree of freedom will the selected individual have to shape his workweek? And so on. Have at least a couple of people who have no insight on the particular job, to read the description and explain to you how they understood it.

You need the role description also to be able to define the requirements for that optimal candidate. It is often emphasized how start-ups in particular look for the right attitude and fit. No problem with that, as long as there are also other qualifications or criteria to enable right targeting of candidates. It is fine to expect characteristics like commitment, high working morale, team spirit, flexibility and service orientation. But such attributes make poor targeting criteria for initial candidate selection – those are more likely to be aspects that can be evaluated in assessment testing and interview rounds. What experience, industry knowledge, certifications or readiness does that right candidate need to have?

Once the vacancy at hand is clearly defined, the other key contributor to attracting the right calibre of candidates is of course awareness. How do you bring this marvelous career opportunity to the attention of the most capable potential candidates? Chances are most of them are currently working, and therefore unlikely to follow any job advertisements. If that is the case, money spent on paid advertisements is largely money (and time) wasted. Engaging all the company’s current employees to check for potentially suitable individuals in their own networks is likely to be a more fruitful approach. And reaching out for professional recruiters is in many cases a very sensible option as well – from both cost and quality perspectives. As an additional plus, professional recruiters will also immediately notice if the job description leaves room for improvement or if the desired candidate profile is not concrete enough.

The fun begins when the above-mentioned pitfalls have been avoided and the actual selection process can start. Every applicant may have a differently structured CV, and a different, personal angle taken in their cover letters. Reading them through is one thing – comparing them against one another is quite a different ballgame. This is why some employers favor frozen templates in their application process – the comparison and selection process is no doubt faster and can even be automated to a large extent when all applicants have been forced into the same mold. Speed and quality do not always go hand-in-hand though. When applicants are forced to follow the same application format, their chance to make a personal application gets lost. You were looking for the right ‘fit’? The fit spells personality. Also, hands up, how many start-ups out there want a rigid, inflexible application process to be the first impression they give to their potential new talent? You catch my drift. Selecting the most promising candidates from a pile of applications is of course tedious work when all applications look different – but they look different for a reason, and a key to successful selection is to explore those differences, not try to force them go away.

Planning is a critical element in any aspect of business. Recruitment is no exception. Few start-ups have experienced recruiters in their payroll. Even fewer would be able to make the right selection from an entirely wrong pool of candidates.