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LESSONS FROM A FOUNDER: Tips for Recruitment - How to Hire the Best

last modified Dec 03, 2018 04:01 AM
Recruiting can be difficult and a poor hire can have a big impact on the development of your early stage business. Time and time again we hear our founders at ideaSpace talk about the challenge of recruitment, so we asked two experienced founders, Matthew Cleevely and Antony Rix, to share their recommendations for finding talent and how to hire the best people to help build your company. Read on for tips on how to hire the best.

What is the one thing you’d wished you’d known about recruitment when you started your company? 


Never lower your standards. Hiring someone because you feel under time pressure and 'need' to get things done is a false economy; time in startup land is the time until you run out of money from your current funding round NOT days that pass. Hiring the wrong person makes time (cash) go faster and prevents you from finding someone who's a great fit. 


If you’re new to HR or you’ve never recruited for startups, make use of the wealth of resources. Ideally work out how well prepared you are and get up to speed before closing funding. I found First Round Review helpful if somewhat US-focused.

Recruiting for startups is critically different from large organisations. Startups need to be nimble, so ability and willingness to learn are critical. CB Insights describe their ideal candidate as happy, helpful, hungry and humble. I prefer technical people to be curious, open, quick-learning, wanting to make a difference, humble. This will vary for other roles.

Get, and challenge, several references. A head hunter I know insists on grilling referees, will disregard the referee if they won’t credibly identify or discuss the candidate’s weaknesses, and is willing to drop candidates if they can’t put forward references ready to have a grown-up discussion. That approach is severe and potentially discriminates against good people bailing out of bad companies, so won’t always apply, but you get the point.


How do you position a role in startup over a larger company in order to attract the best talent? 


Money talks. Bigger companies have taken most of the candidates I’ve lost after a positive interview. It’s often just the money: Deepmind’s annual report reveals that their average staff cost is over £200k p.a. The good news is that many are such stifling places to work that you can find great refugees.

Sell your benefits. People who’ve worked in large companies may actively prefer your commitment to equal opportunity, parent-friendliness, meritocratic culture, flat hierarchy, the genuine opportunity for them as individuals to transform the company. Your shares could ultimately be really valuable but be careful how you position this.

Be ready to hunt far afield. Arguably the best person for your job is probably not searching and hopefully won’t be thinking of AppAmaGooFaceSoft. Another local CEO jokes that his first hire was an immigration lawyer.


Other than the obvious (skill set, qualifications, experience etc.) what else should you consider when recruiting the right person for the team?  


Cultural fit. Always. Work out what culture you want (or have) and be upfront about it, work out if that person fits or not - be clear and honest; they'll find out anyway.


What recruitment channels or techniques do you find most successful?


First, get your spec right – even if it’s deliberately broad, you need to help candidates identify that you do (or don’t) want them and give you a basis to measure them against, and sell your culture and opportunity. Clearly and concisely introduce yourself and the role and differentiate necessary skills/experience, nice-to-haves, and perhaps things that would make people stand out.

There are many recruitment channels so try a few. Most are expensive, hard and time-consuming and some won’t apply to you. Ideally you should experiment with several.

University careers services can be helpful in identifying interns who might become promising graduate staff.

Most of my best experienced hires have actually been through agencies, but be ready to look at many, and beware that the more aggressive agencies will be shopping candidates around. Agents will love it if you can be specific enough in certain areas to allow them to filter, for example on skills, university degrees. The best agents may not be the ones that phone you up the moment you post a job on the local network site – they should be focusing their marketing efforts on candidates, not hard-selling – and will often be domain-specific and remotely located. Ask around for recommendations, and quiz agents on the size of their database and recent examples they’ve placed locally or nationally.

Beware of recruiting through your close network – for me this has been the least useful channel and it’s not great for promoting diversity. If you do use networks, search wide, for example using LinkedIn recruiter tools, and make sure you longlist many candidates and reference ruthlessly.

Get your message out to the right audience, for example a conference or student group, and have people apply to you. I’m currently sponsoring a student group to get in front of their pool hopefully just when they’re thinking where to send their CVs. Some of the newer platforms, like AI4Jobs (ideaSpace alumni) can help automate and scale this.

There are specific, less conventional ways to help identify people with potential. My favourite is that any applicant must have made something, not through work – perhaps an app, a house, an electronics project. And they must be ready to sell to you why it’s important. Others require candidates to have done something out of the ordinary. Be careful not to use this to discriminate against genuine potential from a less privileged background.


Once you’ve recruited a great team, how do you keep them?  


Be as open as you can with what's going on with the business, roles and responsibilities. And go to the pub regularly!


Matthew Cleevely is CEO and Co-Founder of 10to8, an appointment scheduling software tool. He also works with other entrepreneurs to their build businesses, providing innovation and strategy expertise, and contributes to policy development in the areas of entrepreneurship innovation and growth. Matthew is a member of ideaSpace City  

Antony Rix is a serial entrepreneur who is currently Founder and CEO of Granta Innovation Ltd., developing an AI system for MRI imaging to transform cancer diagnosis. Antony draws on a wealth of engineering, start-up and industry experience. Antony is a member of ideaSpace South


If you would like to find out more about ideaSpace or enquire about membership, please email .

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