How To Recruit And Retain A Team That’s More Qualified Than You

Sales Efficiency

Recruiting is hard, even for hugely profitable companies whose offices look like MTV Cribs mansions and who offer free perks like multi-course lunches, yoga, and all-hands happy hours.

For startups, it’s even harder. You have to make your first hires pre-traction, pre-revenue, maybe even pre-product — and definitely “pre-perks.” How are you supposed to compete for the best talent?

I’ve experienced the struggle first hand.

During our time building a gaming studio that was acquired by Glu Mobile, my co-founder Alex and I have grown our team from just the two of us to about 30 people. We’ve spent a lot of time on recruiting great employees. But, we’ve still had plenty of HR misses, and we’ve learned some invaluable lessons, too, about retaining top talent.

Here are a few of the most impactful.

On Recruiting Pre-Traction

  • You don’t need top talent to get initial traction. While everyone wants to have a dream team from the get-go, the reality is you don’t need the best engineers or designers to get your first 1000 users. There are plenty of ways you can build your first prototype, whether that’s do-it-yourself, hacking existing components, or hiring contractors — which is what companies like Uber did early on.
  • Having a working product with traction makes recruiting 10X easier. This is the classic chicken-and-egg problem of startup recruiting. A lot of people you meet are on the fence and say they’ll join, but only once you have traction. So that’s what you should focus on first. Don’t stress about landing the “top candidates” day one (unless you have strong pre-existing relationships with them). Instead, prioritize building a product that you can sell to your customers. As it happens, that’s also what you’ll use to sell your new hires.

On Sourcing and Outreach

  • Overcome impostor syndrome. Here’s the truth: you’re likely not the leading industry expert in your field. When Alex and I launched Dairy Free Games, we had only made one successful mobile game before, and it was a super simple one. Who were we to launch our own gaming studio? This, ultimately, was an insecurity we just needed to overcome. See, it’s easy to let impostor syndrome get in your head and make you feel embarrassed about messaging people more experienced than you. But it’s imperative you resist that impulse. After all, everyone has to at one point or another. And to actualize your ambitions for your company, you’ll need great people–-expert engineers, designers, etc.
  • Add a personal touch when reaching out. It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many recruiters simply spam the same message to 10,000 developers. When you’re building out your initial team, don’t fall into that trap. Be personal. Make references to past experiences, specific technologies, etc. This will set you apart.
  • Cold call messages should come from founders. We’ve A/B tested this, and it makes a huge difference. You’ll get at least 2X higher response rates. No one wants to talk to a middle man — sometimes not even a recruiter or project manager.

On Interviewing and Closing

  • Be less polished and more real. Think about how Donald Trump or other populist politicians have gotten elected. It’s usually not through some corporate doublespeak. It’s a matter of being “real.” People gravitate toward authenticity. The same is true of applicants in the interviewing process. So, be honest about your current state of affairs. Detail what’s working well, along with what processes you’re struggling with. Disarming honesty beats bragging and peacocking every time.
  • Good storytelling is essential. The interview is not the time for you to simply re-articulate job description bullet points the candidates already know. It’s a time to see if there’s a connection and cultural similarity. It’s also a time to win the candidate over. You want the candidate to feel a certain excitement about your mission, culture, and goals. At Dairy Free Games, we’d always tell people a story of how working in gaming is the opposite of working at an enterprise software factory. Much of the time, it worked.
  • Feel out the candidate in a casual setting. Once they’ve passed the hard skills portion of the interview, invite the candidate back for lunch, dinner, or drinks with you and others on the team. This will give you a chance to see how they fit and interact with your employees, and it’ll also allow you to close in a less formal environment, which is often more effective.
  • For people on the fence, suggest a part-time contracting or consulting arrangement. It’s likely that your top candidates will already have a highly valued position at a top firm. Many, however, have a certain amount freedom to help in some part-time capacity. This gives both sides opportunity to feel things out. And it’s a better alternative than making a final judgment about a candidate or opportunity when one of you isn’t 100% certain whether you’re making the right call.

On Retaining

  • The best hires are the ones most likely to trigger a team’s immune response. Scott Belsky writes about this in The Messy Middle: every team has an immune system. When foreign bodies enter, it’s the immune system’s job to respond and neutralize potential threats. Sometimes, though, it responds a bit too hastily — especially in response to new key hires who will have a lot of responsibility that will impact others on the team. Be aware in advance of the potential for this kind of internal scrutiny — and sometimes animosity — toward top new hires, and work around it by giving new hires tasks with tangible and immediate impact on day one. This will help establish their usefulness and the reason they’ve been brought on board.
  • Understand and accommodate desire for growth. Understand where each new hire’s passions lie, and where they see themselves in 5 years. One of the top reasons talented employees quit is they don’t see opportunity for personal growth.

At the end of the day, your company will prove the sum of its parts. It’s critical that you approach the process of finding and keeping those parts seriously — without ego — and with careful preparation.

What you don’t need, thankfully, is free yoga. Focus instead on the things that matter.


How To Recruit And Retain A Team That’s More Qualified Than You was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Dennis Zdonov