What March Madness Can Teach Us About Recruiting Top Startup Talent
There is something about March Madness that can turn even the most mediocre sports fan into a basketball enthusiast overnight. As I watched Michigan advance to the Sweet 16 over Louisville on Sunday afternoon (a win that felt long overdue after losing to the Cardinals in the championship game of 2013), I couldn’t help but get nostalgic about my alma mater and college sports in general. I also noticed a common theme being discussed among the announcers in every game… Recruiting. Here’s a challenge for anyone reading this: The next time you turn on March Madness, count the number of times the term “Recruiting” or “Recruiting Trip” is mentioned. You’ll be blown away. What I also realized, is that recruiting top startup talent is remarkably similar to recruiting for a college team.
I was fortunate enough to play water polo for four-years at Michigan. I’m a Southern Californian, born and raised. I grew up on the beach, wore flip flops to school every day and saw snow a total of four times in my life before the age of eighteen. When it came time to choose where I was going to play in college, the expectation was that I would stay in California, so when I signed to the up-and-coming program in Ann Arbor, the first thing people said to me wasn’t “Congratulations!” it was, “Why?”
My career has focused on building startup sales, marketing and customer success teams, and the common theme that I repeatedly return to when working with founders is the importance of selling the “Why” when we take candidates through the interview process. With this in mind, I’ve boiled down five of the top questions which guided me during my time recruiting players for Michigan, and still use every day as I speak to candidates and work with founders and teams recruiting top startup talent.
“What was interesting enough about this opportunity to get you to this point?” This is basically a nicer way to ask, “Why are we talking?” In college, we used to joke that the toughest part of the recruiting process was getting someone on the plane. We knew that once girls were on campus, meeting the team and learning about what we were building, they would be pumped. Interviewing people for a startup is no different. There was something that made this person get on the phone with you or meet for coffee, so find out what it is! Are they passionate about the space? Have they been following what you’re doing? Did a friend tell them about you? Or, are they just shopping around taking a free trip? You want to understand this right out of the gate to determine how you move forward from here. This information is also helpful in closing candidates as you’re recruiting top startup talent because you’ll be able to go back to the beginning and remind them why they started in the first place.
Leadership. Whenever I speak to candidates, I try to understand the most important things they will be looking for in their next opportunity and 90% of the time I hear one word—“Leadership.” People are naturally more inclined to take a risk on an early-stage company if they can point to the leadership in place and know that the people there have done this before and seen success. In college, players follow great coaches or choose a program where the captains are All-Americans. If your startup has these kinds of leaders, get them involved in the interview process early and keep them involved. It doesn’t matter if they’re not on the same team as this person. Smart and talented people want to be surrounded by other smart and talented people. You have an organic selling point built into your team’s structure—utilize it!
As a founder recruiting top startup talent, speak to your success building previous businesses, explain about how you did it and what your plan is to do it again. Good candidates are often courted by many companies at a time, so don’t be afraid to tout the accomplishments of your team. In an environment where many things are largely unstable, you can point to past successes of the team and explain how this candidate will be able to grow under current leadership, and potentially take on a leadership role of their own with the company in the future.
“Who have you told about this?” Think about recruiting like selling software. You need all stakeholders bought in before the deal is closed, and recruiting top startup talent is not any different. In college, when you’re talking to 18-year-old girls, other people’s opinions mean everything. If their friends and family aren’t bought in or excited about it, they won’t be either. Not a lot has changed on this side of recruiting and I still ask the question every day. With younger candidates, ask early. With tenured candidates, ask early. Recent grads and people who are just getting started in their careers will likely get their parents’ opinions about any move. People who are married, have a family and are responsible for more than just themselves, have to weigh risk very carefully. Talk to them about this. “Have you mentioned that you’re thinking of working at a startup to your family? How do they feel about it?” This eliminates the end of the road, “My wife is uneasy about me going somewhere without a name” or, “My dad thinks I should go to graduate school.” Mentally prepare candidates for the fact their support network won’t know the name of the company and might even ask them, “Why?” when they say that they’re leaning towards taking a startup offer over one at LinkedIn or Facebook. When recruiting top startup talent, the goal is to hire people who see the bigger picture and understand the risks and rewards of joining a company of this stage. If you are able to suss this out early, you will save yourself a tremendous amount of time at the end of the road when you make an offer.
Sell the vision. We used to talk a lot about being a part of something bigger than yourself when girls came on recruiting trips. Early on, you want to make sure that these people are passionate about building something and won’t be overwhelmed by the amount of work that comes with being an early member of a startup. Hiring managers should understand right away whether a candidate A) Understands your organization’s vision and B) Is bought into what you’re trying to do. If you aren’t a founder, explain why you chose to come to the company and why you were excited to join. If you are a founder, explain why you started the company. As humans, we are programed from a young age to listen to stories and identify and connect with the characters. Great hiring managers who have mastered the art of recruiting top startup talent are often the best story tellers and are able to paint a picture, so don’t underestimate the importance of your story and the company’s story. This is also the time when you can talk about what you can give to them in return. Explain the career growth and trajectory that this person will have within your organization and the high level of exposure they will have as an early hire. Just as in athletics, walk through the long term plan for their success. They may not be a starter year one, but once they’ve learned the playbook and game time strategy, they’ll be ready to take on more playing time and additional responsibility.
If you want someone, tell them. There is a difference between being desperate and being direct. Walk this line carefully. There is a time and place to play hard to get in the hiring process when recruiting top startup talent—and that’s early on. Keep expectations high in the first rounds of interviews, but don’t be afraid to tell a candidate that you want them on your team once you’re confident that you do. Candidates can often spend the interview process feeling very confused about where they stand, and if you’re only willing to “show them the love” by giving them an offer without making them feel like you want them on your team, what incentive do they have to take it? You’ve just spent all this time selling the vision of your company, but it’s equally important to help candidates envision themselves at your company. You’ll want to explain where you see them fitting within the organization and how their skills will both add value to the company and contribute to the overall mission. Acknowledge that you understand they have other things they can do and other places they can go, but explain why this choice is right for them. We consistently addressed this in college when recruiting against other schools that were perennial powerhouses. “You can join something larger that has a rinse and repeat model and do well. You’ll see success, and if that’s what you want, go for it. Or you can help build something, make a name for this team and build a program. In 5 years, do you want to look back and have been a cog in a wheel or someone who helped build the engine?” If you have successfully dug into the four previous points, the answer should be clear.
At the end of the day, there are dozens of boxes that need to be checked while recruiting top startup talent. These tips are just a starting point. Candidates, just like players, can only exist as X’s and O’s in an org chart or on a whiteboard for so long. Remember that as you begin to interview, candidates are people, and people are drawn to transparency, strong leadership, talented teams, and clear vision.