Recruitment & Hiring, Startup Advice

How to win the best talent for your startup when no-one knows you exist

Jarrad Skeen /

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as an early stage startup is how to secure the people you need to grow, when no-one even knows you exist yet. We all know that the first hires can make or break your success, but in the war for talent, how can you really compete?

If you can’t compete on salary, if you can’t leverage brand or product awareness, if you don’t even have much investment, yet let alone a ping pong table, there is still one powerful factor you can leverage: your ability to tell a compelling story and sell a vision. In the same way you’d market your company to potential investors, you can attract the right people.

Read more: How the Shoes of Prey founders hire their best employees

Your investor strategy becomes your people strategy

We’ve all read stories and advice on how to appeal to investors and what you need to make sure you have ready when pitching for funding. Well, it’s absolutely no different when designing your people approach. You need to develop your value proposition and communicate why people would want to invest their time and effort working with you.

Start by asking yourself: what is our story? What problem are we trying to solve? What vision are we selling? Why would people want to join this journey? Your answers are what you’ll need to attract and secure the right people and fuel your growth.

As recruitment specialists, we know that people are often purpose-led. Smart, leading edge technology that fulfils a purpose bigger than themselves often appeals. For some people, it’s more important to work on a product or a cause that matches their personal values; the need to do meaningful work or to be part of something special can be a motivating driver.  

It could be that your startup is doing something smarter and better, or applying technology to solve real-world problems in health care or the environment. Whatever your story is, it needs to explain why your business meets a compelling market need. Once you know the story, then you can start targeting the people who will be interested in achieving this vision.

Hire for potential

One of the biggest recruitment pitfalls for startups is trying to hire for 100% of the skills you need. Hiring for potential is the best approach because, as your startup evolves, your needs as a business will change and you’ll need your people to change and adapt with you. Often, we hear the skills a business thought it needed in the beginning were very different a year or two later. Adaptability is key in fast growth companies.

We all know how expensive it can be to hire and invest in training, and then for whatever reason it doesn’t work out. It can feel like a lot of time and money is wasted. Startups on lean budgets are especially prone to being burned and many are screaming for innovative new approaches. 

Create a culture that retains  

After you’ve attracted the right talent, the next challenge is to build a culture that will suit the people you’ve secured and help retain them. You need to build a culture that will appeal to them over the medium and longer term. These early stage hires can give you the input and knowledge you need to shape a culture that meets their needs and keeps them inspired and engaged in the vision.  

Fostering an employee-driven culture that actively promotes your values can become a point of difference and attract future hires. A good example of this is software testing business Bugwolf. The company selects a small percentage to join their elite team, who then work from anywhere they like, for clients such as Australia Post, NAB and Penfolds. The company has an office in Docklands but the team hardly use it, with everyone enjoying the benefits of a flexible remote working lifestyle.

As a startup, you can’t compete on salary but you can compete by offering a compelling argument or vision to join. Once you understand your vision and purpose it will help you identify people who are aligned and will want to join you in creating something special.

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Jarrad Skeen

Jarrad Skeen is co-founder and managing director of recruitment startup Affix.

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  • Enjoyed the article Jarrad. Hiring for potential is a really key point. If they’re onboard with the startup’s mission and values, and show great potential, this often seems to work out better than someone who has done it all.

    Actually wrote about this recently. Specifically the things to focus on with the first 10 hires, since they’re so influential on the startup’s growth:
    http://www.starteer.com/the-first-10-hires/

    Would be interesting to hear what methods remote working startups use to foster their culture, as this can take a quite a bit of effort.