How to Build a Recruiting Machine: Part 1

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on how to build a recruiting machine. This first part will dig into the motivations for why it’s important to get really good at hiring plus writing your first job description, part 2 will address specific tactics on sourcing and interview loops, and part 3 will dig in how to close your candidates.

Overview

Hiring is a really complex topic because it really quickly dovetails into other HR best practices like firing, performance management, culture, etc. Hiring also is very different when you’re at different stages of the company (2 people, ~8 people, ~30 people, ~100 people, etc).

Since we typically work with earlier stage companies, I’m going to try to focus on the earlier stages and give a broad overview of things you need to think about right now versus things that while important, can wait until your company gets bigger. I’ll also try to breeze through the theory quickly, but focus mainly on actionable tactics.

Part 1 of this series will focus on (1) Why you should care and (2) Tips to draft your first job post. Later parts will get into sourcing, pipeline, and closing.

Why should you care?

If you’re reading this guide, you probably already care, but lets cover this briefly. As a tech startup, people are going to be the majority of your costs as well as the biggest lever to your growth. In fast paced startups, ideas are plentiful, what matters is execution and a 10x team specifically honed to execute on your specific mission will outperform one that is haphazardly built.

As founders and execs, it will also quickly become the thing that you spend at least 20-30% of your time on consistently (and much higher allocations right after a fundraise), so you need to get good at it.

A couple more things to note:

  1. Hiring is sales - funnels matter, sale pitches matter, closing rates matter, cycle times matter.
  2. Hiring is hard - as a startup, you are a completely unknown quantity with no brand and very little validation. You’re risky and can’t pay high salaries. Finding the perfect person and convincing them to sacrifice a lot to join you will take time and effort.

Don’t be discouraged though, doing a great job with hiring will save you tons of headaches down the road. A well-built team will make executing, planning, navigating, fundraising, and even more hiring much easier in the future.

Stage matters: Traps to Avoid

I’ve consistently run into very distinct stages that require different hiring strategies as the company has scaled. The reason this happens is because a person’s most efficient span of control (the number of people that report to you where you actually have some influence) is between 6-8. That means each power of ~7 is approximately a different stage of the company. I’ve outlined these stages in the table below as well as what makes the stages slightly different.

Hiring Stages

Stage Size Description Comments
Founder 1 to 3 At this early of a stage, you'll likely be missing some key expertise that you want another cofounder to fill. This is the hardest. Think about it like dating - you want the perfect person and perfect people don't exist.
Pizza 3 to 10 Your team can be fed by 1 large pizza and maybe some sides. Generally team was put together with time pressure and involves friends or 2nd degree referrals that are mostly generalists.
Small 10 to 35 There's now enough people to need more process, some management, etc. People start to not know what is all going on in the company. Scaling process, kpis, goals, metrics becomes important because not everyone knows what is going on all the time. Management becomes a 'necessary evil' now to scale. Departmental silos start developing.
Medium 35 to 150 Likely Series B+ company now with growing revenues, many multiple hq's, remote workers, etc. Culture becomes critical and should definitely be defined here if it wasn't done already before. This is something you didn't realize could kill your company when you started. Focus is almost exlusively on building a great exec team.
Large 150+ Likely Series C company - little HR things you didn't think matter now matter a lot. People join your company not because of you, but because of your company, vision, and mission. HR issues become very real, you'll run into edge cases you've never run into before. If you don't have a head of HR from previous stage, really need one now.
Very Large 1000+ You're well on your way - lots of challenges ahead still cause it never gets easier, but congrats! Surprisingly I've heard managing this stage is not too different than the previous. I've never been ceo of 1k headcount company, so you'll need advice from elsewhere when you get here

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the pizza team and small company stages and things to look out for there. I’ll avoid the ‘how to find a cofounder’ discussions, or the ‘how to do executive hiring’ discussions and save those for a future writeup.

Building a recruiting process

Let’s go back to the pizza team stage. You’re a rag-tag team of people that you generally mutually trust and are fairly competent, but oftentimes doing the job for the first time. In addition to executing, aligning on goals, etc, you need to start thinking about how to bring on your next ‘batch’ of colleagues. Here are the things to focus on to build a recruiting machine. Remember again, recruiting is sales.

The Job Description

The JD (job description) is really an exercise for you more than a useful tool for the candidate. It helps you understand what you’re looking for in a candidate and what a successful outcome looks like for the job. Don’t skimp on this step or you’ll quickly find out you’re getting lots of candidates that look reasonable, but you won’t have a good idea of what great looks like. Some tips:

  1. Roles you don’t understand - It’s very likely you’re trying to hire for a role you don’t understand and haven’t done before because if you’re doing it correctly, you’re trying to complement yourself and hire for your weaknesses. The best way to approach these roles is to find 2-3 experts who have done the role before and ask them about what to look for. Have them review your job description. If you make them your friends, you can even try to ask for their career laddering structure, interview questions, and maybe even time to help vet your best candidates. Don’t trust your own judgement here, you really want a panel of experts.
  2. Use other people’s JD’s - the best way to get started on drafting other than talking to friends and experts is to look at other people’s job descriptions that are close to what you’re looking for. What does success at this job look like? What are must haves versus nice to have requirements? What must the candidate be an expert at, versus things they can learn on the job? Also don’t forget this is sales, so let them know what’s so special about your vision, mission, and company. The best way to find good examples is to think about where you might want to poach candidates. If you’re a delivery service that needs ops leads, look at how Grab, Uber, Instacart, etc talk about their roles. If you’re looking for some other examples, you can see what Iterative companies use for their job descriptions.
  3. Why you? - I wanted to up level this one because it often gets missed. Make sure you articulate the ‘why work for you / what is your company’s vision before you get into your requirements, responsibilities, etc. Remember again that hiring is sales, candidates want to work for a company that has an inspiring vision, is challenging and helps them grow, and makes a difference in the world.
  4. Prep a scoring criteria - before you start interviewing, force yourself to write down concrete scoring criteria. What are 4-5 attributes that you want to rank candidates on (competence, culture fit, analytical ability, etc, etc). Picking the 5 things and being quantitative with what each score means will help you both understand the role better, and make the process less subjective. As you get your team more involved, you’ll quickly find that most people’s opinions are very different from each other.

A couple other important notes - early in a companies’ life you often don’t think about this but doing these will save you (a lot) of pain down the road.

  1. Hire senior folks - it’s very easy to want to get someone started as quickly as possible to fill gaps. You can do that a couple times, but if you do it too often, you’ll find yourself with a big team of junior folks. Junior folks are great because they fill gaps, learn quickly, and hustle, but you’re trading off the gains from a senior hire that brings best practices, is autonomous, takes leadership, and can navigate without you. My bar here has always been do I think I can learn from this person? If they were my manager, would I want to work for them? If this person hires 10 more people, would I want those people in my company?
  2. Culture matters - Founders joke that because you’re going to be spending so much time with your early hires, you should want to get a beer and hang out with them before making the commitment. While I think there’s some truth to that, I think what often gets missed is the real issue is your values need to align and you should want to work together. What is your position on working over weekends, what happens if it feels like one person is pulling harder than the other, how often will or what will you do to celebrate, what level of quality of work is reasonable before releasing? If either one of you is not doing a good job, what’s the best way to give feedback? Culture issues might not kill you now, but they will if left to fester. Easiest way to avoid this is to align on culture early and pick your team wisely. This typically looks like defining with your early team a set of cultural values then developing a way to test for it in your interview process.

Don’t slack on the job description or you’ll find yourself wasting time bringing in the wrong types of people in the first couple weeks, or worse yet end up hiring someone that doesn’t fit your needs and realized that it was your fault for not being prepared, not theirs. Once you have a well tested JD (job description), it’s time to move onto the meat of building a hiring machine: sourcing for candidates and running the interview process. Stay tuned, we’ll cover those in part 2.

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