5 unexpected hiring hacks for small startups entering growth mode

Diff Capital

It’s no secret that access to top talent is one of the biggest challenges facing Canada’s tech sector today—and beyond. According to labour forecasts, there will be nearly 200,000 tech jobs to fill by 2019. Yet at present, Canada only produces around 13,000 grads each year with degrees related to information and communications technology. Beyond the simple numbers game, this country still faces a persistent brain drain, with homegrown talent flocking to work for American tech giants, both south of the border and on home turf.

In the end, it’ll cost you much more to make a bad hire than to lock in your top pick for the long run.

Given all this, the deck can seem stacked against small startups like mine that don’t have the name recognition to stand out in saturated online job listings, or the budget to offer Google-level salaries. Recruiters, meanwhile, are often out of reach on a startup budget (on average, a recruitment fee is 21 percent of the candidate’s salary) and, in my experience at least, they don’t always deliver bang for your buck.

In this landscape, finding top tech talent as a small firm requires getting creative. We’re a 50-person ecommerce development agency looking to add 20 people by year’s end, mainly in technical and sales roles like strategic account managers and full-stack developers. Yes, that’s peanuts compared to the hiring that big firms do. But—as with every small startup I know—finding that talent represents an existential challenge for me and my business. Get it right, and we can continue to grow. Fail, and we’re stuck spinning our wheels while clients look elsewhere.

Over the years, we’ve developed a few recruiting hacks that help level the playing field. These are by no means rocket science, but they’re often overlooked and are generally low- to no-budget to implement. And, for the most important part, they work. Here’s how we’re standing out from the crowd:

Talk to your dream hire — even if you know they won’t work for you

When hiring for a key leadership role, you’ve probably got your dream candidate in mind. Even if you’re sure they’re happy where they are, it’s worth reaching out. That rock star executive that works for your competitor may not be looking for a change right now, but chances are they know of an equally talented peer who might be. As an added bonus, you’ll be top of mind when they are ready to move on. The key here is not be pushy, or take offense if their answer is “no.” If you’re genuine about your interest — and respectful of where they’re at — you might find it pays off in long run. Take our COO, for example: he was working for a competitor when we first floated the idea of working together his way. He wasn’t interested at the time, but a few months later, he joined our team.

Patience is the name of the game when it comes to hiring for these crucial positions. C-suite jobs take an average of 71 days to fill, and it’s even longer for vice-presidents — but ultimately, the right person will always be worth the wait.


Take a ”slow food” approach to LinkedIn

Using LinkedIn is definitely not a secret recruiting hack. But too many people use it the wrong way: treating it like some fast-food drive-thru. They rely on LinkedIn’s paid InMail feature to bombard prospects with rapid-fire form emails (check your inbox and you’ll probably find a dozen, “I just wanted to reach out“ messages waiting for you). A better approach is using LinkedIn to make genuine connections. No form letters. No bots. Definitely no copy and paste. Just a short note expressing your interest in their accomplishments and achievements (and demonstrating you’ve actually read their profile) is all it takes to strike up a meaningful conversation that effectively cuts through the noise.

The same philosophy applies here as a above — it’s about making a real connection and planting a seed; hiring should be secondary. When this approach pays off, it can pay off big — like the time we connected with a project manager who then recommended we interview his co-worker, too. We hired them both.

Tap that overlooked talent pool in your backyard

Too many startups overlook what’s near and accessible, instead casting a wide, impersonal net. But finding, and really taking the time to nurture, a local connection can be your biggest advantage. For me, this was turning to my alma mater.

I’ve found one of the most powerful recruiting techniques requires no extra effort at all. It comes down to being at a place where people actually like to work.

I was in the engineering program at Concordia University when I launched my first startup, so naturally my I turned to my classmates. When our need for talent grew beyond what my own graduating class could supply, we started showing up at events where students featured their work and meeting the next generation of grads-to-be. As we’ve grown the brand, we’ve moved from scoping out the grad presentations to actually attending career fairs, nurturing relationships with faculty, and even sponsoring events of our own.

It’s an opportunity to give back to an institution that has given us so much over the years — and it’s not a bad way to build up our public presence, either. In the end, this local connection has helped us solve a major pipeline problem plaguing many Canadian startups, who often struggle to find the developers and engineers they need.

Practice passive recruiting

I’ve found one of the most powerful recruiting techniques requires no extra effort at all. It comes down to being at a place where, you know, people actually like to work. Even the little things add up (having decent coffee, offering flexible hours, etc.). And when employees love working somewhere, they absolutely tell friends. Of course, you can also grease the wheels here. We offer referral bonuses of $500, which brought in eight people last year. We also applied for (and won) Canada’s Great Place to Work award, which really helped us get the word out.

This built-in vetting process is a great way to screen for valuable soft skills, because ultimately, everyone is looking for people who will fit well with their team. When you’re small, a single hire can represent a big percentage of your workforce, and a bad fit can throw off the whole balance — your employees are a great resource to bring in like-minded people who will gel. That being said, this sort of hiring shouldn’t be taken too far: cultural homogeneity can be a serious barrier to growth and learning.

Don’t get “budget blinders”

In my experience, too many startups get fixated around salary ranges and budget restrictions when recruiting. Yes, it’s important to exercise fiscal responsibility. But once you’ve found that perfect candidate, don’t cheap out; their value will far outweigh what you pay them. Like Steve Jobs once said, “We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” If you employ them under the circumstances they want (this includes salary, sure, but also things like flex days, vacation, or creative time to develop their own projects at work), they’re more likely to be happy and stick around — all of which can boost your bottom line.

For those special all-stars, find out what they want from you, and try to give it to them (you can bake performance metrics right in to their compensation package to justify the costs). In the end, it’ll cost you much more to make a bad hire than to lock in your top pick for the long run.


Ben Crudo

Benjamin Crudo (@BENGMN) is the founder and CEO of Diff, a full-service eCommerce agency based in Montreal.

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