Recruitment
Recruitment Stories

How to attract talent when you’re a startup with nothing to offer

Or why culture is your most important leverage as a startup. These are our advice on what you need to focus on when trying to attract talent in the early stages.

October 15, 2020
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4
min. read
Illustration by Signe Valentin Andersen

This post is part of a series where we’ll take you through what we believe to be the best tips on growing a team. It’s based on experiences from our combined 15 years working with recruitment but most importantly on how we ourselves grew the Platypus team from 2 people in February 2019 to 19 people 18 months later.  Check out the first post in the series about our basic principles for recruiting.

We used our network and were—as the video shows!—very candid about what our first employees were signing up for.

# 1: Find someone who will actually be able to work in the basement 

Our very first hire for Platypus happened 40 days after we set up the company. At that point, we were working from the basement of Nico’s house. Our focus was on getting the plane off the ground while we still had enough money in our savings to pay for mortgages, food, kindergartens, etc.! We were driven by the mission behind Platypus and swag, wellbeing, perks—or even paychecks—was absolutely not part of this stage in the journey. And it couldn’t be for the people we needed to bring on board. 

Whoever we would bring in would need to see this not as a trade-off but actually be able to thrive with what we had to offer: Our mission and our culture. 

Whether very early in the journey or at later stages, the startup reality isn’t one of attracting talent on traditional benefits: Clear progression, wellbeing, competitive compensation, etc. The most important leverage is your culture. 

And by culture, we mean the people you are, the values they bring, and the behaviors you allow. This is what decides your culture. 

We are strong proponents of honesty and particularly honest employer branding. In fact, Platypus is built on our experience that you’ll only find people that will be able to truly thrive and find purpose if they get what they signed up for (and that definitely doesn’t just go for startups!).  

The first step is being completely candid about who you are and what your new team member can expect. 

That’s why our own recruitment process is very centered on asking: How do you communicate? What is the best way for you to work? And then assess: Can we offer the kind of environment that you need to thrive? 

The key moments were not the big theatrical moments when we got a “yes” from investors. The key moments were the shitty days in the basement when the weather sucked, and everything sucked and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. But we still did it. 
—Zsanett Vigh, our first employee

In most cases, this is about finding someone who is mission-driven and won’t mind working in the basement (or doing twelve things they weren’t really trained for, but just needs doing in classic MVP fashion).  

# 2: Don’t advertise and don’t overcomplicate 

Of course, finding someone is the first crucial step in getting them to eventually join your team, but we’re not proponents of placing the candidate search center stage. You want to keep recruiting simple. Just because job postings and candidate pipelines are the comme-il-faut, in our experience it’s not necessary for the outcome you need. 

To get it straight: You need a human octopus. 

One of the tactics that we’ve always gone for is using our network—and extending it as far as possible. This is your most valuable resource because you probably know people who are good at what they do. And if they’re good at what they do, they will both know other people who are good at what they do and be valuable gatekeepers for assessing qualifications. 

Most founders are subject matter experts. We are in recruitment. But we’re not in design or programming. Getting names from people we trust gave us the advantage we needed for skipping costly processes when we don’t have the knowledge ourselves to evaluate UX or front-end design skills. 

# 3: Be flexible—and don’t search for an expert

When we give the advice above to reach out to your network for that one candidate you can use right now, and not look for 20 to compare, contrast and test, it is because you don’t need that level of scrutiny or perfection. It might give you a sense of comfort or control having multiple candidates to choose from, but you have to ask yourself whether safety in numbers will make that big a difference? 

A big mistake that many companies make when they’re trying to hire in the early stages is that they want to find the perfect candidate. But you don’t want that. 

First of all: You can’t get someone perfect. Why should the perfect candidate join three guys in a basement?! 

Second of all: What you’re building right now requires people to be happy about going far beyond their expertise and their comfort zone. 

Recruiters will always tell you to describe one must-have and three nice-to-haves for any position. That one must-have, that’s the must-have. The rest you absolutely need to be flexible about. 

Being flexible is about giving up on the idea that you already know what you need. Your product and direction will change. And it is ok that it changes along with the people you bring in. 

If you’re looking for someone with five years of experience, speaking all of these different languages—forget it. You’ll never find anyone. And right now, finding someone who can get you to the next stage is far more important than finding specialists who can fine-tune the product. 

Conclusions 

When it comes to hiring at those early stages when you have little to offer, these are our best advice:

  • Be honest about the values that guide you as founders and the reality of how it will be to work together. This is the most important thing you have to offer.
  • Focus your energy on reaching out to your network instead of going through formal recruitment procedures.
  • Realize what you can attract and be super flexible about what boxes the candidate ticks. 

We will be sharing more advice on recruitment tactics as opportunity hires, traditional sourcing, etc. in this series of posts on recruitment tips. Stay tuned! And check out the first post in the series about our basic principles for recruiting.

Written by
Nico
Blier-Silvestri
Daniel
Bowen