July 22, 2021
Author: Julianna Lamb
People are everything when it comes to building a company; here’s how we think about hiring great people.
One of your most important tasks as a founder is to hire and retain great people who are excited to be part of the journey—especially when you’re just starting out.
While recruiting is always a challenge, your first few engineering hires are critical as you begin to build your product. These team members will help establish your company culture and set the tone for future candidates. We’ll focus here on hiring engineers but most of it is broadly applicable.
As a founder, you may be involved in interviewing every candidate for some time. But your first team members are special because they become the ones who attract, interview, and hire the next cohort.
You’re asking your earliest hires to take a chance on you and on a product and team that are just beginning to take shape. In this guide, we lay out our best hiring practices in three key areas: identifying top talent, mutually evaluating whether they’re a good fit for the team, and selling them on joining. While some of these tips are geared toward the early stages of team building, most are relevant to all stages of growth.
It’s hard to know where to begin when you’re building a team from scratch. The good news is, you probably already have an established network you can turn to. Better still, your close contacts are familiar with you and your accomplishments, so you’re likelier to find a receptive audience.
Start by texting friends who are engineers themselves or who have many engineers in their circle. That’s how Stytch snagged one of our very first hires.
This text can be informal, something like: “I recently started a company building a platform for user authentication. We’re hiring a couple of engineers, and I’m wondering if there’s anyone you know who might be interested!”
Keep it open enough for that person to then send it around to their contacts.
That said, hiring from your immediate network can come with drawbacks like over-indexing on people with similar backgrounds—but it’s a valuable place to start. We include some pointers below on how to ensure you keep your pipeline diverse.
Next, start looking through your Linkedin connections to find people you don’t know well enough for a text but who could be a good fit.
It goes a long way to spend a bit of time crafting a personalized message. It will show you care about them and what their strengths are. It’s also an opportunity to share more about what you’re building.
For example, here’s a message we was sent to one of our first engineers:
Not sure if you remember, but we grabbed coffee back when I was at Plaid. I’m now the co-founder—along with Reed, also from Plaid—of a new company building infrastructure for user auth. Stytch makes it simple for developers to build passwordless authentication flows that delight users. There’s some info on our website, but we’re still building that out, so I can share more details on a call. We just finished raising a seed round and are now focusing on hiring engineers in anticipation of launching to our beta customers later this year.
A platform engineer is an important hire for us. Our product will be in the critical path of customers’ applications, so our infrastructure is at the core of what we do. I remembered our conversation about the work you were doing with Kubernetes—that type of experience is exactly what we’re looking for, so I had to reach out. I’d love to share more if you’re interested!
While you should keep your message brief, be as specific as you can. Highlighting particular technologies or problems they’ve worked on in the past shows that you understand the type of work they do and how it would fit with your team.
Sourcing talent and engaging in cold outreach will be part of your role as founder for a long time to come, so it’s worth your while to work this muscle early on.
We use Ashby for our ATS and sourcing. It lets you build email campaigns, save LinkedIn profiles, find a candidate’s email address, and create an email in your drafts to send. This is incredibly helpful for running a sourcing process, and it allows you to customize a message using a Chrome plug-in while viewing a candidate’s profile.
Customization goes a long way toward demonstrating your excitement about a candidate and differentiating your message from the many recruiting emails they’re getting each week.
We primarily use LinkedIn for sourcing but occasionally check AngelList, as well. The benefit of AngelList is that you can tell if someone is passively looking for a new job, but generally the signal-to-noise ratio makes it a challenging tool to use effectively.
It helps to tailor your searches to a specific goal. If you’re hiring across the stack, you can view a wide range of candidates by using “software engineer” as your only filter. If filling limited roles, you should search narrower terms like “platform engineer” or “product engineer,” depending on your needs.
While you can conduct language-specific queries, many people don’t add that level of detail to their profiles. One approach that works well is to search through companies you know use the language or technologies in which you’re looking for expertise.
As you’re sourcing, keep in mind that you’ll be limited to the talent pool that’s already part of your filters. For example, sourcing only from large tech companies will give you a pool of candidates that’s only as diverse as their teams.
You can be intentional in building your pipeline by specifically targeting people from different backgrounds and environments, including from colleges and coding bootcamps.
During an interview, you’re evaluating a prospective employee’s skill set and character, but you’re also selling them on joining your team.
We design our interview questions to be as collaborative and representative of real work as possible so that the candidate gets a sense of what joining the team will be like.
Our engineering interview loop consists of a mix of questions that cover coding, systems design, product ideation, and collaboration and communication skills.
For coding interviews, a candidate can use their own environment and language of choice so it feels as natural as possible. We also encourage liberal use of Google to match their day-to-day practices. The interview should be about how well a candidate solves the problem—not what they’ve memorized around a language’s built-ins.
Aim to make the experience productive, regardless of the outcome. It’s important that a candidate leaves the interview feeling like they answered your questions and you answered theirs.
For instance, you can structure interviews so more challenging questions and tasks arise as candidates do well, with their ultimate “score” resting on how far they got and how much assistance they required.
You should also set some time aside—about 10 minutes for an hour-long interview—for a candidate to ask their own questions and settle any concerns.
As a small team, every hire has a huge impact. It’s critical to understand not only how a candidate performs during a quick interview, but how they’ve worked with teams in the past. To get a better picture of that, we lean heavily on references.
To understand the context behind a reference, you should ask the following questions:
To get a good sense of your candidate’s abilities in their prior role, you can ask:
Build in enough questions that you get a well-rounded idea of how your candidate fit into their last workplace personally and professionally—but try to keep the conversation concise and to the point.
It’s a competitive market out there, and one advantage you have as a startup is speed.
This is likely also a reason the candidate is interested in joining you. They want to work somewhere where things move quickly, so it’s important you meet that expectation throughout the hiring process.
If you’re moving forward on a candidate, reach out to ask for references within 24 hours of the final interview round. At this point, we share our enthusiasm about potentially having them join our team, but we also make it clear that we take references seriously.
We aim to timebox our references to three days. Letting them drag on too long risks losing the candidate.
We surprise candidates on offer calls with a Zoom bomb. Everyone from the interview panel joins and shares a bit about why they’re excited for the candidate to join the team. This makes candidates feel appreciated and helps them envision the impact they would have at Stytch.
We then walk the candidate through the offer details and a spreadsheet that brings clarity to valuing startup equity.
Evaluating early-stage startup offers can be incredibly challenging. There are many factors—like funding raised, investors, and team size—that influence what a compensation package (and particularly the equity component) might look like.
At the early stage, equity is more about the potential, rather than the present value of a company. To help candidates visualize this, we share a comprehensive spreadsheet that allows them to forecast different exit scenarios.
Closing candidates is about understanding their hesitations and what it would take to overcome them. For some, they’re already sold on joining, and it just comes down to the numbers.
Many times, we find that when candidates push for more equity, there’s an outstanding question in their mind around valuing the equity and the potential upside. To address this, we offer to introduce them to investors who can contextualize the offer within the current market and speak to the company’s potential.
More than anything else, joining an early-stage company is about the team. To help candidates picture themselves as a part of our work environment, we facilitate conversations with team members they haven’t yet met. When the team was just the founders, we offered up conversations with angel investors who had worked with us in prior roles.
Ultimately, they’ll be joining your community, so lean into building those relationships early.
Building an open, engaging, and responsive work culture will create the best possible feedback loop. Not only will you attract incredibly talented people, they’ll be your greatest ambassadors moving forward and bring even more talent to the table.
You’ve hired a great engineer—now what? One of the best investments you can make is taking the time to onboard new hires so they thrive in your organization right off the bat. A team that’s excited about the company and culture will be your best asset in both building a great product and hiring more people to help in that mission.