Recruiting Best Practices From Today’s Hottest Startups

By: on April 25, 2017

Startup companies have to make every hire really count. For most, staff numbers and budget are limited, and growing the business is of the utmost importance. Startups also tend to pride themselves on having bold and distinct company cultures. As a result, they often use unique and innovative tactics to find quality candidates when recruiting for sales and marketing positions.

Having successfully grown Software Advice from a startup to a profitable, expansion-stage business, our CEO and COO have experienced this firsthand. Recently, they started sharing lessons they’ve learned about hiring practices, such as how to hire college grads. We’re an authority on recruiting software, but before declaring ourselves experts on recruiting, we thought we’d better see what some of today’s hottest startups are doing, just to make sure we weren’t missing anything.

As it turns out, many startups we talked to have their own unique approach to some of the same hiring techniques that work for us. We decided to share this list of common best practices, so your company can recruit some great new hires it might currently be missing:

Review every single application you receive.

Bethany Perkins, our hiring manager at Software Advice, personally reviews every single application that comes across her desk—and it turns out this is a common practice among startups. Even if there are no positions currently available, reviewing every resume you receive can help you take the pulse of the current talent pool. You might even find a future employee you didn’t know you were looking for. At digital marketing startup Raidious, reviewing every resume allows them to prepare for future growth: “We always have a perfect candidate in mind when an opening comes up,” says Ryan Smith, COO.

At Hire Sales, says Sales Recruiter Jamar Cobb-Dennard, if there are no open positions when they receive an application, they save the candidate’s information in a database, which serves as the first point of reference when a job does become available. Their database currently contains over 1,000 candidates.

This approach can obviously be challenging for large organizations receiving hundreds or even thousands of job applications every day. If your company doesn’t have the time to review every application, consider tightening up your screening process—for example, by including long-form application questions that require extra thought, effort and writing skill to complete. This way, only the most qualified resumes will make it to the desks of your hiring managers, who can then review each one carefully.

Bring candidates in for a “day in the life.”

After candidates have made it through the interview process at Software Advice, we bring them in for a “day in the life,” to give them a firsthand look at our company and see what it is they’d be doing every day. They spend a few hours sitting with their potential team members, watching the processes they go through, asking questions and getting direct feedback about the role.

This kind of experience not only gives managers a chance to see how candidates would actually perform in the role, it also gives candidates a chance to see if they think they’d be happy in it. Other startups have taken this practice a step further: Jeetu Melwani, CEO & Founder of, offers candidates a 10-hour paid trial period. Cobb-Dennard says they invite the top two or three candidates for a given position to work a full day at half the pay rate. And then there’s online retailer Zappos, where, famously, they pay new hires to quit after their first week.

Some companies may not invest the time or energy a “day in the life” would take, but such an investment is worth it in the long run. When both managers and candidates know exactly what they’re getting into, the likelihood of a quick turnover is reduced, and both sides can feel confident that the new hire is a good match.

Hire for talent over experience.

At Software Advice, we’re looking for the best people for the job—period. That means we hire more for the raw talent applicants possess than for their specific work experience. Some of our top employees, in fact, were working bartending, serving or retail jobs when we hired them: we call hires like these “diamonds in the rough.” When we find someone who really impresses us and fits with our culture, we want to find a place for them at our company.

Mark Joyner, Founder and CEO of Simpleology, seconds this emotion, saying that a candidate’s resume “almost doesn’t matter.” To gauge applicants’ raw talent and cultural fit, however, they administer a series of short quizzes, an IQ test and even a psychological profile.

At Graphology Consulting Group, Director Barney Collier describes how startups have used his company’s services to analyze candidates’ handwriting, screening for certain personality traits and for compatibility with the traits of managers and other employees.

Alex Debelov, Co-Founder and CEO of Virool, has candidates submit videos of themselves describing why they would be a good fit for the company and the role. This approach, he says, allows him to get a sense of the applicant’s personality and passion when their work experience is lacking.

There are all kinds of ways you can screen applicants for raw talent—some of them more involved than others. By simply including questions such as “what are your three greatest achievements in life?” on your company’s job application, you can identify applicants whose real talents have brought them real accomplishments, even if their resumes seem irrelevant at first.

Write job postings that stand out from the rest.

Candidates are always commenting on our job descriptions, because they demonstrate a lot of personality, passion and candidness. We want to give candidates an idea of the cool things about our culture and values, without sugarcoating the fact that it’s a very demanding work environment right from the get-go.

“Not everyone can hang here, and that’s okay,” says Perkins. “We’d rather see someone who isn’t a fit for our culture go on to have a successful career somewhere they’ll be happier.”

Some startups take the concept of job postings a step further: Jeanne-Elise M. Heydecker, Senior Vice President at recruiting firm iPlace USA, describes how her company advertised open positions through a series of six videos. Aired in India, the Bollywood-themed videos told a love story about two college graduates looking for their first job. “Messaging focused on how different our firm was than other companies—salary, incentives, pay-for-performance, ethics [and] professionalism,” says Heydecker. “This seemed to really connect with our recruits.”

At Money Desktop, says KC Jorgensen, Director of Talent and Culture, they go so far as to put up billboards that can only be solved by the best and brightest software developers:

Many companies post written job descriptions that are “one size fits all,” simply listing key work experience and daily responsibilities. Focus on what differentiates you from the rest, not on what makes the role similar to ones candidates may have performed in the past. By advertising in a way that expresses the uniqueness of your open positions and your company culture, you’ll attract individuals who are uniquely qualified for the role.

Seek referrals from both inside and outside your company.

Referrals are a great way to find quality hires. We review about 100 applications for each new hire that comes from a job board—but for employee referrals, the ratio is about 15 to one. For each of these successful referrals, we pay employees $1,000.

We’ve even gotten great referrals from people who don’t work for us: through the 500 Bucks Program, we pay $500 to anyone who refers a candidate we hire. These referrals may come from former employees, friends of the company, business associates of our executive officers or former candidates.

Cobb-Dennard not only looks outside the company for referrals, he looks to their competitors. In addition to contacting current and former clients, they email their top competitors with a list of open positions and the top traits or talents they’re looking for in new hires. Heydecker, on the other hand, looks to former applicants: since they register by email when applying for a job, that email list is used to send them future job openings and ask for referrals.

While most companies have some sort of employee referral program, accepting referrals from outside the company is less common. By limiting yourself to internal referrals only, you could be missing out on some great talent. Anyone who has a good feel for your work environment and the types of roles you need to fill can serve as a talent scout—and if you offer them some sort of incentive, you’re even more likely to recruit recommendations.

Have candidates complete a role play or sample project.

Conducting a role play with candidates during the interview process is a great way to assess their raw talents and whether they possess the core competencies necessary for the job.

For example, applicants for our sales positions complete what we call “the coffee scenario”: a mock sales call that mimics the day-to-day process our inside sales staff goes through when qualifying software buyers. For non-sales positions, we also have applicants complete some sort of sample project to test their core abilities: for example, candidates for marketing positions must research and write a short article on a provided topic.

At, says Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Stephanie Ciccarelli, candidates complete a take-home role play: they must answer three out of five provided sample case studies within 48 hours. Their answers not only evidence writing and communication skills, but also provide a glimpse of “how the candidate would represent the company when engaging customers and interacting with their co-workers,” she says.

Kelsey Conophy, Founder and CEO of WorkZeit, describes a rather extreme example of role-playing conducted by one of her colleagues: Branch, a social media startup funded by The Obvious Corporation (which is headed by Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone). Branch hosted a “hack-a-thon,” in which local developers and college students were invited to company headquarters for a long weekend. Conophy describes it as “a high school sleepover”—the guests slept in Branch’s offices, were plied with plenty of junk food and worked side-by-side with company developers to create a presentation on “social media interactions that [were not] awkward.” This provided Branch with a list of potential developers—those who successfully created a presentation—before actual recruiting efforts had even begun.

While some companies may not take the time to go through a role play or sample project with potential candidates, this tactic can clearly identify who your top performers will be – and can save you time in the long run, by eliminating those who can’t cut it before they get on the floor.

Ditch the traditional interview. 

Sometimes, it’s most effective to take candidates out of the traditional interview format. At Software Advice, we’ve done this by hosting “recruiting parties”: We select the 20 or 25 best fits out of the resumes we’ve recently received, invite them to the office after hours, provide beer and snacks and mingle with them. This approach not only allows us to meet up to 25 candidates in a few hours, it also gives the candidates a firsthand look at our culture and a chance to hear about it directly from our employees.

Conophy describes how another of her clients, Spotify, takes candidates who have completed more traditional phone and live interviews to a very non-traditional setting: a bar. There, the candidate meets and mingles with potential co-workers, and managers get to see how the candidate interacts with others in a more relaxed setting. Spotify calls these “cultural interviews,” since a major element of company culture is whether employees can be friends and get along. Since Spotify has offices all around the globe, candidates may even be flown to another country just for this opportunity.

Many companies rely solely on the traditional interview process when making hiring decisions, but traditional interviews don’t allow for peer-to-peer interaction—which can be valuable for both candidates and managers. Give applicants a chance to experience your company culture in the real world.

Invest a lot of time in each hire.

A distinguishing characteristic of hiring at startups is the amount of time invested in filling each role. When you have a smaller team and more limited resources, it’s crucial to get your hires right the first time.

After conducting a phone interview with candidates, we bring them in to interview in person with members of the team they’d be working on, have them complete a role play or sample project and have them interview with our CEO, Don Fornes. As a final step, they complete their “day in the life.” By investing a significant amount of time in each candidate, we’re confident at the end of the process that every person we hire is a great fit for the role and for our company, and that they’re as excited about the opportunity as we are.

Smith also emphasizes the importance of taking your time with the hiring process. “When a company as small as ours makes a mistake in hiring, we see the ramifications almost immediately,” he says. “We cannot afford to.”

Larger companies are more likely to cast a wide net for hires, assuming that a certain number of them won’t work out. But by investing more time in each candidate in the beginning, you can ensure that every new hire is a good fit for the job, reducing turnover and ensuring continuity of business operations. Most of the startups we spoke with spend an average of three weeks to a month on one hire; some spend as long as a few months.

Give your hiring process a personal touch. 

Sending candidates a personalized response thanking them for their application or interview shows that your company is invested in the hiring process, and that the candidate’s participation matters. This can be crucial when candidates are applying for many different jobs at once.

Responding to a candidate’s application or interview can give them a chance to provide more detailed input on why they would be a good fit for the position. And responding to applicants even when you’re unsure you can offer them the position, says Melwani, can benefit both parties: if the sticking point is their desired salary or available hours, sometimes the candidate will reply that these factors are negotiable.

At Hireology, says Morgan Gleasman, Recruiting and Selection Services Coordinator, “we make sure we have personal interactions with people, not automated responses.” She always follows up with candidates within 24 hours to let them know what the next steps are in the hiring process.

At many companies, candidates simply receive a form letter thanking them for their application or for their time—if they receive anything at all. This sort of automated or non-existent response can alienate candidates, making them feel their potential employment isn’t a high priority for the company. And it just might cost you your best potential employee.

Recruiting for sales and marketing positions isn’t easy, and no matter what approach you use, it might take some time to find the employees you’re looking for. But by adopting some of the recruiting tactics of startup companies, your company, too, can improve its hiring process—and discover some of the great hires you’ve been missing out on.

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