Recruiting: How to sell your startup to top talent

Startups often struggle to attract top talent as they may not wield the funds to compete with a larger company or have the name recognition to dazzle applicants. One way to counter this is to prepare a narrative that helps you connect with prospective talent and share your startup mission so they’ll want to come on board.

A few years ago MaRS hosted a special edition of Startup Open House, part of Elevate 2019. This showcase of over 35 companies included rounds of lightning talks by different startups. Interestingly, a key topic that emerged was how a startup can stand out to talent in a hyper-competitive market and the unique value an early-stage company can offer in building career experience. 

How to sell your startup to talent

So how do you develop talking points that sell your startup to talent? The key is to structure your conversation so that your company’s mission is immediately clear and will spark interest. Use compelling and tailored (yet accurate) statements that will resonate with this candidate. Discuss the needed scope of the company and the position, yes, but also make sure you answer the question, “Why work here?”. (Tip: The answer will vary depending on the candidate or the position you are filling.)

Startup insights and motivation

We’ve got tips to get you thinking about how you might structure your narrative to candidates as well as some insights from Startup Open House. Hear from the following startups about how they approach talent and share the mission behind their work.

Tip 1: Talent is your customer. Engage accordingly!

A good salesperson knows how to uncover the needs of their customers and address what they (the customer) truly want. The recruitment conversation shouldn’t really be about you and your company or the job—it’s about how you can meet the candidate’s needs. Stop talking about yourself and have a meaningful, two-way dialogue. 

Joshua Karam, Co-Founder and CEO at Hyr, sees it this way:

“It really is about aspiration. It’s, ‘I want to work for this startup or this tech company because I aspire to do more in life over the long term. I want the freedom and flexibility to be able to work with a small team where I have autonomy and decision-making power, and I get to also often control my own schedule, sometimes even where and when I work.’

Tip 2: Know what makes your startup different.

What makes your company special? Is it the product you are building or the problem you are solving? Is it meaningful work that has an impact? For early-stage companies, this is often a big part of attracting talent because it’s an essential part of their DNA as an organization. Leverage your singularity that talent can’t find anywhere else! Dig deep. What is it about your culture that differentiates you from other startups? (By this we don’t mean the perks, but the way you work together and the way you treat each other—i.e., not just what you do but how you do it.) 

While compensation matters, culture, impact, growth and development matter just as much. As a startup, it’s your superpower. 

Alec Singleton, Vice President, Product Management at Interaxon, shared a notable value-add of Interaxon’s company culture: 

“I was telling someone … that I was thinking about going and working for this brain-sensing headband company and their reaction unequivocally, “Alec, you’re not seriously considering that hippy shit.” I was—obviously—seriously considering that hippy shit! But mostly I was interested in working on the technology. I just thought brain-sensing headbands were some cool Star Trek-level technology. I got to Interaxon and in my first week there, I learned that we all meditate together, once a week in the all-hands meeting.”

Alec Singleton in the atrium at MaRS at the 2019 Startup Open House.
Alec Singleton, Vice President, Product Management, Interaxon

Shonezi Noor, Chief of Staff at Sampler, described the appeal of the culture at Sampler as follows:

As a group, we believe in taking ownership over our work, being transparent for the good and the bad and being inclusive of everybody that’s around us because we only win if we win together. We work really hard to make sure that every day you’re energized to come into the office and you have fun doing it and that there is something in it for you.” 

Shonezi Noor (left) and Cynthia Nakad
Shonezi Noor (left), Chief of Staff, Sampler; and Cynthia Nakad

And what drives Shiz Aoki, Co-Founder and CEO at BioRender, is impact. She told the crowd at Startup Open House about her motivation to launch her startup. She’d learned that there were Nobel prize-winning scientists spending long hours in the evenings after days in the lab, tinkering in PowerPoint, trying to visually communicate their research.

“When I heard this, my heart sank. As a professional medical illustrator, I was thinking about how society would benefit if we could recoup that one billion hours/year that scientists are wasting. This was 18 months ago. I teamed up with my two co-founders with one customer and one idea. Fast forward to a year and a half later, we have over 150,000 scientists around the world on our platform today and growing.”

Shizuka Aoki
Shiz Aoki, Co-founder and CEO, BioRender

Tip 3: Be real

Be real. But you still need to be a good salesperson. No-one wants to be “sold to,” especially those investing in their professional future. Be open and honest about all aspects of your startup at its current stage. Discuss opportunities for growth and how you work together, but also the biggest challenges your startup is dealing with (and how those will translate into opportunity and growth). 

Startup life has been romanticized and meme’d to the extreme. When talking to prospective employees, pull back the curtain and make sure there are no dark secrets left to be discovered later. They need to know exactly what success will look like.

Mike Skirzynski, Commercial Operations Manager, Peak Power, highlighted the challenges and rewards he and his colleagues experience working in clean energy. He explained:

“What we are doing is hard, and often what I hear is that the sector we work in is too marred in regulation, or the problems are too hard. Well, that hasn’t stopped our team at Peak from diving headfirst into this problem and working to answer the fundamental question, “how do we connect more clean energy resources to the grid, while benefiting all involved and all connected to the grid?” To me this is what’s so great about working at Peak and coming to work every day. I know that when I go into work, I am part of what will be a fundamental step change in how the electricity sector works and in mitigating our global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Mike Skirzynski in the MaRS atrium at the 2019 Startup Open House
Mike Skirzynski, Commercial Operations Manager, Peak Power

TL;DR? You’ve got a lot to offer. Make it apparent!

Before you talk to prospective talent, review how you’ll pitch your startup to them. What will appeal to this candidate? Is it meaningful work? Is it a company culture that meets their particular needs? Tailor your conversation accordingly. Leverage your startup’s singularity—make it clear what sets your startup apart. And make sure you are open about the opportunities and challenges your company brings to the table. It’s best to start the relationship off on solid ground so that there’s plenty of room for growth.

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