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Why prioritize talent acquisition?

The principal asset for a vast majority of startups is the knowledge and problem-solving skills held in their people. Before product–market fit, users, revenue or profit, it is people who create the value and opportunity that secure investment and growth.

To this end, the single highest-leverage activity anyone can do in an early-stage startup is to invest time in attracting, engaging and retaining the strongest individuals who are capable and motivated to solve the challenges facing your organization.

Jonathan Swanson, president of Thumbtack (a $1.7-billion marketplace), spoke to the Opencare team during our early days and was quick to reinforce the idea that “recruiting is everyone’s job.” This mantra has stuck and motivated the whole company to double headcount in under 12 months (and triple revenue)! 

Elad Gil, in the High Growth Handbook (side note: I cannot recommend this book highly enough), doubles down, stating that early on, a company should spend 30% to 50% of its time actively recruiting: “There is no easy fix around it. You just need to grind through large numbers of people…to find a handful of people to join your team.”

If the whole team is not galvanized into sharing this workload, it will be overwhelming for just the leadership team to shoulder this burden. Every founder and leader has myriad competing priorities on their to-do list, but the only way you will ever alleviate your heavy workload is by hiring strong colleagues who can take on some of these activities and challenges for you.

Prioritize talent acquisition early and aggressively. It will pay dividends in the long run.

Where to start?

Most folks jump into talent acquisition by sending hundreds of LinkedIn messages to prospective candidates and pitching them on why their company has such great perks.

Stop immediately.

Taking this approach misses the most critical step in successful talent acquisition: defining the problem you need people to solve. If you think about the strongest performers in your current company, they are the folks who are deeply committed and engaged by the problems you are solving. 

Some team members will focus on the overarching mission of your organization (for example, solving finance for entrepreneurs or creating a platform to share knowledge), while others will look at the tactical challenges they can personally take on (such as building the strategy for a B2C product or defining a new approach to recruitment and putting it into practice). 

So every time you invest your limited resources in adding to your head count, it should be to solve specific critical challenges that are blocking the overall growth of your company.

Hire for competence and commitment

Success in any role emerges from the intersection of competence and commitment. 

  • Competence is the demonstrated knowledge or skills related to a specific task.
  • Commitment is the motivation to apply effort to the specific task. 

Most early-stage companies focus on one of these characteristics, either choosing someone who is vastly overqualified and paying a premium for the skills or someone who is committed and enthusiastic with the hope they will develop the necessary competence.

You need to focus on finding the right balance for the specific challenge your organization is facing. 

For example, if you have to build the new web platform your CTO has designed, you might skew more toward hiring someone with competence in React and Node.js and less commitment to your specific challenges. 

Conversely, if you are lacking the right person to develop your sales and go-to-market strategies, you will need someone who has a high level of commitment, because they will be your representative in the market. If they do not believe in your product, then you will get subpar results.

Each of these challenges requires a fundamentally different profile and type of person. Without diagnosing your root need, you will struggle to attract the right person. 

If one co-founder brings a strong sales background, don’t hire another sales leader early on: You will just get conflict due to differing directions or simply duplicate skills you already have. In this scenario, you need someone who can execute on the co-founder’s sales plan, so you should hire an enthusiastic sales rep with high commitment who is eager to prove themself.

How to build your talent pipeline

Prioritizing talent acquisition includes many different activities that don’t necessarily require you (or your team) to scour LinkedIn for the right profile for hours on end.

These activities can include:

  • Networking with industry leaders, advisors and your board members.
  • Speaking openly about the problem you are trying to solve and asking for advice and input (both in person and online) from specialists in that field. Be loud in asking for help!
  • Creating and sharing content on the problem space your startup is tackling. Use social media to distribute and engage in conversation with interested parties.
  • Running events in your space for communities that might have relevant talent connected to them.
  • Speaking on panels and engaging with attendees at industry events.

All of the conversations about aspects such as perks, compensation and titles fade in importance once you connect with someone who is genuinely excited about the problems you have to solve.