The Five Questions You Need to Answer to Succeed at Startup Recruiting

For the last couple of months, I've been recording interviews with founders and recruiting professionals for the Startup Recruiting Podcast.  Despite my best efforts to make it tactical--full of hacks, tips, tricks, etc., the common themes that keep coming up are much more about meaning, mission and values.  At first, I'll admit it felt a little fluffy, but more and more I realize that without answering questions about the "why" of what it's like to work for your company, you're never going to be able to write that pitch e-mail, LinkedIn message, or have anything convincing to say in an interview.  

Here's what every founder should put in some time to not only have an answer, but to make sure that answer is backed up by actions, incentives, and real effort at your company:

1) What's the reputation for greatness that will attach itself to your employees long after they leave?  

Will your company be known for being a great place to learn to sell?  To scale lots of data?  To build brand?  To push the envelope around computer vision like at Clarifai?  What kind of a challenge will a VC know that they can back a former employee of yours to tackle?

2) Why are employees at your company great teammates to each other?

If 1+1 is going to equal something more than 2, your team will have to be better together than as individual contributors--so while you might think the most important question is how they're going to do that, you'll realize that if you can handle the "why", they'll figure out the how.  Check out the x.ai employee pledge for a great framework on this.

3) What is it that you sell?

You don't sell a product.  You sell something else.  Is it time?  Is it piece of mind?  Is it a lifestyle?  Reliability? Clarity around what your customer cares about and why they buy your product usually means your employees are focused on what matters most--and helps you figure out which potential new hires are best suited to deliver.

4) Why would an employee recruit their friend?

You know why you started the company--but that doesn't mean it's the same reason why a front end developer would tell their friend the growth marketer to join.  Thinking about the incentives for your individual contributors to recruit others keeps you focused on the day to day of each employee up and down the org chart.  Can you create an environment as clearly articulated as Do Something?  Is it because you're hiring people others would like to work with like at Zola?

5) What will this company look like in five years?

It's highly unlikely that you'll survive five years if you can't imagine it--and a strong founder vision not only provides direction around day to day tasks, but also inspires people.  It's really easy to get stuck on the metrics you need to get to the next round and to forget to play the long game of people development and skating to where the puck is going.

Bonus: What are others likely to hear about your organization?

Your recruiting brand is different than the brand around your product--and should be attended to just as intentionally.  Etsy spent a lot of effort making sure the Etsy culture permeated outside its walls.  What are you doing to spread your company's culture?

The Madness of the King

I don't know whether or not Donald Trump colluded with the Russians around the election--or whether any of his associates did either.  

I certainly don't think much of him--and it certainly doesn't seem beyond him, but obviously I don't have all the materials and information I need.

But what I do know is that anyone who is sure of their innocence wouldn't fire the very person investigating them IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INVESTIGATION.  Can anyone logically imagine an innocent person thinking, "I know I didn't do anything, but instead of waiting until I'm cleared, I'm going to get rid of the main person I need to vouch for my innocence and that of my staff."

It's completely unconscionable--and any other politician who doesn't denounce it isn't representing their constituency well.  It wreaks of the kind of abuse of power that ultimately sent Nixon packing--and the fact that Trump and his staff either don't see that or don't care is deeply deeply troubling.  

There have been many days this year where I sit here and say, "Should I be doing my job or raising hell today?"

Today, it is clear what we all should be doing.  This is a fork in the road we cannot afford to go down.

Qualify Your Investor

I can't tell you how many pitches I've taken where a founder told me they needed revenues, or a fully functioning product to raise capital--and they were told that by X number of investors, so they took it as gospel.  

Plenty of companies have raised money pre-revenue and pre-product, so why the discrepancy?

What you're most likely hearing from an investor who says this is that what it takes to raise from *them* and they're not speaking for the whole market.  I always qualify these kinds of statements by saying, "I can't speak for other investors" when I suggest how likely someone is to raise in their current state.  

When you sit down with an investor, just like when you sit down with a customer, you need to qualify them--to ask whether or not they have invested in a startup at this stage.  This way, if they've done pre-revenue or 10k MRR a month or pre-FDA approval before, you know that if you get turned down, it's not because it was too early for them.  

Otherwise, you really don't know if they're suggesting the bar is higher then where you are because they just don't take risk at this stage.  

Some of my best investments, like Canary, Orchard and goTenna, were pre-product, but not every VC wants to take that type of risk.  Make sure you know you're pitching to the right stage VC when you go out.

Is there a right time of year to raise a seed round?

It's hard to answer that question, because even if you look at fundraising data, you don't always know a) when the round was actually closed vs. just announced or filed and b) you don't know when fundraising actually started.  Maybe it was wrapped up in a week or maybe it took six months.

That being said, I was super curious what my own track record had to say about it.  As it turns out, from 2010-2016 inclusive, 75% of my deals are done in the second half of the year.

What's the reason for that?  

I have a few theories.

First, you probably don't want to have the holidays cut into your fundraising process--so most people time their raise to wrap up before the end of the year.  There's a noticeable push to start raising in September to wrap things up right away.  That would explain why you don't see much in January and February--because those deals were done in the 4th quarter.

What it doesn't explain is the slow second quarter.  What's going on in April or May?

Well, perhaps a lot of people start new companies after the holidays--maybe after they wrap up a previous job.  If that's the case, and if it takes a few months to fundraise, then you probably wouldn't see much in April.  That would mean that you start fundraising almost as soon as you leave your last job--which is probably rare.  You probably want to put a few months into testing the idea, recruiting an early team, etc.

This points to the idea that deals are happening because of the founder's time table--not the VC's.  That I largely agree with.  In fact, I think the perception of the VC timetable is largely overblown.  Supposedly, all VCs go on vacation in August, but I've done as many deals in August as March, April, and May combined.  A few years ago, when I was at First Round Capital, we had our largest month of the year in August.  Obviously, those weren't new pitches, but it shows we were still working.

Similarly, I've found it super easy to get meetings with VCs before the holidays.  While you might not get your deal closed right then and there, they're still in the office, and their calendar is probably more open than you think.

Rather than try to game the system too much for your seed round, it's best to get to know investors as early as possible, and raise whenever you need to raise.  

 

Guys

I know a guy.

In fact, I know a lot of guys.  That’s good because guys are all anyone is looking for these days—or even speaking to. 

"Software guys."

"Hardware guys."

"Tech guys" in general.  

Guys who might want to fund our round.

How tired are women of being either excluded in the language of who people are looking for, or being lumped in with men and being described as "Guys"?

It’s bothering me, too, actually.  And it’s not just guys that do it.  

Women do it all the time, which kind of blows my mind.

How hard is it to refer to people like this?

Software dev.

Hardware hackers.

Tech people.  

Investors.

People use “guys” as a catch all term for addressing and referring to a group of people—and it’s just wrong.  I know it doesn’t seem so bad, but it’s just a lazy habit that makes me think people are being lazy about lots of other language things—the way job posts are written, the way HR manuals are still unwritten, what profiles of people are recruited, etc.

Do you think Uber set out from the beginning to be an environment unfriendly to women?

I don’t—but unintentional and lazy lapses breed a kind of broken windows environment that just compounds on itself.  Boundary lines get pushed everyday, millimeters at a time, until all of the sudden you’re actually surprised to find out you have a toxic culture.  

Be intentional about your language and your culture.  How you speak, and what you say, signals all sorts of things about you.

People ask why I don’t have much of a Brooklyn accent—and the answer was that I spent a lot of time to think about how I wanted to sound and what I wanted to say.  If I can avoid sounding like someone who might shake your bakery down for money, then anyone can speak like they care about how women get addressed.