Unfortunately, if you are an early stage startup, you HAVE to recruit superstars. You don’t have a choice. When teams are small, one or two average performers would mean that you have an average team. And with the level of challenges faced by early stage startups, average teams are going to fail.
But that’s really tough right? Because being an early stage startup also means that you do not have the resources to compete for the best talent. Some people think can get away with just “selling them your vision”, but be careful not to exaggerate because many startups are saying that they want to change the world or revolutionise something, and most of this sounds a lot like fluff to smart people (they are the ones you want to hire, remember). I mean think about this, if your startup’s business is to make money by selling bags, TVs or toys online (I’m not referring to any particular startup here), any altruistic vision to “change the world” doesn’t really work for most people.
The most important question you need to ask yourself is “Why would a superstar want to join an early stage startup? Why wouldn’t they just start their own?”. The truth is, they may want to start their own startup one day, and you should accept that as the reality, and for whatever reason, perhaps they are not able to do that now, or don’t currently have an idea that they feel very strongly about.
Be careful not to exaggerate, many startups say they want to change the world or revolutionise something, but most of this sounds like a lot of fluff to smart people.
Before we go any further, I would just like to mention the very basics of being able to recruit. Your startup needs to have a good idea and is able to pay salaries, either because you are revenue generating or are well funded (or has the potential to be well funded). After all, for employees, one of their top concerns is having some form of stability and career path. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how you can attract and recruit some superstars for your early stage startup.
1) Build Credibility for Yourself (the Founder)
Regardless of what area your startup is in, what matters most to talented people when they decide if they want to join you, is less about what business you are in, and more about who you are as the founder. Is it someone they respect? Can this person mentor them in their careers, when they too may one day decide to have their own startup?
When news came out that Joel Neoh was starting KFIT, many people that wanted to apply to join KFIT probably were not into the entire fitness thing, but because they’ve heard so much about Joel and the opportunity to learn and work with a team that they admire, it was easier for KFIT to attract talent.
When Cheryl Yeoh first came back to start MaGIC, they managed to build such a high quality team. I don’t think it was the “excitement” of working in a government agency, but the idea of working alongside Cheryl was enough to draw a lot of good applications to MaGIC.
(Both KFIT and MaGIC use WOBB.CO to hire, so I know for a fact that they attract good quality applications.)
Well, most of us don’t get that kind of media attention. I certainly didn’t, and most people don’t know who I am. So when I first started WOBB, without a strong track record, I knew I needed to build some credibility. I want to share with you some of things I did at the start that really helped us hire good quality talent.
Build your Linkedin Profile
When someone googles your name, what’s the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile. There’s so much you can do on your Linkedin profile (include photos, videos, links to publications) that it’s definitely under-used.
I will write a separate, detailed piece about what makes a strong Linkedin profile in Malaysia (there are also many good articles on the internet about this), but as a start, make sure your profile is complete. That means, having things like a professional looking photo, up-to-date information about your career to date, any achievements and definitely have a summary that is personal, yet gives you credibility.
Have a personal / professional blog
Yes, like the one you are reading now. I bought “derektoh.com” at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, because I thought it was a great way to tell a story as I learned about the business world. Turns out, it was also a great talent magnet. I’ve actually had people approaching me after they read my blog, asking if they could join WOBB.CO.
When someone googles your name, what is the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile.
So go out there can get a domain in your own name. Basically, people who didn’t know you before will now have one stop where they can read about what you value, how you think and behave, and most importantly what kind of leader and entrepreneur you will be.
It’s important to know that even though I’ve called it a “personal blog”, I would suggest keeping it fairly professional. Not to write about your break up, or food, or travel adventures. Unless it’s relevant to what you do.
Also, remember to update it frequently, ideally at least once a week.
Put it on your business card and email
Now that you have an amazing Linkedin profile, and a professional blog in your own name, it’s time to make sure people can find it. When WOBB.CO first started out, I had my personal blog address and Linkedin profile on every business card I gave out, and in the email signature when I’m emailing. People do click and read it, especially if they don’t know you very well.
Btw, this benefit goes beyond just recruitment, it could even help you close business deals and partnerships if the person you are working with believes you have credibility.
2) Get Visibility, Go Where the Talent Are
The next thing you need to do is figure out where you can find the type of people that you are looking to hire. In my view, there are three types of people that you could potentially hire. And they are:
- Fresh graduates who are generally open to consider different careers
- Talent from other startups
- Startup enthusiasts (i.e. people who are not necessarily already working at a startup, but they follow startup news and may have friends who work at startups)
I would avoid approaching people who have been in corporate jobs for most of their career, not because it’s not possible for them to consider working at a startup, but it’s a decision based on how best to invest your time. This group is the least likely to consider working at a startup, and therefore should also be the one you invest the least time on.
So where do you find the people you are targetting?
Go to career fairs for startups
Career fairs are filled with fresh graduates or people in the early careers, and it’s a great place to get your brand out there as an employer. You will want to avoid generic career fairs that are dominated by large corporate companies (basically the guys with the most money also buy the most outstanding booths, and get all the attention). You want to look for the career fairs that were designed for startups.
Here are some of the startup career fairs that I am aware of:
- MaGIC – happens once every six months or so, I believe, and typically coincides with other events that they hold such as MaGIC Startup Academy. Doesn’t charge for this.
- YouthsToday – organises startup events (may not be directly about careers, but great place nonetheless) every now and then, and it’s good to reach out to them to find out when the next one is. There is a fee to attend.
- Enactus @ University of Nottingham’s Malaysian Campus – as far as I know, they have organised the first one in early 2015, and currently preparing for the second one in 2016. There may be other universities that have startup career fairs, but at present I am only aware of this one. WOBB attended the first one, I think results were okay, but they promised the second one to be bigger and better. This is a paid event, should be a couple of hundred ringgit to attend.
At the time of writing, we are also considering organising our own career fair / networking session at WOBB.CO, as long as employers are interested to fund their own costs, it will not be profit-driven. You can drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss.
Attend startup networking events
This is where you will meet existing startup talent and startup enthusiasts. There are many startup networking events that have grown and increased in popularity, and that’s great news for someone like yourself who is looking to recruit. Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of that may be worth your time.
My number one tip for networking events is to have long, meaningful conversations with a few interesting people, rather than trying to meet as many people as you can, and end up having superficial, unmemorable conversations.
Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of:
- Startup Grind – this is a global movement, originated from San Francisco I believe. Events are in the form of an “interview” with a popular startup personality on stage, and is very casual and conversational. Arrive early and leave late if your goal is to meet people. There’s a fee to attend, and they provide snacks and drinks during the event.
- DrinkEntrepreneurs – this is a pure networking event, no stage, no speakers. I’ve never attended one myself, but some of our WOBB team like going, and I hear there is a lot of startup talent and startup enthusiasts who attend these events. And people are drinking. Yes, alcohol. Which means if you stay long enough, you could be in danger of being too happy. And make some real friends. You’ll need to pay a cover charge to join the event.
- SITEC – This is Selangor’s version of MaGIC, as their goal is to play a role in building the tech startup community in Selangor. They organise networking sessions every month, and invite startup founders to speak. I believe it’s free to attend.
- WOBB’s Coffee Sessions – Every month, we organise a meet up with jobseekers who use WOBB, to understand how we can help them, and to get feedback on our app and website. Turns out, we ended up making some new friends and even hired people we met through these sessions. Everyone buys their own coffee, so it’s really casual. I would welcome some founders of early stage startups to join us, we don’t charge. Just be nice to our jobseekers.
StartupGrind KL, image from PEATIX.COM
Get invited to speak at startup events
Instead of attending an event, why don’t you speak at one? Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one. So if you’re up there speaking, you’ve automatically got the attention of potential employees.
You will need a compelling story, perhaps you are solving a problem that many people care about, or if you are doing really well, then let them know you are succeeding. No one likes to join a startup that is stagnating or on the decline, so get the audience excited by showing how much progress you are making, and invite them to speak with you for “advice” afterwards, which will be your opportunity to identify potential hires.
Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one.
Now, getting invited to speak for the first time is always the most challenging, especially if you don’t speak publicly that much, and you are not very well known. Start by looking at events where where they invite a panel of speakers, instead of having solo speakers. Get connected with the organisers, either through your friends in the startup scene, or even approach them on Linkedin (you’ve got a pretty good profile now!).
At the start, don’t worry too much about how many people are there, or whether you can hire them. Just go out there and speak. Get some practice. Get some exposure. Before you know it, you may be invited to speak at other events.
3) Vision and Culture
Superstar talent don’t just want to work for a paycheck. And while you’ve built up some credibility for yourself, that still won’t be enough to attract them if they don’t feel like they are part of something much bigger than themselves.
Have a vision for the company
Think about how your startup can change lives, but remember not to exaggerate. If your vision is clear, ambitious, realistic and resonates with who they are, it will be a strong magnet for superstar talent.
Examples of some vision statements include:
Microsoft – A personal computer in every home running Microsoft software.
Toys R Us: Our vision is to put joy in kids’ hearts and a smile on parent’s faces.
WWF: We seek to save a planet, a world of life. Reconciling the needs of human beings and the needs of others that share the Earth.
At WOBB our vision is that one day every Malaysian will be doing a job that they love, as we make it easy for jobseekers and companies with the right culture to find each other.
(So many people have approached me directly to ask if we are hiring because they care so much about this vision)
Have a vision for their careers
This is not the vision for the company, but rather a vision for the careers of your team and their individual careers. Tell them how you will expect them to progress as the startup grows, and how this accelerates their growth, opportunities, and finances. The beauty of being in a startup is that the possibilities are endless, there isn’t a set hierarchy or structure for growth, and that gives you flexibility to craft out the right plan for people who intend to hire.
Have you heard of the chain of fruit stalls, MBG? I was speaking on a panel at an event with their founder, Adnan Lee, and he told me that his vision was not about the business, but rather, he had a vision for the people that work at MBG. And that vision is “To Improve the Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”. Interesting isn’t it? You can have a look at their vision and mission statement here.
MBG’s vision is not about the business, but rather, they have a vision for the people, and that is “To Improve The Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”.
And most importantly, let’s talk about CULTURE
If you want to be able to attract and hire superstars, you need to be clear what kind of culture you want to have as a company. Some of the employers that use WOBB.CO started out without a Culture Page, and they didn’t attract many CVs, but after they created a Culture Page, their job applications jumped up between 4X to 5X. And the quality of the CVs improved dramatically too. So it really works.
I could go on and on about how to define and shape your company culture (it is, after all, what WOBB is all about), but to get you started, here’s a simple infographic.
Increasingly, what superstar talent care about is evolving really fast. If you look back 10 or 20 years ago, all the best talent would have wanted to join large corporations who can pay well, have good benefits, and also stable long term career growth. Small businesses were generally seen as not the best place to work for some of the most talented individuals.
This is, however, no longer true. Young talent are drawn to the new, unfamiliar territory known as the startup scene, which is essentially made up of many many small but fast-growing companies, and with the right credibility, presence and culture, they may choose to work at your company too.