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The “Problem” with Startup Recruiting

by
Lior Shamir
Dec 4, 2012, 5:25 am ET

If you’re a startup recruiter, before you set out to compete for world-class talent, ask your client, “why will the 20th talented person to join your startup join your startup?”

It’s a question that Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, is notorious for asking entrepreneurs seeking his investment. Armed with the “right” answer, entrepreneurs win investors like Thiel (who was the first outside investor in Facebook) and recruiters win prized talent.

Now, before you run a mental checklist of possible answers, assume that:

  • Your candidate will make more money at Google (Apple, Facebook, Zynga, etc.)
  • Google, et al looks better on a resume
  • Many enterprises are now offering startup perks (catering, flexible hours, awesome culture, ping pong table, etc.)

So what’s the answer?

According to Thiel, “the 20th talented person will join your startup because your startup is working on an interesting and important problem.”

You see, startup talent want to move society forward. They are driven by feats with a lasting impact on the world. Yes, established companies affect millions with their innovations, but it’s startups — young and unencumbered — who attempt the impossible.

If you — on behalf of your client — can appeal to your candidates’ larger-than-life ambition by expressing the pains of a problem truly worth solving, the best and brightest will work with you. If nothing else, you will engage in conversation that transcends job requisitions, company culture, and compensation. As a recruiter, that’s not only your competitive advantage, it’s your contribution to an exclusive club of businesses that are changing the world.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Lior.

    I have worked for many startups. ISTM, much of the problem in startups can be attributed to the following:
    The founders are often arrogant, spoiled jerks who’ve always been told they’re “special” and are entitled to only the best. These founders believe that they know how to recruit people (they don’t) and that superstars should be lining up around the block for the privilege of working for them (they won’t). Often they are under the misconception that “passion” and “brilliance” (whatever those are in a business sense), combined with long hours can solve all problems.- many of them don’t realize that some things can only be solved by those with extensive experience. Perhaps because of this misconception (or perhaps they remember their grandparent stalking about when they used to say “never trust anyone over 30″) they are incredibly ageist and you rarely see substantial numbers of startup employees above their early thirties in age.

    IMHO, the sooner the folks that run/work for startups learn that:
    (1) They aren’t on a “mission from God”- they won’t “change the world
    (2) They’ll probably won’t”cash in” most don’t.
    (3) Most people go to work to have a livelihood, not create a substitute family
    (4) Working 80 hours /week gets old pretty fast,
    the better.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  2. Donna Brewington White

    I couldn’t disagree more with the last paragraph of @Keith’s comment. I should say “humbly” disagree because Keith is a master and someone I’ve gained a lot from thanks to his generous sharing of his knowledge in various places.

    I disagree with Keith because I so passionately agree with you, Lior — and Peter Thiel for that matter. And Steve Jobs. There has to be a place for the crazy ones. Not every “crazy one” can start a company. Some will need to work for crazy startup founders, people audacious enough to think they are on “a mission from God” and that they are going to change the world. If I am not the crazy one starting a company, I want to be the crazy one helping to make the dream a reality, changing the world and if not the world — at least changing, disrupting SOMETHING — making SOMETHING better! There are people driven by this desire.

    But not every person is meant to work at a startup and not every person with the makeup to work at a startup will be the right person for EVERY startup. Making the right match is critical — and this takes time, awareness, attention and skill. And the wisdom and humility to admit that you need help with this.

    Where I do heartily agree with Keith is that startups need to open up their thinking and step away from the startup employee clone machine. And this may involve openness to people over 30 or even 40 or 50, people with kids and others who don’t need to work 80 hours a week to provide incredible value. The key is not how many hours, but how much stamina, productivity and passion. You still want people for whom time seems to fly when they are working because they love the mission and the work.

    I do agree that startup founders cannot afford to treat employees or potential hires as though they are doing them a favor. Appreciation is huge in maintaining customers and it is huge in maintaining good team members. I believe that the most successful companies will think that both are incredibly important and will take the necessary actions to demonstrate this.

  3. Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Donna. You are very kind. I’m no “master”- just a guy who’s seen a great deal and tries to not do what I’ve learned is wrong (most of the time).

    Contrary to what it seems, I actual value “the crazy ones” as long as they are not charismatic, narcissistic sociopaths who form little corp-cults. The more a company talks about “passion” the more I think:
    1) they are likely to regard THEIR view of things as the THE TRUTH, and not open to alternatives, aka “having you drink the KoolAid”.

    2) they will justify “passion” or “the company” or “the product” as a justification for treating people poorly

    While Steve Jobs accomplished many good and valuable things (I like my Apple products), he evidently was not an easy or pleasant person to work for, and seemed to have a philosophy of unadaptable perfection: “How dare you want to modify your Mac, we’ve made it PERFECT for you!” As for Peter Thiel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thiel, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/11/28/111128fa_fact_packer?currentPage=1), I think he supports far more things I disagree with (like Grover Norquist’s “Club for Growth) than things I do agree with (decrying elitism- which is really inconsistent with supporting the “Club for Growth”)….In a nutshell, I think people (applicants/employees) should regard companies (and their founders and missions) who think of themselves too seriously. with a careful eye and a grain of salt.

    Cheers,

    Keith”ALL the Emperors Wear No Clothes’ Halperin

  4. Lior Shamir

    @Keith – Startup salaries are up to 30% below market value. For this reason, they often can’t attract a thirty-something with a couple of kids and a mortgage. Also, to your point, the upside on a startup is the exception not the rule and the “experienced” know that.

  5. Keith Halperin

    @ Lior I hear you. Some startups do pay less and that’s a tradeoff some people are prepared to make. Still, many startups offer nothing more than the *chutzpah of their founders, and IMHO you gotta have SOMETHING (pay, benies, QoWL, stock, security, real opportunity, a genuine & meanungful mission) to get really good people to work with you.

    **Chanukah Sameach

    Keith

    *Shameless audacity; impudence.
    **Happy Hanukkah

  6. Lior Shamir

    Thanks and agreed.

  7. Om Singh

    I’m partially agree with Lior. Mostly startups are pre installed with their prior experience in their companies where they worked and learned the recruiting techs. They(even me too) may over-confidenced with their talented skills which gave them a rank in their organzations. But when it comes to your own company then it is not necessary that you might deploy your all facilities provided in last company. We must control our financial situation in our own recruitment company. If we want to do our best then it is not necessary that we have to work 80 hours a week. We can work 8 hours per day which may give us the best value to our customers.
    A new comer is passionated by his new carrier which is good for his future but passion with cool mind and techniq can give the best result.
    If a person is best in his company then he think that his company can not run without him. With this thought when he starts his own company with same business then his thoughts are clearly seen in his implementations, work cultures and even employees programmes. He thinks that he can run his company alone but you know you can give your best only with team work rather than solo appearenres.

    At last I’m not very experience person like you guys so sorry I’m saying something wrong.

  8. Maureen Sharib

    A piece of the pie from the get-go wouldn’t hurt either.

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