Recruiting in today’s ultra-competitive job market is tough and success can often hinge on the team that you already have in place. Some sources suggest that in the start-up world the team is second only to timing when it comes to recruiting. The team is more important than the idea, the business model, and funding. The same can be said for established companies. Without great people, and continuously attracting new top talent, you’re sooner or later bound to fail. So whether you’re a founder of a startup, a young CEO, or a veteran leader, if you have big plans, you have one job: Put together the strongest team possible.
When I started building WATTx, an innovation lab for smart climate solutions in the Internet of Things (IoT) space six months ago, I quickly came to this exact realization. Without great talent, our moonshot aspirations and ambition to help Viessmann — a soon-to-be 100-year-old family business and industrial heavyweight in the heating and cooling industry — master its transition to the digital era would never be more than pretty words on paper.
Less than three months into the WATTx journey, we had hired a team of 20 amazing people with impressive resumes and personalities across four main domains: data science and software engineering, IoT engineering, digital marketing and sales, and business development. Our team consists of 15 nationalities and includes software engineers from Google, a data scientist from the CERN Institute, top talent from two of the hottest fintech startups in the world, and a few startup founders from ecommerce, legal tech, or IoT.
How did we attract these rock stars when we had little other than our idea to entice them with? While many people are drawn to a “change the world” aspiration, it takes a lot more than that to pull them away from “change the world” work they’re already doing. Here are six concrete recruiting principles we used to help us build a top team:
Master the art of storytelling. You are trying to sell complete strangers on your idea and get them to leave well-paid, attractive jobs for something completely unknown. In order for the recruits to trust you, you have to master telling your story. Others will only follow you if you really leave them with the impression that you yourself are completely captivated by the opportunity you’re presenting. To some people, storytelling comes naturally. If you don’t belong to the lucky few, there’s still hope — practice. Start with reflecting on what ignited that fire in you and what drew you to start your business. Tell that story to yourself, friends, and colleagues. Take your refined pitch and refine it some more with a lot of different recruits. Be less picky in the beginning about who you interview as the main goal is to hone your skill to be at your best when Grade A candidates comes your way.
In case you’re wondering: Money and the Silicon Valley style perks (Airbnb has a guy driving ice cream around the office every Friday) were not part of our story. We were able to offer competitive salaries, but not being able to offer equity or those sometimes outrageous perks actually put us at a disadvantage. The only way to overcome that is by giving people a chance to work on something meaningful, in a unique setting, which is driven home by a story well told.
Don’t be a one trick pony. Every potential employee is different and therefore the way you best get your message across will vary. Applying two lenses to a candidate will give you good insight into how you should deliver your messages: the background and the personality of the candidate. From my personal experience, people interviewing for technical roles were less receptive to highly aspirational sales pitches and instead were looking for sound and rational arguments. Candidates with an affinity to more emotional topics were looking to be inspired and were less interested in the exact details. Understanding that generalizations can doom your interviews, you have to get a feel for the person and their values as early as possible.
A way that I found to work well (in cases I couldn’t get a good read right away) was to ask open questions and then probe a specific part of their answer. For example, asking a candidate about what is important to them in their new position and then immediately drilling deeper into the answers provided. Details and personal experience will tell you right away that there is truth beyond the original claim, which should guide your interview approach. For example, if atmosphere within the team is important to the candidate, let her know what great people you have managed to hire already and how excited you are about how well they will all mesh.
Find your mix. Not all the recruiting channels are equally effective and not all recruiting channels will reach your specific audience. Pick the combination channels where you have the highest chance to reach the people you’re truly after and not because they are standard practice. In our case, the headhunters specializing in recruiting digital talent had a success rate of 0%. Instead, almost three quarters of our team was recruited via AngelList, a platform for people with high affinity for startups. The second best channels were personal networks. If you have a good network and you’ve made some good hires early on, their recommendations are usually a pretty reliable assessment. Lastly, LinkedIn was good for exactly one hire. Note that we didn’t spend a single dollar on advertising or promoting our job openings. And you don’t have to either. Instead, start with a few more (free) channels and see where you get traction quickest. Focus your time and effort on those.
Follow a stringent approach. To be efficient and effective, you need a process that allows you to dig through hundreds of applications and then do 8-10 interviews — per day. Ours consisted of three steps: First, an email with three questions to check the main boxes about a candidate:
Prior experience. Can you describe your work at your previous employer and specific projects you worked on, as well as your go-to development tools and programming languages?
Reasoning. How do you think your skills set will help you to have an impact in IoT-related projects, such as connectivity solutions and devices in the smart climate space?
Motivation. What particularly excited you about WATTx and what we aspire to achieve?
Second, I conducted a 30 minute interview and asked questions about their skills and potential fit. If all went well, the future team lead of the potential hire conducted a second and final in-depth interview of 45-60 minutes for the third and final step.
Even if you realize early into the process that the candidate’s profile fits the open role perfectly and that you like her personally, don’t cut the process short and make it too easy on her. Going through the entire challenging process will allow her to be proud of her accomplishment once an offer is extended, which will lead to increased appreciation of the opportunity.
Make it personal. All of the people we hired at WATTx particularly appreciated one aspect of our hiring process — it was personal and done by the people in charge of WATTx. No dealing with automated emails, no waiting for replies from HR. Candidates were directly in touch with their future colleagues and leaders of WATTx. Above all, it stressed one key factor: appreciation for the individual. When you’re a top manager or even the CEO of a large company, you understandably have little time to take on the entire process yourself. For crucial positions, you still may want to decide to get involved earlier in the process to signal appreciation.
Never compromise. If you have a clear idea of what culture you want at your company, what dynamics you want within your team, or what the quality bar for each position is, do not make compromises when hiring. Our motto: “If in doubt, don’t hire.” For example, we at WATTx value attitude as much as aptitude and hiring the next Einstein wouldn’t help us when nobody on the team could work with that person. Another aspect that has worked well was to use our first hires as benchmarks for any future hires (assuming we’ve gotten the first calls right). From that point on, candidates looking to join us needed to be as good as the existing team members — or better. We noticed that, once we started applying the benchmark mindset, we weren’t making offers to some really interesting candidates that we probably would have tried to hire before — which would have caused us to have much lower quality on average throughout all of our teams.
As we’re still early in our journey, we can’t point to finished products as proof of our team’s quality just yet. However, early evidence — like building the basic machine learning algorithm to increase the comfort level in people’s homes — suggests that this team is going to turn our grand ideas into reality.
Following these six principles will make your recruiting more effective and help you get the right people on the bus, as Jim Collins used to say. Even better, these principles will ensure that your team will enjoy the ride together and build great products along the way.
Bastian Bergmann is the COO of WATTx, an innovation lab focused on IOT and smart climate solutions. Previously, he worked for The Boston Consulting Group mainly in the energy sector, focusing on digital strategy, business model innovation, and innovation management.