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You Want Me To Work For You?

Posted on Saturday, Feb 21st 2009

By Guest Author Tony Scott

One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen over the years in recruiting for early-stage companies is the inability of founders to articulate what makes their company special and why anyone should want to work with them. This is a common failing among founders, particularly those from technical backgrounds.

If you’ve come up with the idea for the next great widget, you might be able to get other techies to get excited enough to want to jump on the bandwagon. But what about people who aren’t so technical?  Why in the world would they want to work for you?

Having the coolest technology on the planet won’t mean all that much to others who aren’t technical themselves. If they are business people, they’re going to want to know why you think anyone would shell out money for your product or service – and how you will ultimately make money.

In my more than 20-year career advising technology companies on hiring executives, a frequent refrain from technical founders to me is, “Just bring us the best people.” Good recruiters may be able to find talented people and bring them to the doorstep, but founders have to “close the deal” by getting a potential employee – whether it be the new administrative assistant or the new CEO – to share in the passion and vision that drove them to strike out on their own.

I’ve seen great, seriously talented executives brought to the doorstep of exciting start-ups, and have the founders wax on and on about the technology and nothing else. Candidates walk away from mind-numbing, multiple-hour meetings where the technological underpinnings and technology roadmap are laid out for them and core questions about how a real business can be made from the technology are completely missed.

Sometimes this happens because the founders get so enamored of their technology that they just can’t help sharing this brilliance with anyone they meet, regardless of the level of interest of the other person. But more often than not, it is because the founders don’t really know how to weave their product story into a bigger story about how their “new, new thing” will become a commercial success.

So great candidates – who are either currently happily employed, or if between gigs, have lots of choices – would lose interest. Founders often say, “Well, if they didn’t see how great this is, then they weren’t right for us anyway.” Maybe, but I believe that you should always be in the position of being able to choose to say “no thank you” to the candidate. That can’t happen if candidates drop out of the process because they think the founder can’t articulate why the company should exist, let alone thrive.

Think about how you might pitch your company to a VC. You should assume that the best candidates – at any level – are going to want to dig into how your product or service works and how it can be commercially successful with a level of skepticism that would put most VCs to shame.

Think about it this way: VCs are in the business of creating a portfolio of investments. They know that only a handful will work out, and hope that those that are successful will make up for the majority that don’t. Their risk is clear: they might lose their investors’ money, but they hope to mitigate that risk through smart portfolio investing.

On the other hand, if you ask an executive to join your company, he or she is investing something that can never be recovered: time. That person can’t mitigate their risk by working at 6 to 10 companies at the same time, waiting to focus more of their time into the one or two that look like winners after a couple of years.

If an executive commits to join a company, they know that barring some major disaster or finding out that the founder is really a scam artist, they will likely be tied to the company for at least 18 months and likely longer. If they leave sooner, they will be viewed as a job-hopper. If the company doesn’t become successful, even for reasons completely outside of the executive’s control, they’ll be viewed as less successful than someone who by sheer luck joined a company that was wildly successful – even if that success had little or nothing to do with them.

If an executive is unfortunate enough to be associated with a couple of companies that don’t make it, then they are tagged as someone who makes bad choices. Given that the majority of early-stage companies don’t have positive exits, the risk for an executive in joining any new company is extremely high. Compare that with VCs, who are lionized as brilliant if they have one successful investment out of 10 failures, as long as the one success more than makes up for all the failures!

So, to be successful in recruiting the brightest, most talented candidates who have the experience your company needs to be successful, you need to take recruiting very seriously – as seriously or more so as if you are trying to raise funding. Spend time to make sure that your story is clear, crisp, and explains why others should share your passion from a product/service point of view – and the path that leads to financial success for the company.

Great candidates want to join companies where there is clear passion and commitment from the team.  Nothing is more effective in demonstrating that to a candidate than seeing that everyone within a company has a shared vision and is “singing from the same page”. Make sure every person in your company understands the story, from the administrative assistant to the CEO. If you are using the services of a search professional, make doubly sure they understand it, too.

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers – it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a potential executive that you need help sorting things out. Get candidates involved in thinking about the problems you face and their potential solutions. That’s the first step in having them embrace your company.

Most importantly, don’t try to spin things to cover up weaknesses. This almost always backfires, not in the least because experienced executives are likely to have much more expertise in their domain than you ever will. After all, that’s why you need them to join. But they’ll never join if they think you’re afraid to admit to your company’s weaknesses – or your own.

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Excellent and extremely well said. The issues and problems addressed by Sramana in this writing have been prevalent for so many years but so ignored. Time to learn folks, it’s right here in your face to read.

Ron Mabry Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 11:01 AM PT

Please let me correct my error of not giving proper credit to the author of this piece. Tony Scott, thank you for the wisdom you have shared with us.

Ron Mabry Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 12:04 PM PT

Good article Tony. I totally agree that the founders should sell the company and its product as if they were selling to a customer. Minimally it is great practice. If they make the sale they can always reject.

I think you should get them to write a one pager that describes the company and product and maybe show them a few that work.

For some founders this comes naturally, but many need a sounding board to make this right, as their recruiter you may be the right person to be this sounding board.

I havent read this book but some founders have recommended it as good reading.

Jagdambha Bilasia Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 9:18 PM PT

This is a great article and nails the hi-tech recruiting dilemma right on its head. Ironically, as Tony points out, the very help company founders are seeking usually is non-technical help (e.g., marketing, sales, etc.) yet they appeal to these non-technical candidates with the “heat-seeker technology” sizzle. Being as specific as possible in the search, as Tony indicates, is the key to success. We have all hired “bright candidates” only to learn later they were wrong for the job because we went we brains-only.

Burnes Hollyman Monday, February 23, 2009 at 9:47 AM PT