The Art of Courting Candidates: Creating a Stellar Startup Interview Experience

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Vice President of Talent at NerdWallet
5 min read
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On the surface, selecting the right candidates seems pretty straightforward: Find the best talent you can, evaluate them to make sure they’re a good fit for your team and throw some meaningful cash and benefits at them until they say, “yes.”

Such assembly-line thinking in recruitment may work for large operations with household names, but for smaller startups, this stuff is far from easy. In Silicon Valley and other hot tech hubs, organizations large and small are competing for the same pool of candidates.

The dividing line for these job candidates is clear. The Googles and Apples of the world have a brand cache and vast reservoir of resources small players can’t match. Startups' weapon of choice is power. They entice ambitious candidates who want to make a real splash at their next job rather than the pebble drop of joining a company with thousands of employees.

For startups, though, the “big fish in a small pool” recruitment approach isn’t enough. The key for startups is to offer a white-glove service of communication and coaching to candidates that big firms can’t match.

Keep in mind, the benchmark of recruitment isn’t the number of high-caliber candidates who get a job but the number of unsuccessful candidates who would recommend your company to friends. It’s easy for successful candidates to be strong brand ambassadors for you. It’s harder -- and more rewarding -- to create an interview experience that’s positive for people who don’t get the job. Here’s how to achieve that.

Related: 5 Effective Hiring Tips for Early-Stage Startups

Play the field.

Because we’re a relatively new player on the scene, we must do a lot of courting. For a recently filled director of product position, we spent four months meeting one on one with a who’s who of accomplished product managers before we invited anyone in to interview. These are fact-finding missions not only to judge potential candidates but also to get a better pulse of the talent landscape. You can’t select a great product manager if you don’t know what one looks like. Measure your candidates against the best in the industry.

Be curious and generous with information.

Related: 7 Ways to Nail Your Next Startup Job Interview

Recruiters can get very transactional in their approach.  As a recruiter, think more broadly about the business, considering that the true value you add is a kind of career-coaching role, whether the relationship ends up with a successful hire or not. Be a resource to professionals you meet, and you will be pleasantly surprised how that relationship evolves. When you can be generous with your time and the information you know about opportunities or how to negotiate a salary, you’re giving back to the community. From generosity blooms strong relationships, which is the most rewarding part of the job.

Make the interview an “experience” not a “process.”

Once you’ve repeatedly met someone who may be a good fit for your company, it’s time to invite them to meet the rest of the team. Make it an event, not a procedure. When you talk to your friends and family, you don’t talk about process, you talk about something you “experienced.” This elicits emotions and feelings. So as a recruiting team we ask ourselves: What do we want our candidates to walk away with?

Know what you want to get out of your interview.

We have all made the mistake of going into an interview with a few minutes to prepare. When meeting a candidate, your first thought might be to go through her work history, her strengths and what she’s looking for in her career. That’s very surface-level and likely already has been captured by your recruiter. What you want her to know – and what you’re trying to gauge – is how she can impact and contribute to the company. You also want to convey how she’ll be supported in her role and what success could look like here. Have candidates meet a variety of people from the company, not just an immediate supervisor or direct reports. Candidates appreciate an environment that exudes high collaboration.

Mentor unsuccessful candidates.

Personally call and update candidates on the status of the hiring: don’t leave it for email. If it’s disappointing news, be generous with feedback if they want it. Look at it as a kind of coaching role, telling them honestly what the company liked about them and what skills they might want to develop further. An unsuccessful experience now could help steer the candidate’s professional development to greater success down the line, whether it’s with your company or not. Failures today set the stage for wins down the line – in this way, you’re not the bearer of bad news but may be opening doors in the future.

Related: The Law of Attraction: Finding the Perfect Hire for Your Company



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