How To Recruit For Today’s Startup

Many of our clients are staffing and recruiting firms, and because of this we have a unique perspective on the industry. So when it comes to our own hiring processes, we try to glean best practices from industry leaders, but we also try things our own way. As we iterate and refine our methods, we thought it might be interesting to share what we’ve learned.

A little background to start. InsightSquared is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but for all intents and purposes we are a Boston-based startup, and that means we are in a competitive city for hiring. Yes, the overall Massachusetts economy has slowed as of late, but the technology startup sector is red-hot. In fact, all across the country, some small/medium tech businesses have increased payroll by almost fivefold, and are having a tough time hiring quick enough. Not only are startups competing against each other, but large companies like Apple and Google have increased their workforce size by 50% in the last two years, snatching up a lot of talent. Either way, tech recruiting is an area of growth and we can tell that recruiters are acutely aware of it.

What Recruiters Should Know

On vacancies…

If you ask a tech startup whether it’s hiring, you usually get this response: “For the right candidate,” meaning that they are never done hiring. In a field where speed and talent wins, if a stellar developer even comes within the vicinity of the office, he/she will be snatched up faster than an intern can be stuffed in the server room to make space.

On interviews…

We’re over the gimmicky interview logic puzzles as many startups seem to be. Real-world coding questions are given to developers during interviews, most from actual problems we have faced in the company. Thinking on one’s feet quickly is giving way to being able to think through coding problems carefully and thoroughly.

On turnaround time…

Speed wins. We try to make a decision on a candidate within a week, oftentimes less. Being quick and responsive to candidates works, especially for really talented ones that may eventually have multiple offers on the table. As a recruiter, we know you already work fast, but startup turn around time might be faster than you think.

On activity spurts…

HR activity at startups come in batches. The people doing the interviews and decision-making are also the people running every other aspect of the company. We’ll focus on hiring intensely for a week or two at a time, then get too busy with the actually product to spend time on it. A recruiter working with startups should be aware of these cycles and strike when the iron is … not in an all-hands-on-deck product release.

On selling points…

It’s hard for anyone to compete with Google or Apple’s bottomless pockets, and that includes Exxon and the U.S. government. That’s why the culture of a startup is a big part of negotiations, as this sets us apart from the giants. Can you really own your project at large companies? How much autonomy do you get? How cutting edge is your work at a behemoth? How much upward mobility is there, and how quickly? Getting in on the ground floor of an exciting startup is a huge selling point that makes us competitive with the antitrust line-toers of the world.

Article Continues Below

On fee agreements…

We know recruiters like to advise each other, “Never send a candidate without a fee agreement in place,” but we think you may want to reconsider. The danger for a startup is to have dozens of fee agreements floating out there. That’s a lot of capital to put aside for hires. Furthermore, going back and forth on a fee agreement contract takes up precious time in the process that most startups don’t have. On the other hand, we understand the dangers on the recruiters’ side: what’s to keep a startup from taking a resume and contacting them directly?

These days, the answer is reputation. Startups have little to no clout in the industry and are very wary of a bad reputation. We’re working to get a talent base, a client base, an investor base; the risk of garnering a bad reputation with a recruiter is not one we’d take. Instead of withholding talent for a fee agreement, recruiters might want to lead with a resume of a good candidate off the bat and make clear that if we are interested, we need to work with him/her. It’s nowhere near a big a risk as you think.

Are you recruiting or hiring for a startup? What has been your experience?

To find out more about InsightSquared, visit

Robert Woo is the Marketing Manager at InsightSquared. Previously, he was mired in the SEM world both in-house (SmarterTravelMedia, Adverplex) and out (UpWordSEM). A student of viral marketing and comedy (his videos have amassed over 10 million views on YouTube, performer at ImprovBoston), his goal is to mesh these two aspects at every turn in his professional career.


3 Comments on “How To Recruit For Today’s Startup

  1. Great article Robert! You bring up a valid point that many in the startup industry face. There’s a couple of important hiring pointers startups should to focus on: having the their pitch down for any big hire, a clear and detailed job description, then making sure the interview team is consistent in what the company is hiring for.

    My company went into detail in our blog post about important hiring factors for startups:

  2. Thanks for a great write up Robert. All good points and in particular about the speed start-ups require in their hiring process. On a separate note, something to think about regarding agreements is that Massachusetts requires recruiting firms to sign an agreement stating the terms and amount of fee in advance. This may nt be true in other states -e

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *