6 Winning Recruiting Strategies for Tech Startups

6 Winning Recruiting Strategies for Tech Startups

Tech startups often worry about how to compete for talent with bigger companies. Many technology giants attract software developers with generous compensation packages. It’s common to see the tech giants put forward higher salaries, enticing benefits and perks, fancy or sometimes novel (such as a treehouse) office space, sense of stability, well-defined path for advancement and seemingly endless possibilities of promotion.

What should you do if you are recruiting for a startup in the same market as these tech juggernauts? What are some strategies you can implement to attract top talent for your startup?

During this year’s Seattle Startup Week, our founder / CEO, Mei Lu, was invited to speak at the “How Startups Can Win Top Talent” panel, where she shared six winning recruiting strategies for tech startups.

1. Money is not the number one consideration for top startup talent; career is.

Based on Stack Overflow’s 2017 Developer Survey, money is the second most important factor among 64000 developers when considering a job. What is more important than money? Professional development opportunities. Startups should highlight the career growth opportunities it can offer and how the candidate’s career would look different at their startup compared to at a big company.

If a candidate puts salaries and benefits as their top priority, they are a wrong fit and don’t belong at a startup. Find the right people that will thrive in a startup environment; they value the experience they will gain at the startup more. When a startup can provide an opportunity for talent to leverage the most out of their expertise and experience while accelerating their career development, you have a very compelling recruiting message.

2. Ask the 5 whys.

How can we spot “startup people” – those who can thrive in a startup environment? It’s a two-step process. First, check the alignment of where the candidate would like to go in their career and where the startup plan to go. If heading in different directions, there is not a good fit.

Second, use the “five whys.”They help you really know your candidate, not only on the skill or qualification level, but also the emotional level.

I am interested in HealthTech and want to become an Engineering Director in five years.
Why? I want to have a bigger impact by leading a team.
Why? I believe technologies can help people become healthier and I want to amplify that.
Why? I want to help as many people and their family as possible.
Why? My brother suffered from a stroke at a surprisingly young age and it scared me.
Why? I don’t want to die early and leave my kids behind.

Finding out what really motivates them helps you see how good a fit your candidates are for your startup with clarity.

3. Get your candidates involved to level up candidate experience.

Have you ever wondered if people have heard of your startup? If so, what do they think of you, especially when you try to recruit them? If they are keen to hear about opportunities at your startup, what do they think of your job descriptions? How do candidates feel as they go through your interview process or visit your office?

Get your candidates involved. Welcome inputs from those in your candidate pipeline and those you don’t usually see in your pipeline. Get feedback on how they feel during each stage of your recruiting. Their perspective will help you improve your candidate experience and overall recruiting process.

4. Be Transparent.

Smaller companies typically don’t have as fat a benefit package as larger companies do. On the other hand, smaller companies don’t have as rigid or opaque rules as bigger companies. Startups should use this to their advantage. People appreciate transparent decision making, including how compensation is determined.

Consider making the compensation formula open and transparent across your company and to your candidates. For example, the social media company, Buffer, makes their salary formula and every employee’s salary public to the world. Here’s the formula they use –

(overall base + location base + cost of living)* role value * experience + risk = salary

When you are transparent so your candidates know where you’re coming from, the whole company is behind the same rule that applies to everyone, and there’s no “funny logic” (i.e. hidden agenda) behind the compensation decisions, they would feel more confident in joining your startup although they might not be getting the biggest paycheck possible.

5. Set proper expectations.

In startups, there are no frills. We want to hire those who believe in our startup’s vision and mission, so they will be self-driven and work hard. But, often we see people leaving startups after realizing they are not ready to work in a startup environment. Having employee turnovers is extremely costly to startups. You not only need to re-recruit, but you also have lost precious time to bring your product to market.

To avoid this, startups need to manage expectations from the very beginning. Tell your candidates your setup, what you expect of them, and what they can expect of you. Be specific and thorough when setting expectations. For example, define what you mean by “working hard” or “we’re lean” –

  • “Around here, we have very flexible hours. But a 50-60 hours week is the norm and everyone needs to be in the office 11am-3pm each day.”
  • “Everyone needs to be hands-on here. Our CTO checks in code every day and everyone does DevOps. Our CMO creates her own PowerPoint presentations and everyone writes blogs.”

Remember that, while it is costly for your startup to make a wrong hire, your candidate is also making a big, and often irreversible, life change to join you. It’s the responsible thing to do for startups to set clear expectations and specify everything upfront, rather than overselling or avoiding sensitive topics, when bringing someone onboard.

 6. Seek out and go beyond what’s familiar or convenient.

Many bigger companies only go for what they’re familiar with when it comes to recruiting. This is where startups can out-recruit the bigger companies.

Big companies, having stronger name recognition and well-known employer brands, tend to hiring from the convenient channels, such as career sites, job ads, and career fairs. They also often demand candidates with formal computer science education because it is something familiar to them and feels less risky.

Startups, however, should take a different approach. Startups need to be a lot more proactive and go beyond what’s convenient or familiar to uncover hidden gems. While it is important to look for proven background and technical skills, it can be more productive to seek out candidates who have solid foundations, show passion and potential, and have demonstrated strong work ethics, even without formal education.

Actions are louder than words. Find those who are biased towards action, value ownership and autonomy more than salaries and benefits. The right candidates are eager to apply their hard work, creative thinking, and tenacity in a startup environment.


There are many ways startups can win top talent and be successful in today’s competitive market. Startups’ unique ability to be agile and break rules that don’t make sense is also its number one asset when it comes to recruiting. When you recruit for a startup, leverage these startup spirits in your strategies to stand out and win over the right talent for your startup.


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