Competing for top talent as a startup against the tech giants (and everyone else looking for the same people)

// Excerpted from People Talk Interview September 2019

When I started in recruiting I blasted out the same kind of ill-informed, presumptuous and super sales-y emails that are so common in the marketplace. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing- I didn’t understand tech so my emails didn’t make any sense and I sent them to all of the wrong people anyway. And my messages were generic.

I was a total amateur- like most of the Recruiters out there frankly. Turnover at my agency (A Fortune 500 company) was close to 90%/ year. Most people aren’t cut out for the job and most of the small percentage of people who are wouldn’t want to do it. It’s really a grind when you’re starting out- especially in the agency world. People with no tech background, almost no training and you’ve got 3-6 months to figure it out or you’re out of a job. You’ve got to have a lot of compassion for all of the new Recruiters out there- they’re giving it their best. 


Still, 90% of the Recruiting messages candidates (and companies) are getting at any time are from people who don’t know what they’re doing yet. And it should be stated that the ranks of Internal Recruiters are most often populated with those I mentioned who didn’t make it in the agency world.

The main things I had going for me is I was fortunate enough to inherit a strong midwestern work ethic and I learned somewhere along the way not to be deterred by all of the no’s, so I just sent so many bad messages that I lucked out sometimes. And if I was able to get someone on the phone I knew how to talk with them- and much more importantly how to listen. 

Malcolm Gladwell says you need to put in 10,000 hours to be an expert in something. So, 40 hours a week for about 5 years or for me I paid my dues for 50-60 hours/ week over 3 or 4 years. And I was also fortunate enough to learn from some real masters.

In the end, the fact that so many of the messages candidates get from Recruiters are irrelevant or presumptuous or overly sales or generic or all of the above is both a blessing and a curse. Candidates automatically disregard most messages unless they’re urgently trying to get somewhere. Same time it makes it a lot easier to stand out. And I believe the best way to pierce all of the noise and get through to the best candidates is just to be distinct. 

Candidate Messaging: 4 Ways to Distinguish Yourself

Everyone has their own method/ style, but here are I think four key ways to do that:

  1. Know what you are talking about
    1. Do a good intake with your Hiring Manager
    2. Get the clearest possible picture of who you’re looking for and put together a target list of exactly what you want, expanding the pool in different directions as necessary
    3. Resolve for yourself why it would be worth it for someone to consider your role and take the time to craft a compelling message
    4. Don’t hit the send button until you’ve done all of the above
  2. Speak to what matters to people
    1. If you’re talking about something people don’t care about they will tune you out
    2. If your message is succinct and on point you will grab and hold their attention
    3. It helps to talk with a lot of people like the ones you are trying to Recruit
    4. Test, iterate and template
  3. Make it personal
    1. Pick out something personal about them that shows you cared enough to read       through their profile (the vast majority won’t)
    2. I will typically take the template I wrote and add that something personal in the subject line and the first sentence since most people will be seeing only those parts of your message on their mobile as they choose whether to read on or skip over
    3. Give them a good reason to read through your message- that’s all you can hope for. If they read through your message and it fits them all the way around then they’ll probably respond.
    4. Let your personality come through. Be creative. Sourcing is tedious so find a way to       have fun with it. 
  4. Follow up
    1. As with pretty much everything, persistence pays off handsomely in recruiting. 
    2. If you’re using LinkedIn, they have a pretty handy tool for setting follow up reminders 
    3. Better yet, create automated email drip campaigns for your ideal candidates. We use Gem.
    4. Find/ use whatever system works for you

We have used these methods to connect with, create relationships with, and often times hire many of the top Engineers and Data Scientist in the world including most of the top American Kagglers, Andreas Mueller (one of the the main contributors to SKL) and Douglas Crockford (who did JSON). It’s also how I landed a 6.5 year client and helped scale their team up to 280 employees and a $1B+ valuation*.