How Startups Can Beat Big Companies for the Best Talent

Aja Frost
Aja Frost


You think you’ve found your perfect hire. She’s uber-talented, has an awesome personality, and seems genuinely passionate about your startup’s mission.

At the end of a great interview, you ask casually, “So, who else are you considering?”

She responds, “Google, Airbnb, Facebook, and Slack.”

Well, you think, it was fun getting to know her.

But not so fast. Even if you’re competing against the likes of Google and Facebook, you can still win the best talent. After all, you can offer something these major organizations can’t: a highly personalized candidate experience that will give people a true sense of your culture and team.

Step 1: Write a Kick-A** Job Description

Most job descriptions are boring, generic, and long. That actually plays in your favor: if you write an exciting, engaging one, it’ll easily stand out.

Before you write a single word, you’ll need to swap mindsets. You’re probably thinking, “How can this hire add to my company?” However, the candidate is coming at it from the opposite angle: “How can this company drive my success?”

Write the job description in response to that question. Instead of saying, “This person will do X, Y, and Z to help us accomplish A, B, and C,” you’d say something along the lines of, “This person will own projects X, Y, and Z, giving them the chance to accomplish A, B, and C.” It’s a fairly subtle shift, but it makes a huge difference.

Timely has done a good job making its job description about the candidate, rather than the employer:

Timely job description

In addition, make sure your job description is not a wishlist. Companies often throw way too many required and preferred qualifications into their job descriptions in the hopes that they’ll get someone who meets, say, 75% of the criteria.

However, many people (especially women) don’t apply unless they’re 100% qualified—so unless you want to dramatically shrink your application pool (and miss out on some great fits), try to include only your deal-breakers.

Step 2: Don’t Leave Your Applicants Hanging

It’s easy to forget when you’re on the other side of the table, but looking for a job is insanely stressful. So, anything you do to put your applicants at ease will improve their experience.

Writing a cheery message acknowledging you got their application is one of the simplest ways to calm their nerves. Let them know when they should expect a follow-up (and don’t commit to a deadline you can’t meet).

For example, you could write:

Hey (name),

Thanks so much for applying to the (job title) role—we’re pumped to review your application! We spend a lot of time looking at each one we get, which means you probably won’t hear from us for a week or two. But we promise you will hear back: we respond to everyone.


(Your name) and the rest of the (company) folks

This email will immediately distinguish your company from the ones who send stuffy, automated emails—not to mention the companies who don’t send emails at all.

Step 3: Give Your Candidates Options

Once you’ve identified the candidates you’re interested in, the next step is typically setting up a short phone or video screening. Many companies will tell the candidate, “Congratulations! We want to move forward with your application. Are you available for a phone call on Friday at 10 A.M.?”

However, you can win major points by being a bit more flexible, like so:

Hi (name),

Woohoo, we loved reading your application and learning about (your passion for UI, your experience with virtual reality, your former role as a consultant). Are you free on Friday at 10 A.M.? If not, what about Monday between noon and 2 P.M., or anytime on Tuesday? Let us know—we can’t wait to (virtually) meet you!

(Your name)

Not only do you provide a couple of options (which is huge for many candidates, who feel pressured to accept whatever time the hiring manager suggests), but in the first line, you prove you actually read their cover letter. This small detail has a disproportionately large impact on your applicant’s impression of you.

Also, if you can, opt for a video call. Studies show that first impressions tend to be far worse when you can’t see someone’s face.

Step 4: Make Interviews Feel Fluid and Fun

Every time you run an interview, your number one goal should be creating a conversation. Ideally, candidates will feel relatively relaxed and open—the exact opposite of the standard “interview” mode. You’ll get more honest answers; plus, you’ll create a genuine connection with the applicant.

So, how do you make interviewees feel at ease? By avoiding all the standard questions: what’s your biggest weakness, why do you want this job, what makes you a good fit for our company, and so on.

Instead, try to introduce questions as naturally as possible, as though you’re speaking with a friend. For example, if you’re looking for a marketing manager, you might ask, “When you notice an email campaign is performing worse than average, where do you typically begin? Sometimes I struggle to isolate which element I should focus on first.”

By adding that personal detail to the end, you’d show them it’s okay to be a little vulnerable—and that this is a discussion between equals.

You should give candidates the opportunity to discuss what they’re passionate about, as well. Talking about what they love always puts people in a good mood (and bonus, you’ll get valuable insights into their personality.)

Try saying, “On a typical Saturday afternoon, what are you probably doing? I’ll go first: I actually collect old radios, so I’m usually at a flea market or random antique shop.”

Again, notice how adding just one sentence about you makes the interaction feel more genuine and laid-back.

Step 5: Assign Meaningful Test Projects

You should always ask people to complete a test project (also called a skills assessment, sample test, or trial project). There’s no better way to gauge the quality of their work, how their process works, and whether or not they can do well under pressure.

But you won’t learn any of that if your test project isn’t meaningful. Even worse, if candidates feel like you’re wasting their time, they won’t be happy.

So, what does a meaningful assessment look like? First, it should require one or more of the core competencies needed for the position.

To give you an idea, if you’re hiring an SDR, you could give your candidate a list of five prospects, ask her to pre-qualify and prioritize them, then have her actually call one. This task will give you a clear idea of how she’ll perform in the SDR role.

A non-meaningful project, on the other hand, might be asking that applicant to give you a demo or write an email to a prospect who vanished after the negotiation call. She won’t be doing either, so don’t test her on those things.

Also in the “non-meaningful” category: personality tests, emotional intelligence tests, and “integrity” tests. Research shows these types of assessments are the least effective when it comes to figuring out if someone is a good hire. They’re usually inaccurate and inconclusive—and they’re also easy for the test-taker to manipulate. The bottom line is you shouldn’t use them.

When you ask candidates to complete test projects, recognize they’re probably fitting them in around work or school. With that in mind, consider giving them warning (for instance, “The next stage of the interview process will be a short project”) and asking when they’d like to complete it (“We can send you the assignment on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday—what’s best for you?”).

Don’t ask for anything that’ll take more than three hours to complete. Furthermore, if you’re planning on using the applicant’s work (maybe you’re asking them to design a graphic for your Facebook page or write a post for your blog), you should pay them. You’ll show them you appreciate their talent, time, and energy—which implies great things about how they’d be treated once they accepted your job offer.

Step 6: Write an Amazing Offer Letter

Remember that perfect hire—the one who was choosing between you, Google, Airbnb, Facebook, and Slack?

If you’ve been following these steps, she’ll probably be feeling pretty great about your startup. You’ve been friendly, open, flexible, and human. Even though you don’t have the reputation or enticing perks of those other companies, the right candidate will care more about your culture and how you treat people.

To really emphasize what you can offer that larger organizations cannot, pour your heart into the offer letter. Instead of the standard spiel (“We’re pleased to offer you X position with Y company, with the following terms…”), write something personal and real.

For instance, you could begin by explaining why you’re so excited about bringing them on-board, how you plan on fostering their growth, and what role you see them playing in your company’s growth. After that, add the legal details. (Alternatively, you could write the personal message in the body of your email and attach a standard agreement for them to sign.)

This touch will undoubtedly blow the person away. It might even be the final factor that persuades them to accept.

This advice ultimately comes down to one simple principle: treat your applicants like people, not resumes. You’ll impress each and every person you meet, giving you the chance to recruit far more competitively than your size would imply.