Startup Hiring: Find the Best Talent Using This Predictive Process

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
June 22, 2021
min read

Your first few hires matter… so make them count

FACT: Top 1% employees are 25x more productive

When you’re a small team with big ambitions, these are the people you need to hire.

Below, we’ll show you how to take the guesswork out of startup hiring to find the very best talent on the market.

If you want to attract and retain standout talent over your competitors, then you’ve got to set your hiring process apart...

Turn your job description into a science

Make sure you’re selling your jobs

Want to source the best talent on the market?

Then you’ll have to make sure your jobs are appealing to your target audience.

When marketing products, retailers sell the ‘lifestyle’ associated with them.

And advertising jobs should be no different.

When writing a job description, make sure it covers:

  • The lifestyle that person will be living (location, area etc)
  • The impact the candidate will have - a key thing to consider when it comes to startup hiring
  • The salary that roles pays
  • The company culture 
  • All the extra benefits that come with the role

Don’t turn off talent - make sure your job descriptions are inclusive 

We know that time is precious in the early stages of a startup.

However, you’ll still need to cast a wide net if you want to catch the best talent.

Small, unintentional slip ups can deter large swathes of the market.

Listing too many requirements for example can put women off applying.

Research has shown that generally speaking, women tend not to apply for roles unless they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men who will apply meet only 60% of the requirements.

This is why we recommend keeping below 10 requirements.

Whilst some people will see them as nice-to-haves, others will view them as strict rules.

As the survey below shows, it’s not that people think they wouldn't be able to do the job.

They don’t think they’ll be hired at all if they don’t meet the requirements.

Job advert survey

It’s not just requirements you need to be wary of.

The words you use in your job descriptions could also dictate who applies.

Excessive use of masculine language will also put women off applying - one study found that women were 50% less likely to consider roles that have a coded gender bias.

Some of the most commonly used masculine-coded terms include:

  1. Lead
  2. Analyse
  3. Competitive
  4. Active
  5. Confident

If you want the best possible talent pool to hire from, you’ll want to avoid using these terms in your job descriptions.

The easiest way to do this is using a Job Description Tool - which we built specifically for crafting high-converting, inclusive job descriptions.

Aim for either neutral or feminine-coded job descriptions to attract an even gender split.

Won’t men be put off by feminine language? The short answer is no. Feminine-coded language doesn’t deter men in the same way.

Gender coding effect on diversity

Step 2: Only use predictive assessments to screen candidates

Put the CVs aside - they aren’t telling you as much as you think

Traditionally, startups are even more reliant on CVs than your average company, since founders want to be sure they’re hiring someone who can ‘hit the ground running’.

When time is of the essence and you’re growing rapidly, a bad hire could be disastrous. Most hiring guides will tell you that the best practice is to look for specific education, experience or a combination of the two…

This is wrong.

50+ years of research tells us that education and experience are simply not predictive of real-life ability.
Predictive validity of hiring methods

There’s a reason why organizations hiring using our CV-less process tend to see a 96% retention rate after one year - because they’re not using flawed signifiers like education and experience.

Instead, we use work samples, the most predictive form of assessment there is.

Use work samples to spot genuine talent

Work samples are hypothetical tasks/questions designed to simulate the job itself.

Instead of attempting to decipher whether or not a candidate could manage a task based on their background, work samples simply get candidates to perform the task.

True, experience would help candidates give the best possible answer, but work samples test for skills upfront rather than making assumptions based on background.

Education and experience are only valuable if they forge skills.

So, why not just test for these skills instead of guessing at them based on proxies?

How to create work sample questions:

  1. Take the role you’re hiring for and break it down into the essential skills a candidate would need to succeed.
  2. Think of a situation that would test one or two of these skills, should the candidate get the job.
  3. Ask candidates what they would do in that situation or simply get candidates to work through a mini case study e.g. drafting a sales email or prioritising tasks.
  4. Repeat to create 3-5 work samples.

Here’s an example of a work sample for a sales-based role:

Question: You have received a lead from the Marketing Department. They have arranged an initial introductory call for you which will last about 30 minutes. How would structure the call and what would success look like? What would you do to follow up afterwards?

Skills tested: Organization, Prospecting

If your work samples accurately reflect the tasks that would actually present themselves in role, then you’re likely to end up hiring someone with experience in their field.

Work samples may seem like a more risky way of assessing people, especially if you need them to make a difference from the jump.

But in reality, they’re more predictive (and therefore a safer bet) than using CVs.

You’re unlikely to hire someone who isn’t fit for the job if you have them perform parts of the job first.

A note on anonymization 

Whilst we advocate for anonymous hiring here at Applied, we also realize that startup hiring has its own unique challenges.

If you’re just getting your idea off the ground, you’ll be working in close proximity to your first few hires.

So, although diversity is both ethical and profitable, this may not be your first priority at the moment.

That being said, when you remove all of the biases that distort our perception of candidates, this is when the best talent is found.

Unconscious bias acts like ‘noise’ that makes it hard to remain objective.

Once we anonymize the process and remove this noise, we’re able to get a clearer understanding of someone’s skills - especially when combined with the work samples above.

Add structure to your interviews

Make every interview count

Interviews are an opportunity to see how candidates think and work through tasks in real-time.

Most startup hiring processes tend to devolve into informal chats and meet-the-founder type interviews once past the screening stage.

This isn’t how you find the best people to grow your startup.

If your interview doesn’t test skills, then it's likely more about bias than ability.

The most empirical form of interviews are structured interviews

This means asking all candidates the same questions in the same order, and generally steering clear of questions about background, interests etc.

Just like with the screening work samples above, your interview questions should be testing directly for skills by getting candidates to think as if they were already in the job.

Here are a few of the question types you can use:

Work samples: hypothetical scenarios or tasks.

Case studies: give candidates the context around a bigger task/project and then ask them a series of follow up questions to test how they understand the task and what their plan of attack would be.

Role playing tasks: if there are parts of the job that can be simulated, then ask candidates to role play them (e.g. client call/meeting, presentation).

Swap culture fit for mission/values alignment

Culture fit tests are commonplace in startup hiring, but is this really the most effective means of hiring someone aligned with your mission?

Having rapport may be more of a factor in a 5 person startup than it is in a huge corporation…

However, culture fit interview questions are often just a pure assessment of how similar a candidate is to you.

Sure, you’d want to know you can enjoy after work drinks with your first few hires, but what really matters is mission and values alignment - do these people care as much about your mission as you do and do they agree on how to get there?

This is how you ensure candidates are dedicated to the cause, not by inviting them for drinks.

You can test mission/values alignment with one or two interview questions.

This can be as simple as asking why they chose your startup and where they see their career heading.

And by using work simulation-style interview questions, you’ll already have an idea of how candidates would think and work should they get the job.

Use data to prove you’re hiring the best people

Score candidates against criteria 

Startups are about making every penny spent count and being ruthless about ROI…

But traditional hiring operates without any measure of this.

You have no means of quantifying how well suited a candidate is - and so measuring ROI is impossible.

To introduce data into your startup hiring, you’ll first have to collect it.

For each of your work samples and interview questions, you’ll need a scoring system.

The easiest way to do this is via a basic 1-5 star scale, so that at the end of the process, each candidate will have a number score.

If you’re going to be involving other team members in the applicant tracking and hiring process (which you should if your startup is large enough), then we recommend creating review guides for each question.

This can be as simple as a few bullet points detailing what a good, mediocre and bad answer might include.

Review guide

Use your data to maximise spending

Scoring candidates not only makes decisions easier, but it also enables you to track the effectiveness of your process.

If you can objectively identify  the best talent, you can look back at your sourcing to see where these candidates came from.

Chances are, some job boards will be bringing you better quality candidates than others.

The same can be said for your assessment stages.

If candidates generally tend to do well or poorly on a particular question, then that's a sign that it’s not helping narrow the pool.

Conclusion: ignoring your gut results in better hires

Even if it may feel like taking a stab in the dark, we have enough research to know that your typical, gut-driven hiring process doesn’t find the best talent.

The more you focus on skills over background during the applicant screening process, the more predictive your hiring process will be.

When you're growing rapidly and every hire counts, using the process above will allow you to prove you’re making the best hiring decisions. 

Scaling Fast Guide

Applied is the essential recruitment platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymised applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

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