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Hiring Fast

Chris Wilkinson

Head of Talent @ Forward Partners

Here at Forward Partners we like to see the companies that we invest in build the teams that they need rapidly. We also like to see critical hires (such as a Co-Founder or a CTO) onboarded in time for raising late seed / Series A. The timeframe for this is typically <12 months and it is tough, especially in a highly competitive talent market.

Key Takeaways

  • Building talent pools and managing talent pipelines effectively is the key to hiring the best talent fast
  • Investing in the proper tools to build your team early on is a smart move
  • Thinking about your talent needs strategically from the get go is the only way to avoid own goals later on down the line
  • Understand that as your business grows the company practices and policies will need to change to reflect that stage of growth
  • Failing to hire great talent fast will directly impact your ability to grow the business - it is the most important piece of the puzzle to get right

To do this well, entrepreneurs need to bake in scalable hiring processes for hiring fast right from the get go. Over the past three years we have built up significant pattern recognition when it comes to getting hiring right for high-growth scenarios and below we outline some of our top tips for hiring well, fast. We hope that you find them useful too.

Hiring well - fast:

When you're growing fast, you need to hire fast. A delay in filling roles, particularly in critical areas can have potentially fatal ramifications. A good example we have seen here at Forward Partners is failing to place a full-time development resource (usually a CTO) prior to starting the fundraising process. In this scenario it can mean that you raise less (if at all), increase burn through the use of 3rd parties and compromise the integrity of your product. The net effect being stifled growth or worse. So it stands to reason that anything that reduces the time-to-hire is hugely valuable. The simplest way of hiring the best talent fast is to plan for your talent needs right from the very start and to develop talent pools and pipelines accordingly.

Understand & plan for your talent needs:

Sometimes the biggest obstacles to hiring fast are the poor decisions made early on in a company's development and the lack of planning when it comes to hiring. We have seen a variety of own goals at Forward Partners - here are some of the more common ones.

  1. Giving away too much too early.

    1. Many startup founders circumvent the challenge of selling their startup to potential employees by offering up big titles to entice them in. It is not uncommon to see a first developer hire becoming a CTO; the first marketing hire coming on as a CMO; and an operations intern becoming a full time COO within weeks. The potential problem with doing this is that your business will change dramatically in a short space of time. The challenges facing a COO in a pre seed startup are a world away from those in a post series A. It’s much harder to hire in the skills you need if the role is already occupied by someone who isn't right for the position.

  2. Dogmatic ‘startup’ mentality.

    1. Refusing to flex on remuneration packages, especially if optically a new hire is to come on board with a higher salary than the founder or others in the team is common. As your business grows you will likely be faced with the need to hire in expertise rather than pure potential. We discuss this topic in more depth elsewhere in The Path Forward but being flexible isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.

    2. Lack of flexibility when it comes to ‘fit’. As you grow, your culture will change and so should your tolerance for accepting those who stray from the traditional mould.

    3. Refusing to let go of employees that no longer fit the business needs. The needs of your business will change, not everyone will adapt - being unable to let go can have much longer lasting implications.

At the heart of all of these challenges is the risk of becoming stuck as business and ultimately being unable to hire the right people quickly.

Here are some tips on how to avoid these scenarios:

  1. Know that what is necessary for an early stage startup is very different to what is necessary for a growth stage startup. Hire in a mindset and an attitude for the very early stage scenario (this can be through paid interns) and save your powder for when you need to hire in the expertise during the growth stages. It is also advisable to know when the inflection point will be for hiring in expertise over mindsets. This will allow you build a talent pool accordingly (see below)

  2. Test, iterate, learn is not only applicable to technology and product - it is the key to startup success in all functions. All too often start up founders talk about ‘getting it’ when it comes to the start-up mindset but the unicorn internet stars didn’t scale because of their ability to stay like a start-up it was because they understood the need to implement the practices and policies appropriate for each phase of growth. Constantly re evaluate your talent requirements and build your needs into a pipeline that can be called upon when needed.

Building Talent Pools & Pipelines:

Once you have identified the kind of talent that you need to hire and when it is key to start planning for the future. Having a pool of talent that is to some extent already warm (you know them and they know you) and active in a pipeline (they have displayed interest and you know roughly when they will be looking to move) is clearly a valuable asset. Furthermore, displaying strategic thinking around hiring and engaging people before a role is available shows confidence and encourages people to think of your company as ‘one to watch’ closely. The net effect of this is tough to measure but what is clear is that the companies that do this well hire faster and boost their marketing efforts through word of mouth.

However, building talent pools and pipelines can be hard, especially when you are still a small startup. The challenges we have seen startups constantly grapple with tend to be around tools, time and ownership.

  1. Tools: Many very early stage startups tend to lack the resources to pay for expensive Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) that have traditionally been clunky and ineffective at enabling startups to build the pools and pipelines that they need. As a result, excel, google spreadsheets and non-technical solutions are used.

  2. Time: Building pools and pipelines of talent takes time and the ROI of building a talent pool and generating a pipeline is hard to measure. Going back to the previous point around building a talent brand it is hard to attribute growth of your business to the time put in talking to talent in the market. As a result, time-poor startup execs tend to focus on the areas that generate direct and tangible results and ignore talent until it is a clear priority.

  3. Ownership: Building pools and pipelines requires someone to take ownership of talent. Most startup employees wear many hats and so the thought of taking on the time consuming task of talent is pushed down to the bottom of to-do lists.

So how should companies think about addressing these challenges?

  1. Understand that manual solutions do not work because they do not scale. Choose a tracking system, and be constantly looking out for new tools that can help ease the burden of managing pools and pipelines. There are some good ATS’ out there now at startup friendly prices. The three held in highest regard in a recent survey of the UK’s in house recruiters are Workable, Lever and Greenhouse.

  2. To make better use of your time  a) Plan for your talent needs (see above) and b) share the task of building pools and pipelines with the whole team.

    1. Focus your efforts on the critical roles where future growth is clear, and focus particularly on areas where you’ve either traditionally struggled to hire well in or are known to be problematic i.e. tech, performance marketing, UX.

    2. Agree with your team a methodology for managing a talent pipeline. Agree on how many rounds, who does what interview, feedback process etc and identify and empower the key stakeholders to make a final decision. Also, incentivise your employees to refer great people and make it easy for them to do so (Lever is good for this) and if possible bake it into their KPI’s.

  3. Whilst sharing the responsibility for talent with the team is a great way to reduce the time taken to build pools and pipelines you will ultimately need to make sure that talent is owned by someone in your business. To do this make sure at least one person is appraised on some KPI’s around talent. Pools and pipelines need constant attention and in startups the diffusion of responsibility can mean that they wither and die.

Useful Links:

How important is referencing?

Lever ATS

Greenhouse ATS

Workable ATS

How to build talent pools

Hiring and Culture - Sam Altman


Chris Wilkinson

Head of Talent @ Forward Partners

Chris has helped build the leadership teams for some of the world’s most innovative digital companies. Prior to Forward Partners he was a Senior Associate at the digital headhunting firm The Up Group and placed C'level executives at companies such as Skyscanner, JUST EAT, WorldRemit and Circle. Chris is passionate about disruptive businesses and is now hands-on with helping Forward Partners’ portfolio scale their businesses from a people perspective. In his spare time Chris enjoys playing jazz piano, writing sitcom scripts and drinking IPA.

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