How to Recruit Superstar Employees

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under culture founders hiring

Mark Zuckerberg and his startup talent

Learn how to get the very best talent on board at your start-up with these 9 steps for recruiting top talent.

What do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and David Ogilvy have in common? They all share the philosophy that people are your most important asset.

“A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.” — Steve Jobs.
“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.” — Mark Zuckerberg.
“If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.” — David Ogilvy.

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Startups and investors pay a lot of lip service to great people and ‘world-class teams’. But an alarming number of companies have more interns and low-cost offshore contractors than they have experienced employees. So why do so many founders ignore this sage advice?

The truth behind my greatest hire

In the middle of a technical crisis, I turned to one of my investors, a prominent London-based CTO, for guidance. After listening to the issues, he immediately connected me with a local development agency that typically worked on big projects with high budgets. They proposed a short project to get me out of trouble — and that’s when I met Russ.

Russ was the senior programmer assigned to my project. He was exceptionally smart, easy to work with, and we quickly built a great working relationship. I extended his project to keep him onboard.

I remember someone asking me, ‘Why don’t you just hire Russ?’

Something held me back. Wouldn’t it be bad form to poach from the agency that was helping me? Would this damage the relationship between my investor and the agency? Moreover, there was no way I could match his current salary.

So I gave an excuse and waited.

And waited.

And then, after three months of agency fees, I finally asked Russ to join my team as a late co-founder. He said, ‘Yes!’

I was left with the following question: why didn’t I just ask sooner?

Limiting beliefs

What stopped me from asking Russ sooner was the belief that he’d probably say ‘no’. Fear of rejection prevented me from even trying. And if you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

Think of your favourite tech company and ask yourself how you’d you feel asking their CTO to leave and join your startup? Would you be willing to ask, even if the odds were against you?

If you’re serious about building a truly great company, that’s essentially what you need to do. It’s your responsibility to hire the best people from the start — especially the ones that seem impossible on paper.

How to hire A+ players

To be clear, I’m not advocating a better interviewing process. I’m suggesting that you proactively find the best people in the world, the people who can make your vision a reality, and get them on board. If you have the courage to ask, you can attract people you’d never dreamed would say yes. Here are a few tips going in.

1. Raise your standards

Once you lower the bar, it sends the message that ‘anyone can get in’. When people join your company, do you want them to feel like they’re getting into Stanford University or your local YMCA?

2. Pitch the mission

Great people want to work on great projects. Selling your vision to talent is just as critical as selling it to investors. Treat both with the same care and respect.

3. Ask them what they’re looking for

The first rule of sales is to listen. If you want to influence great people, seek to understand what drives them first. What are their needs? And what are you willing to do to address those needs?

4. Acknowledge your weaknesses

Admitting weaknesses with confidence is key to the seduction process. Your candidates need to be fiercely strong in areas where you are mediocre, or you’ll be destined to micro-manage them.

5. Present your strengths

The best people are never satisfied and always want to learn more. What genuine learning and personal development opportunities can you offer them?

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6. Make it easy to say ‘yes’

A short consulting arrangement may sound like an expensive interview, but it’s a great ploy to get them emotionally involved. You can also test them out before making a full offer.

7. Offer something impossible to refuse

A+ players don’t come cheap — especially in a fiercely competitive market like tech. If money is an issue, just hire fewer people. Quality always trumps quantity.

8. Show them you can hustle

Let the candidate know that hiring them is your top priority. The ‘let’s wait and see’ approach comes off as weak (and clueless). Treat ‘no’ as a way to better understand what’s stopping them from saying ‘yes’.

9. If all else fails, get feedback

Every failure is a learning opportunity. Ask for 20 minutes of your candidate’s time to get specific feedback on why they said no. What needs do they have that you can’t meet?

What if no one says yes?

It’s crucial that you figure what’s driving the best people away from your business — and fix it fast. Don’t keep telling yourself it’s the money. If money is all you can offer, you have a poor company.

When I see a startup full of interns, I’m extra-cautious about placing a bet. As David Ogilvy might say, I’m saving my chip stack for the companies of giants.

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Originally published Mar 20, 2019, last updated Jul 26, 2023

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