For startups like us (Series A; 11-20 people) it’s a tough climate for startup hiring. We’re hearing other founders and top recruiters quote half-year+ timeframes for hiring for many roles.
That’s forced us to get creative. At this point we think the “standard” way many early startups hire actually makes it harder to build a high-performing, diverse team. Candidates with unique, valuable experiences often fall through the cracks of a standardized interview process.
Dominant thinking around hiring for early stage startups: use a linear process, leaning on standardized loops to get consistent results and reduce bias.
In other words: match the tried-and-true processes of bigger tech companies. The intentions of this approach are great, but we think there’s a better way for early-stage startups to hire stronger, more diverse talent. We call it objective-based recruiting.
First: why the standard process makes hiring harder for early-stage startups
1. Standardized loops screen for weakness instead of creating opportunities to highlight diverse strengths.
Though standardized interview loops help calibrate the hiring panel and reduce bias, they tend to be overly focused on mitigating risk. They get signal the same way for every candidate, and focus on flagging any significant weaknesses.
To state the obvious, diverse candidates show their strengths in diverse ways. If we assess everyone the same way, we might overlook candidates who have different strengths from us. We risk building a monoculture of people who solve problems in the way we already do.
Example: a mobile engineer who has worked as a developer for a large/older non-tech company doesn’t have experience working with “standard” toolchains (like Github) but has deep knowledge in the mobile platform. Their weakness in existing toolchains might mean they get knocked out of an interview process, despite the ability to provide your startup with massive value.
2. A cookie cutter process = higher drop-off and lower offer accept rates.
Startups are struggling with candidates declining offers or even accepting competing offers mid-process. If a process is optimized to find a cookie cutter candidate, a candidate might not feel like their unique abilities are needed. They won’t see how their work will have a big impact on the team—the main reason they’d join an early stage startup over a larger company.
Example: A senior engineer who wants to join an early stage company, specifically because they have specialized experience around solving for a type of user the startup builds for. With a standardized process, the engineer’s relevant experience may not come up.
Sometimes candidates also drop off because a standard loop doesn’t fit in with their life or where they are in their job search.
Example: A strong candidate who is a recent parent returning from parental leave. They might drop out because they don’t have time to complete a take-home project, despite being highly qualified.
3. The standardized process under-leverages the expertise of the best candidates, and leaves you no room to be surprised.
When hiring for a specialist role or a new function we’re unfamiliar with, the standard process has us predicting which precise role is needed and how to assess candidates for it. If we’re wrong, we can end up with the wrong person for the business problem.
This under-leverages candidates, who know their fields and competencies best. On the other hand, if we have a collaborative conversation about the best way to solve our business problems, and whether the candidate wants and is able to do that role, we’re more likely to make a successful hire.
Example: A team of systems engineers needs to hire a web developer to build a frontend for their app. Instead of hiring for someone with a spike in UI, they will naturally bias toward hiring another engineer with strong systems ability, just one that has some familiarity with web tech, instead of a design-oriented engineer that may not know the right “systems” jargon.
Business objectives and candidates are constantly in flux, but rest of the hiring process is rigid. Why not flex it to everyone’s needs? Ultimately, the only thing that matters is finding candidates who want to help us achieve our objectives, and have the skills to match.
An idea: Objective-based recruiting
We’ve collected a number of ways to flex our hiring process. Some are home-grown, and most we learned from other folks. They all fall under the principle of “Objective-based recruiting.”
Objective-based recruiting in a nutshell: Lead with a focus on business objectives, then flex the interview process to gain conviction candidates can solve those objectives.
This approach ensures we don’t miss out on candidates with unique strengths, and creates a collaborative interview loop that appeals & sells to candidates in the process.
One way of visualizing this is that a traditional hiring process is a sequence of decisions made linearly to build a filter. Then, source candidates until they pass the filter. Objective-based recruiting suggests the only fixed input is the business objective. Everything else is constantly revisited.
A step-by-step guide to objective-based recruiting
Prep and sourcing
🆕 When you decide to open a role: Start by writing a “New Role Objectives” doc that explains why you need to hire someone and what you hope they’ll accomplish (focus on the what, not the how). Plan to share this doc with prospective candidates.
[Normal step] Draft the role. Lead with the business objectives and why those are important. Have an absolute minimum set of “requirements” and “nice to haves”. Keep an open mind towards flexing even on this minimum set for a candidate with unexpected strengths.
[Normal step] Draft your default interview process. You’ll use this default loop for the majority of candidates. But those times you flex will be rewarding!
[Normal step] Publish the role and source for it. Plenty has been written here, but here’s our thinking on improving your pipeline for diverse talent.
🆕 Discuss business objectives with candidate in your first phone screen. If you decide to move forward, share your “New Role Objectives” doc after call.
🆕 Have a collaborative conversation about the role, hiring process, and best way to showcase the candidate’s strengths early on. Candidates may have feedback on the role and how they want to bring something different than what you were thinking to the table. Next, ask the candidate what strengths they want to make sure come across in the hiring process given the role. Share the hiring process and discuss adjustments to best highlight those strengths.
Example Candidate A: Specialized Senior Dev.
Adjustment: Consider replacing the coding exercise with a detailed tech talk for the team explaining how the architecture for a system they once built works. Have them answer questions about it.
Example Candidate B: Bootcamp grad with customer success experience.
Adjustment: Customize the project around turning customer demands into a technical spec and building parts of it. This could reveal technical strengths beyond pure code.
Example Candidate C: A talented ESL developer.
Adjustment: A take-home project where they can prepare ahead of time, to help them show off their skills during an interview.
Example Candidate D: Longtime Indie dev.
Adjustment: Contract to hire could make more sense than an interview loop, to help them show their depth of experience in a realistic situation.
🆕 Run the process adjusted based on conversations above!
Debrief & offer
[Normal step] Debrief from interviews with the interview panel. Open by reiterating company objectives and potential role, then discuss candidate strengths and fit.
🆕 Create a custom role for (or with) the candidate. This may be the role you originally intended, or something different. The key is to think through how the candidate might have the most impact and satisfaction at your company before you proceed. Sometimes, we even do this collaboratively with the candidate.
[Normal step] Post debrief discussion with candidate. Share the vision of how the candidate and the custom role fit together to solve your business objectives.
[Normal step] Reference checks. It may be helpful to ground the conversation with the specific role you’re considering. As a bonus, this discussion often makes it back to the candidate, so emphasizing how important the role is can help close rates.
[Normal step] Offer! We like to prepare decks for “reverse-pitches” to sell Remotion to candidates.
This blog post in a single graphic
Objective-based recruiting isn’t for everyone
The biggest challenge with objective-based recruiting is scale. Standardization is helpful for large or even medium-sized companies to recruit efficiently at scale. It helps operate processes efficiently, helps train new interviewers, and more. Providing hiring managers with this high degree of latitude is also much easier when you have founders and execs directly involved with interviews.
Another major concern is interviewer calibration and bias. Structure is a helpful tool to make candidate evaluation more objective and less biased. As we open up to varied criteria and evaluation methods, candidate evaluation becomes more judgement-based. For now, we think the diversity benefits of hiring for strength, not lack of weakness outweigh the risks of bias, but this is something to keep in mind.
Finally, some of the ideas here don’t fit neatly into hiring processes and tools. Even for us, we find ourselves working around the recruiting tools we use (like Lever or Gem) as we adjust for candidates. It’s not that hard, but it is occasional effort. Rather than overhauling your entire process, our hope is that this blog post serves as a nudge in the direction of flexibility and a framework for thinking about it.
Why this makes sense for us at Remotion
For us, working remotely is all about empowering people to live and work on their own terms. We value the ability to build a team of diverse, strong talent beyond a single city. And we value kind and candid communication as the best way to get work done. Each time we flex towards agency, diversity, and transparency, we’re just following our values.
If you have comments or feedback on these ideas, or just found them interesting, please email me at charley [at] remotion.com. I’d love to chat.