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Recruiting for early stage companies

Neon River’s Peter Franks on recruiting for early stage companies:

I’ve always enjoyed recruiting for early stage companies and it’s a key specialism of ours at Neon River. I suspect that most headhunters would agree that the most fun part of a headhunting process is usually when you are persuading candidates that there is a better opportunity elsewhere. This is the very core of executive search. If you can persuade the best candidates that there is a better opportunity elsewhere, then you are halfway to becoming a great headhunter.Working with early stage companies is an excellent way to sharpen this skill. When you work with this sort of client, you know that 95%+ of the candidates you speak to will not have heard of the client. It is a blank canvas, and the most important thing is to tell a story about the business. You must be aware of all the salient facts – the product, management team, investors, culture and strategy. You need to know the dimensions of the role and crucially how to position it effectively with different audiences. It’s important to have these facts at hand, because you never know what someone might ask.

Most importantly of all, however, you need to weave all these disparate facts into a coherent narrative. You must tell a story that is both interesting and compelling. When you work with early stage technology businesses – it is crucial to describe the product in a way that makes sense with the experience of an everyday person.

Factually describing a new consumer healthcare app is one thing, but if you can place it in a broader context of increased demand for healthcare it will be a much more effective pitch. You could mention the opportunity for mobile technology to improve the delivery of healthcare services. You could research and quote market research data that predicts growth of the sector, You can talk about the investors and their track record of growing successful companies. Perhaps you could talk about the visions of the founders and the future product strategy. You must tell a story, and build a persuasive case for your client.

Working with early stage companies often entails working with founders. If you are finding an engineering leader, for example, it might well be to complement a founder CTO. It’s vital to understand them and not just their business. Most founders have a strong view on the culture and values their business should have, and you need to make sure that the cultural fit of any candidates you put forward is strong. If you are hiring a CMO for a founder you need to find the right nuance and blend of brand and performance marketing skills. Recruiters have to categorise candidates by nature (otherwise there is no way to make sense of all the information) but you must avoid falling into the trap of not spending enough time really understanding the founder. You might think that your shortlist full of Google, Facebook and Spotify candidates is exemplary – but you might be missing that important dimension.

Sometimes, you need to guide founders a little too. This is where sector specialism helps. They may well have not hired someone in this function at this level before, and you need to be their expert advisor. It’s important to set their expectations as early as possible (ideally before you start the project) in terms of what is realistic in the market. Your pre-Series A start-up might want a CTO from the West Coast but they likely can’t afford one. You might want someone who is 50% branding and 50% performance marketing, but it doesn’t really work that way. You’ve got to be prepared to listen a lot, and sometimes to lead.