Surviving Scale: 4 Hiring Lessons From Instacart, Affirm, And Roblox

A competitive edge—it’s what successful startups have and the rest try to find. As your company enters a rapid-growth phase, it could mean the difference between closing top talent and continuing to search.

But how do you successfully sell your vision? And harder yet: How can you compete with big-tech offers? The key is getting candidates to connect with your product.

“For the most part, you're going to be talking to people who can do the job, but are they going to be engaged?” Ragini Holloway, head of talent at fintech company Affirm, asked during AngelList’s Startup Scale Up event in September. “Are they going to understand the value that they're bringing, not only to the company, but to the consumer or the user or whoever that audience is?”

If they do, you’ve identified candidates who would be valuable to your company’s future and engaged with its vision. But recruiters and hiring managers still face the challenges of what to offer, how to close, and ways their stretched-thin team can keep moving forward. Four lessons from our panelists could help improve your startup’s talent strategy.

1. Your customer brand is not your employer brand

One of the mistakes companies make is believing because they’re attractive to customers, they’ll also attract their ideal candidates. Even the world's biggest brands sometimes need reminded that isn't the case. Tracie Brack, now head of talent at Roblox, shared a story from her time at Disney to reaffirm the point.

Her team had gone to the University of Washington to try to recruit more engineers. Because of the size of Disney's brand, they assumed they'd have no problem, but things didn't quite work out that way.

“[We were] surrounded by Google, and Facebook, and all of the people from the Valley,” she recalled. “We could not get a single student to talk to us. A few students even came by and said, ‘What is Disney doing here?’ No one knew that the hub of ESPN Fantasy Sports was in Seattle, that all of ESPN's technology was based in Seattle. We thought there would be a line out the door.”

The takeaway for Brack was clear: She needed to design an engineer-focused employer brand for Disney. Now, you see Disney advertising to engineers with images likes this:


Candidates—and especially top talent—are looking for a company that can offer more than just customers. Companies can't assume that just because they've built strong brand equity with customers, they've also done the same with prospective hires.

2. Your pitch should be customized for every candidate

A critical step in attracting top talent is knowing how to hone your pitch. Some candidates might be looking for a heartfelt story around your mission. Others could be fascinated by complex systems and what problems they can solve at your company. Often, your startup will have both, so the trick becomes anticipating the best way to position your company in each candidate conversation.

“You want to understand if the mission is even important to the candidates that you're talking to,” said Michael Case, VP of recruiting at Instacart. “For a lot of people that might not be important, it might be a factor, but compensation, work-life balance, liking the people they work with, for a lot of people those things are more important than some grandiose mission.”

Figure out what candidates want most, decide if you can offer it, and pitch them accordingly.

“One other thing we did starting two quarters ago is...for every single engineering hire, we bring in a C-level person to help close. Every single one,” Case said. “It's a lot of heavy lifting. It's a lot of their time, but they're committed to doing it. Every single hire.”

The takeaways here are important: Candidate who you feel would be valuable additions to your team need to understand the unique ways they'll be able to contribute to the comapny. And, before making a final decision, they should also have an early relationship with multiple stakeholders in your startup.

3. You shouldn’t (always) go up against Google

Most startups can’t directly compete with the Googles and Amazons of the world. They won’t have the benefits of more mature companies or the clout that comes with a well-established brand. But what you can do is start to discern when a candidate is worth the fight.

“If your mission is to hire someone from Facebook, Google, and Amazon, then you have to understand the competition in order to approach it with the angle,” explained Tracie Brack, head of talent at Roblox, a user-generated entertainment platform. One thing to consider is the candidate's level of experience in their role and career.

That means understanding new grads may not be your best target—you’ll have the entire family telling them “No, you have to go to Google,” Brack explained. But the person who can succeed in a hard-to-fill role, if approached at the right time, might just be worth the battle.

“If you have a candidate from're going to have to look at when they joined Amazon,” Brack said. “You're not going get them when they are two months away from getting the 40% vest, but you might get them when they are 18 months in.” (Amazon has a 5%, 15% and 40% vesting schedule.)

Once you identify a short list of talent and time your pitch to make sense for them, you’re left with one clear but difficult question: How do you fight for them?

“Figure out how you differentiate yourself in what you have to offer—what those companies cannot offer in their pitch,” Holloway said. “Whether it's access to the founding team, growth and mentorship opportunities, fast-track to learn how to build...I don't think that you try to go by cash and equity. You're never going to win.”

The final step comes down to endurance. If you’re trying to poach talent from a top company, you’ll need to be prepared to negotiate. The giant could counter with an offer you can’t match, and if your company hesitates at the idea of offering more, Brack suggests reminding leadership: “Do you want to counter, or do you want to spend double what you would pay to start the recruiting process over again? Is this a candidate worth fighting for?”

4. You have to ask for what you need

When it comes to recruiting for a startup, it’s important to realize you’re the expert in the room.

“Raise your hand and say what you need," Holloway said. "I didn't know that I could just say, I need X to be successful. Or can you give me access to the board? Or can I be connected to this person? There were so many resources available through the CEO and through the board that just made my job very, well, it made it easier.”

Don't wait for someone to offer you a budget or a headcount, either. If you need help and you have a good business case, go ask for it. Hiring at a startup is everyone’s job, and leadership should be there to support.

“All of us in talent and acquisition should be working for leaders and companies that believe it is the entire company's job to put talent first and foremost,” Brack said. “If you are in any role, regardless of size or team, and that's not the case, it (should inspire) a moment of self-reflection.”

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