Hiring for Start-Ups: How to Attract and Keep the Best Talent


Ryan Ong



Competitive hiring is an art form. It’s like a mahjong game, with competitors picking and throwing employees into the local talent pool. And the start-up is like the player on her last 20 cents; there’s a lot of choices, but one wrong pick will knock her out of the game. In this article, I look at how entrepreneurs should handle their employees. Because with a limited budget, the “trial and error” methods of bigger firms just won’t cut it:


Why Start-Up Hiring is Different

I’d like to say hiring for start-ups is a different ball game, but it’s not even that. Hiring for start-ups, versus hiring for big companies, is like comparing Mixed Martial Arts to Golf. It’s more stressful, and one mistake will result in potentially life altering changes. Start-ups:

  • Can’t compete with big companies for talent (price wise)
  • Can’t afford the expensive database of a consultancy
  • Won’t receive hundreds of applicants
  • Require very specialized skill sets, often the sort they can’t afford

So how can a start-up attract the right people?


Start-up office, with one guy sticking his head in the door
“The building’s toilet is on the third floor. But since you’re here, want to work for us?”


1. Social Media Recruitment

You’re going to have a Facebook page and a website anyway (If you’re not, I recommend my book: Hope, and When To Lose It). These are better avenues for job postings than the local classifieds.

When someone looks at your site or Facebook page, they get a sense of your corporate culture. Your start-up may attract talent because you’re informal, avant-garde, or composed entirely of surfers (as with Billabong). Perhaps they  have a cause that’s aligned with your company’s goals (e.g. ethical trade), or they see old friends working with you.

None of this connection happens on a classified ad, or from something stuck on a campus billboard. And it’s cheap!


Man with book for a face
“Sometimes, I think you see all of us as a bunch of Facebook accounts.”


2. Offer Alternative Payments

If you’re like most start-ups, you’d have problems including half a doughnut in your pay package, let alone $5000 a month. So how are you going to attract the right talent?

You can use alternative forms of payment. Stock options are a favourite; apart from being affordable, they make employees feel like they’re in it with you. As a start-up, you also rely on employees’ personal initiative. So how about giving them limited rights on anything they create? You could also hold weekly contests, so every employee gets a chance to nab an extra $100 or so at the end of every work week.

In the end, none of this will compensate for straight up money. But it’s the gesture that counts; employees need to feel your sincerity.


Hot dogs
“We have alternative payment. Let’s just say it makes up for the lack of a health plan.”


3. Be a People Company

It’s not just about money. There are talented people out there, who will forego an extra $500 a month if you don’t work them like plough horses.

Start-ups tend to be small. When offices consist of less than 10 people, interpersonal relationships take priority. If your employees hate each other, you can expect a higher turnover rate than a World War I battalion. Conversely, if they like each other, you’d need ropes and a tractor to pull them apart.

Likewise, promote your employees’ self-improvement. If they need time off to do a degree course, then encourage and support them. Bend their work hours and project load; the end result could be an upgraded, better skilled worker. And one who’s happy to stay with you.


A big hug!
“True, I’m making you work an 84 hour week. But here’s a big hug to make you feel better!”


4. Offer Greater Flexibility

The biggest advantage of a start-up is flexibility. There are few layers of bureaucracy, and more exceptions can be made. Sometimes, that’s just what a talented worker wants.

Consider allowing work-from-home days, or impromptu off-days when it’s appropriate. Likewise, relax the work environment. Do you really need shirts and ties everyday? Must you really shut your door and force everyone to make appointments to see you? You’ll be taking on the worst traits of a big company, with none of the advantages.

By being flexible with time, you can also tap a segment of the workforce that big companies can’t: The talented web designer who needs extra time for her kids, or the expert sound engineer who can’t get up before 7 pm.


Time table
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be on time. Give or take three days.”


5. Credit Employees

Be proud of your employees, and make it apparent. When introducing your workers, don’t just drone: “Hey this is Sam, he arranges pencils and crap.”

Be enthusiastic; tell everyone that Sam “…is totally awesome with systems, and we can’t do without him”.

Your product and pay attract talent, but it’s your attitude toward them that keeps them there. Whilst big companies are reduced to corny things like “employee of the month”, you can go a lot further. If an employee helped to invent something, put their name on the packaging. Credit them on the website, and mention them in interviews.

When you’re talking to the press, or even to customers, don’t hog the limelight. Spread it around the office. The personal credit compensates for the prestige a bigger company would give.


Scary clown face
“Carl is our creepiest employee. We think he’s a successful serial killer, but he won’t say.”


Image Credits:
alexik, vlauria, _max-b, rob_rob2001, njaminjami, HUMAN&HEROBUM, zoetnet, bpsusf

Do you run a start-up or work for one? Tell us your employee perks!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.