Why Didn’t I Join Your Startup? And What Works In Hiring

Recruiting for early stage startups, a look into my mind to (maybe) help you find your next rock star

Original Illustration

ebruary 18th. That’s when I finally lifted myself out of the “What are you doing after graduation” purgatory. I had been interviewing with these Series A and Pre-Series A startups from coast to coast, from AI platform to esports companies, for one intensive month of start up interviews. After all the Tell-me-about-yourself’s, Where-do-you-see-yourself-in-5-years’s and Tell-me-your-proudest-accomplishment’s, I was sick of interviewing.

Every startup felt the same.

The CEO would drone on about the billion dollar regulated industry that no one dared to touch, but AIplusplus.io would be the white knight bringing innovation to the table. The CTO would rant about how Privileged.gg’s engineers had practically singlehandedly built Facebook’s graph database to be able to handle 10TB I/O every nanosecond.

In all these conversations, I took notes, googled industry reports, and researched competitors at a ferocious rate. However, when it came down to making the leap to choose a company, I felt there was so much more at stake. For what would I be willing to stake my next year, leave behind friends and family, and sacrifice work-life balance?

It’s not that demonstrating technical expertise, serial entrepreneurship, product market fit, or a convincing 6 month plan wasn’t important, but rather that every company checked those boxes. I wasn’t making a decision between a good choice and a bad choice, but between choices that were all amazing.

Then for you, the-next-$1B-startup (this should be a reality TV show by the way), what does matter?

Share, don’t preach your vision

Something I’ve been asking myself is: If this startup were to crash and die in the next two years, where would I be? The truth is that most venture-backed startups fail. Almost 90% of Series A funded startups fail to exit. So would I still be living a fulfilled life taking less pay, more hours, and higher stress?

This comes down to do I empathize enough with, do I care enough about, do I believe enough in a dream, that might not be realized?

From this perspective, your startup, even after checking all the investor boxes, won’t be the right startup for most people. Your vision is visionary precisely because you are the only one who can see it. From your accumulated experience, family background, technical expertise, and values that shape your world, you’ve arrived to one conclusion. Not many others will be able to see and feel the same conclusion. However, your challenge in recruiting is exactly to teach others to see a world similar enough to yours.

Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

What teaching isn’t is spewing your ideology, customer testimonials, and number of backlog beta testers all over the floor. What teaching is, is taking a look at who your candidate is: who I am, what I see, what I value, and guiding me through the same storm (albeit in an abridged and accelerated manner) you once went through.

Focus not on painting your world onto someone else’s mind, but rather focus on drawing a shared world together. Equip your candidates with the tools to illustrate their own canvas in a way that collides with yours.

When your vision becomes my vision, I can see a mission worth chasing.

A Marie Kondo Principle

Perhaps this is a little disappointing, but after thinking long and hard about why I liked the places I liked, and why I made the decisions I made, there wasn’t a clear, definite set of principles that showed me what was the right choice. Absolutely, having people reassure me that I would be in the right place to grow, to be supported and welcome, to succeed and accelerate, was important. Absolutely, having people with a strong background and supportive attitude for a new engineer was key.

However, at the end of the day, I only felt one place feel right. One place gave me a simple, raw feeling that said hey, when I’m here, I feel great. One place sparked joy.

Wikipedia

I can tell you what people did, what people said, and what I saw that outlines the 6 things you have to do to recruit as a startup. However, those words would just be me telling a story to rationalize what makes me feel the way that I do. What makes me happy, what excites me, who I like — what sparks joy. Sometimes it’s impossible to explain. (Nor do I owe it anyone to do so.)

Instead, what I think that your team should aim to do (that most companies don’t), is maximize those opportunities to spark joy. Being truly dedicated to pursuing the best candidates that are a fit for you, means making your world the best fit for your candidates. Every interaction you have, not just during on-sites, is a chance for you to spark joy into your candidates’ lives. From your careers postings, emails, phone screens to technical interviews, bring your best attitudes. Bring your full attention, punctuality, energy, personality, and open-mindedness — your best you — to welcome someone into your world.

Take aways

  1. Not every candidate that is a fit for your company, your company is a fit for that candidate
  2. Aim to be the best fit by guiding your candidate to see your world, not telling them how you see it
  3. Take every interaction as an opportunity you have to show your candidates your world can be their home

Ultimately, most candidates will decide themselves that they aren’t interested, aren’t ready for the risk, or don’t share your values. But when they do come — don’t let their sparks die; ignite them.

Shout outs

I’m set for the (near) future! I couldn’t have written this without getting over hundreds of road bumps along the way though — so here’s a quick shoutout to some people who helped me get through it.

Mom + Dad, Jimmy, Valerie, Jeremy, Luk, Nate, Vishnu, Adam, Erik, Christina, Kevin, Kurt, Jesse, Melissa, Matthew, Anthony, Siyang, Raymond, and everyone else who’s been a part of my life up to today. You all rock!

Tell me what you think about this!

I’ll be writing more! I’d love to give you a little preview of what you can look out for — but honestly I don’t know. I just post as an outlet to the anonymous world. I love just imagining floating out thoughts to some random Internet nomad. If you’re still interested in following me and where my thoughts wander, feel free to follow!

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Christopher Chen

1. Tech. Maybe it's stockholm syndrome, but coding is fun. 2. People. What makes you tick? 3. China + East Asia. What freakin' cool place.