You posted the job only yesterday afternoon.You spent hours trying to write the cleverest posting possible, but haven’t seen a single “Ruby on Rails Sensei” that you asked for. Instead, your bait attracted a different sort of animal. Enter, the external recruiter.
They are the traveling salesmen of the talent market, quick to tout the greatness of any company that pays them. At best, they combine in depth market knowledge with unparalleled hustle. At worst, they are babbling idiots who clog up your inbox and hurt your brand in the talent marketplace.
So what to do about them?
As an ex-agency recruiter, I might be a bit biased. But a great recruiter is like refined rocket fuel for your company. He or she will put you in front of amazing people, and in the process you’ll learn more and more about the market and how to interview, negotiate and close candidates yourself.
The problem is that somebody with an IQ of 80 could still buy a phone and a Linkedin Pro account, and start an “agency”. The barriers to entry are effectively zero. Dirtbags, idiots, layabouts….everybody’s a recruiter in a hot market!
Where to find and choose an external recruiter
Referral is best: like a good barber or a good real estate broker, a good recruiter is best discovered by word of mouth. Ask fellow entrepreneurs, VCs, anybody who has used one in the past.
Flip the funnel: has somebody tried to recruit you? If so, what did they send you? How did they sell the opportunity? And most importantly, would you be comfortable having that same recruiter email a potential developer with a similar email but representing you?
Look for signs of long term partnership: most recruiters can’t see beyond the next dollar. Look for recruiters who participate in the community other ways. Do they have a blog (not a shitty one), hold events (not obvious recruiting ones), and generally have a voice in the space? If so, that is good. Its also very rare.
Questions to ask a recruiter on the first meeting
I have done more client meetings than I can remember, and most of them are pretty pointless. You’ll find that a lot of meetings with recruiters have this bullshit air to them. There is not product to show, no platform to demo, just a guy saying “I’m the best in the business” without much to back it up.
Cut through the crap with these questions:
Can you give me 2 or 3 ways that you source talent?
Find out if they spend their time trolling job boards, or do they go out and approach employed candidates. The latter is better.
What’s a good place to recruit out of right now.
Gauge their knowledge of the startup landscape
What tools do you use?
Find out if they hustle and go out and find people, or just use monster.com
What’s a success story of yours?
Go beyond the simple “I am awesome” talk that you will hear from a recruiter
Can I talk to somebody about that?
Make them put their money where their mouth is
Beware of using too many recruiters
Its tempting to just say: “I’ll open my jobs to everybody, in any case I’ll only pay if we place somebody.”
Fast forward a couple of weeks and a superstar developer is getting cold called by somebody who sounds like they’re operating out of a special ed school in Bangladesh, trying to sell him on YOUR startup.
Fast forward a month or so, and the whole tech community hates you.
That’s not good. Not good at all.
Solution: do a test period and give one role to each recruiter. If you have one very urgent role, you can assign the same role to 2 or 3. But basically don’t whore out your job search. You’re a more respectable startup than that.
Identify a good one, and become her best friend.
Too often startups and clients in general treat an external recruiter with dismissiveness, sort of like a necessary evil that they just have to deal with. They will do this even after the recruiter has placed game changing employees in their company.
To those companies I say: You are fools and you shall die with a whimper!
I mean come on. If you have a web startup, the ONLY thing that matters is your people. You should treat a good external recruiter like KFC treats their best chicken supplier, like Kim Jung Un treats his best missile supplier, like….OK you get the idea
Take her to the company outings, send her schwag. Be the first to offer her a referral or recommendation. Send exclusive business her way. Pay her well and on time. She’s so used to being treated badly that she’ll love it, and probably help you even more.
Be a proactive client
Once you’ve found a few quality recruiters, your work is not over. Don’t just sit there and wait for resumes! Help a recruiter out! You guys are on the same team after all.
Ask to go to the agency to pitch: most recruiters probably have a really vague idea of what your startup does, and probably lukewarm enthusiasm. You can change that by simply going in and pitching them. They’ll love it. Nobody does it. Also, you can find out what sort of objections candidates are putting up when your startup is mentioned. Overall, a great use of time.
Offer promotions to recruiters: You know what gets recruiters excited? Cash money! Offer a 25% fee just for the month of June instead of the usual 20%. Or maybe an incentive for a difficult role. Nothing is stopping you from being salesy with them.
Give them free stuff: give them free access to your stuff. Free subscriptions, free access to your content, whatever it is. They will love you and pitch you even better since they now have personal experience with your startup.
Give them real feedback: This is a real pet peeve of mine. If the only thing feedback you have is “pass”, how the hell am I supposed to find a better candidate next time? So, make an effort here please – a few bullet points will do.
Don’t give lowball offers: This is another massive pet peeve. Nobody wants to work with a cheap motherf*****. We want to close deals here. If you do this, expect recruiters to stop sending you good candidates (or inflate their salaries – see below). Also, expect other recruiters to know about your evil ways. We talk a lot.
Typical Recruiter Shenanigans and how to prevent them
Even if things are rosy, you might find that recruiters will slip into some bad habits. Its their inner car salesman, what can I say! Anyway, here are some things that you can do to prevent these things from happening.
Poaching your own staff: this one is great. A recruiter will poach your talent and then fill the role once your employee is gone. Its like running a bath with the drain unplugged, except that you have to pay them tens of thousands of bucks every single time.
Solution: Focus on retention. If you treat your employees right, no recruiter will be able to touch them.
Cheeky Solution: create a fake LinkedIn profile. Make him a software engineer in your company, from a great school, and leave him a glowing recommendation. Have all the inmails fowarded to you. Here’s a fake profile for inspiration.
Note: I would not necessarily stop working with a recruiter if he does this. If you haven’t given him any business in awhile, its understandable. Don’t hate the player….hate the game.
Inflating the salary of a candidate: the economics of recrutiting incentivize salary inflation. Hey, 20% of 150K is a hell of a lot better than 20% of 100K.
Solution: Ask the candidate directly during the first interview. The candidate won’t know that the recruiter is providing his salary info necesarrily, and people are open enough in the beginning of the process to disclose that info.
Cheeky Solution: create an official looking form that you ask all candidates to fill out. Include “Salary Information” in said form.
“Opportunistically” sending you candidates which you would have to pay them for: you might get an email saying “Hey, I know you aren’t really looking for this role but I’ve got an awesome guy you ought to meet.” Now they own the candidate, and even if you were to hire them down the road you would have to pay.
Solution: telling them “no opportunistic sends” (until they become a trustworthy partner.)
Cheeky Solution: write a clause in the contract mentioning this.
Follow these principles, and you can have a mutually profitable recruiting relationship with minimal frustration.