How to Recruit Talent (Stop Trying to Get Married on the First Date)

David Billstrom
10 min readNov 20, 2017


Almost by definition, every client I work with has plenty of experience finding employees, interviewing them, and hiring them.

A few might even have experience firing them, but not often (and that’s a topic for a different day). So they’ve got the minimum qualifications to recruit, right?

Um, well, not usually.

The “great” companies, whether they are publicly traded monoliths like Google, Intel, and Microsoft or tiny, svelt startups with halo venture capital backing, all share a common trait: the best talent wants to work there, and it is quite difficult to even get an interview at one of these companies, let alone a job. How did they get that way?

I counsel my clients recruiting talent to aim for this lofty goal: so many great candidates that you’re turning them away, picking and choosing among the talent pool to craft just the right mix of team members.

Very few entrepreneurial teams enjoy that kind of recruiting pool. But they can…

There are many components to creating a great team — company mission, leadership, awesome funding, great colleagues from the first day of company life, effective value system, and commercial success. There is nothing like the unmistakable smell of success. That brings in the stars.

But obviously a startup doesn’t have commercial success. And all will need to recruit before first revenue, let alone, profitability. But every other characteristic is achievable, even for a startup. How?

This is Sales

The first step is to confront in the reality of recruiting… is that this is just another form of sales.

And if you’ve been following along so far, you know that my definition of sales is “the effective influence of other people to do what you want, resulting in both you and them being quite happy with the outcome.”

We’re not trying to manipulate people here, and we’re certainly not seeking to get people to perform unnatural acts. But we are attempting to connect A with B, where both are happy.

And influencing people means work, and that means there needs to be a method.

More on the method in a moment — first, let’s also review another maxim: you have to do it. The founders are best served if they themselves do the recruiting, and do it for months, if not years into the future.

Interview any successful founder, and they will recount their successes in terms of their team members. They’ll also recount that their biggest regrets are in the employees they either didn’t recruit (because they stepped away from the method) or they didn’t recruit effectively.

But Its Not Just For Founders

If you’re not the founder, there is still reason to develop recruiting skills.

The CEO that follows the founder; the second-in-command who helps lead the organization (e.g. COO, CFO, et al.) and even the department head (e.g. VP Engineering, Director of Marketing, et al.) will enjoy their job more, and experience a more successful career, if they are excellent in recruiting.

Companies are teams of people, and in most businesses and industries, the team is the key asset.

Heck, this is true in government agencies, academia, and in non-profits.

And I’ll go one step further, whether your growth has slowed, or you are doubling in size every year, you will be happier as a leader if you have a surplus of talent available in your pool of potential employees.

Always Be Recruiting

In other words, you should always be recruiting, even when you don’t currently have an opening. Whether or not you have an open position to fill today is a detail; the key is to have a talent pool.

Look around at the leaders in business and in non-profit organizations that you admire; notice that there are always talented staff that have worked with her before? They’re always recruiting.

The Method

There are just a five simple steps to my recruiting method:

#1 Write the job description. The usual classic way; I won’t belabor the point. But here is one difference: be sure to cover what you’ll accept as truly the absolute minimum qualification, so that it’s clear where the entry point is — don’t rely on a laundry list of desirable “nice to have” attributes.

At the same time, describe what you’d like “in the ideal candidate”, and don’t be afraid to dream big.

#2 Verify the job description with your team, and especially the leadership of the team. Listen carefully to their feedback, and be prepared to discuss this job in the context of other positions, both proposed and existing.

Often the discussion of the description surfaces previously latent questions about who does what; many organizations are evolving so quickly that the written descriptions haven’t kept up with reality. This is good, a sign of growth. But…

You don’t think you have enough time for this formality? Beware — in my experience the only other alternative is that the disagreement or misunderstanding about what the candidate will actually be doing… comes out during the interview process, in front of the candidate!

At best this is distracting, and at worst it can create fear, or even disgust from the candidate’s perspective. You want great candidates, they’ll sniff this out in a second. You’ve probably experienced this yourself.

In a fast-moving, high-growth organization, you might be surprised how often this happens. It is a real turn-off for the very best candidates, so get it right before they arrive.

#3 Write an advertisement, to attract candidates — and don’t publish that job description. Make it like the personals ads that ran in weekly newspapers in the 80s. While this art form has now largely atrophied, the point was to use the fewest amount of words to attract the maximum amount of candidates for a romantic date (papers charged by the word).

This generally goes better if you set aside the job description you honed in Step #2 and start with a blank piece of paper.

What is a personals ad? It has a hook or two to attract a potential date, and it describes just a bit of yourself — but the best ones keep this very brief. And above all, it contains an effective Call To Action. Less is more.

The business version of this is designed to get candidates. Not qualified employees, but candidates. Ideally your ad is so short, so relevant, so entertaining… members of your network are happy to forward it by email along to their network (more on that in a moment).

We all know the old maxim “no resume ever got a job” (only an interview). The same principle applies to job listings.

This is an ad not a legal document that will be used 6 months from now to determine if the hired employee was successful. It is simply intended to get candidates.

Ditch the legalese… and the boilerplate.

In fact, if you detail in fine precision all the qualifications you want from the candidate, you will do a great job of attracting candidates who are obsessed with qualifications. Worse, they themselves are only impressed with companies that have lots of employees with lots of qualifications. Folks, that’s not startup material.

Let’s refine our goal: You don’t want to attract “qualified” candidates. You want to attract candidates that will perform beyond expectations and be a good fit with the team.

And publishing the job description? Way too much, too soon. It’s like handing out the answer key before the test. It’s like trying to find a spouse on the first date. Slow down, keep it light and lively.

#4 Use Your Network. Although I’m not biased against candidates that are unemployed and looking for a job (I’ve been there), in general you’d prefer candidates that aren’t really actively looking.

There are several reasons for this including: you can evaluate their recent performance, you see them in their native environment, and most importantly, you are unlikely to have to compete against other job offers, because they weren’t out collecting them.

If the candidate isn’t looking for you (because they’re employed), then you’ll have to look for them. This is easier than it sounds.

If you are a good leader, and your organization is doing interesting stuff, then I guarantee you that there are numerous people in your network who would love to have a small role in the movie called “my friend got this great job that was perfect for them.”

So after you have your ad in Step #3, then start sending it by email to selected individuals in your network.

Post it on Facebook. Put it in Linkedin.

Make it personal — so that it will be forwarded in a personal way. You want the 1:1 effect, not the broadcast method!

#5 You Do The Selection. Because your ad will be great at attracting interesting people, casting a wide net, you’ll have lots of culling to do.

This is a good thing.

You want to do the mapping of their experience to your needs — you don’t want them to do it for you, before you even get a chance to know they exist.

What I mean is that you are looking for a fit, and you know your organization best, and you know the specific challenges of the open position. An outsider and stranger would struggle to understand. So don’t let them rule you out, just because they don’t understand your team.

Cast a wide net, and look for fit, not credentials. If you get caught up in pattern-matching with traditional credentials you would miss a young Steve Jobs, young Bill Gates, and a host of other hardcore, top performers. Heck, you’d miss me.

For example, one of my clients was looking for a key employee in his new company, and understandably he listed “10 years experience as Director of Blah Blah required”. I immediately queried if he would take someone with 5 years experience if the 5 years was spent at the competing, premier company in Silicon Valley for that skill — and yes, of course he would.

Something as basic as years-of-experience is fungible. So why list it? You might miss a great candidate.

Putting It All Together

Here is a great example of a “personals ad” I saw a several years ago on an email list I was watching:

Date: Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Subject: [SeattleTech] [JOB] Technical Program Manager at {name}

To: Seattle Tech Startups <>

{name} is hiring a Technical Program Manager

If you’re interested or have questions… I’d be more than happy to answer. But here are the important things:

You’ll be working on a product that people are paying for. They pay for it, and are happy to pay for it.

You’ll be working with a solid product team. Kick-ass and fun. Also, we’ve got years of start-up experience under our belts.

Do you like Chinese food? we do.

You’ll be working for the same guy that mentored me in my first PM roles. He’s awesome, and you’ll be a better PM and probably a better person after working for him.

We have a ton of data, and perform mind-boggling complex analytics on them. Then, we have to transform that into something that is easily digestable and understandable.

Let me know if you’re interested.


Okay, let’s notice a few things in this fabulous email:

First, there are no qualifications or specifics. This is not a job description. They’re keeping their cards close about who they want, but did you even notice?

If you’re a candidate… you will see the vocabulary “Technical Program Manager” and “PM” and “complex analytics” and you’ll get it, if you’re qualified in the most general sense.

While I’ve protected their identity here with the { symbols }, in the actual email it would be trivial to go visit their site and get some basic due diligence.

I would consider leaving the identity of your company completely out, so that candidates can’t go visit your site and make a decision before making contact with you.

But alternatively, if you’re in a strong position, why not let it be known… make that due diligence possible by naming names.

Second, it is personal. He wrote it like he was talking to a buddy or maybe old college friend. So I am drawn in, but at the same time its appropriate. I could have met Adam at a conference last week.

I’m going to read this, unlike most of the job openings that show up on this list… yawn, I’m too busy. By being personal it is both accessible and differentiated from the boilerplate listings.

Third, it is specific about fit. The cultural fit will determine success in a way that academic degrees and work history rarely do. While he is not specific about job qualifications, he is specific about the culture and where their startup is in the growth path… to anyone with any kind of startup experience under their belt, he’s provided the credibility… up front… that they are “successful” with specific metrics (revenue, price points).

In other words, if I have the relevant experience… I’m probably attracted to this pragmatic, upfront, open discussion of key metrics. Bingo!

Fourth, it is a sell. “you’ll be a better PM and probably a better person after working for him” — wow. Now you couldn’t say this about every open position… or could you?

As we would say in marketing, this is an explicit benefit statement… rather than the feature listing (“experienced management team”, “learning opportunities”, “opportunity for growth”, blah blah blah).

He is making an explicit conclusion about what you would get out of this gig, connecting the dots.

Fifth, a call to action. Adam offers to take questions. Note that he’s not the hiring manager. He doesn’t say send your application in to HR. He says he’ll take questions.

I don’t know what Adam will do, but I do know when I’m in this position… the moment I answer that first question, I start asking my own questions (See the chapter on Sales as Discovery).

In other words, he’s keeping the bar low and available, and if the query isn’t from a suitable candidate, that unsuitable candidate may just know others who… are suitable.

What a priceless opportunity.

Why is this “ad” so effective? It is personal, relevant, casts a wide net, and has a hook.

This is what you want to aspire towards to collect meaningful candidates, and help build the reputation of your company. If you were a potential investor, this email alone might inspire you to take a closer look at this particular company. And current team members, investors, and stakeholders might even be inspired.

There is no downside to this approach in recruiting. It is quite literally win-win-win.

In my next piece, I’ll talk about interview methodology, the next step.