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Why Recruiters are Useless for Startups


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I recently stumbled upon this excellent article by Sam Altman on how to properly hire startup employees, and it rekindled my deep hatred for recruiters and their uselessness. I have created a list of the top reasons why you should never hire one.

One thing to quickly note: Nowhere in the article did it ever mention recruiters. I am not surprised because the article revolves around the premise that FOUNDERS should be the ones responsible for the hiring.

In fact, his first point states that “the vast majority of founders don’t spend nearly enough time hiring.” He then proceeds to say:

  • “You can’t outsource this—you need to be spending time identifying people, getting potential candidates to want to work at your company, and meeting every person that comes to interview.  Keith Rabois believes the CEO/founders should interview every candidate until the company is at least 500 employees.”

With that said, let’s start breaking down some of Altman’s points:

  • “Have a mission, and don’t be surprised at how much selling you’ll have to do.”

You need a mission in order to hire well.  In addition to wanting to work with a great team, candidates need to believe in your mission.

Since recruiters are essentially paid contractors, they have very little understanding of a startup’s corporate culture or its mission. How could it be otherwise? No matter how hard recruiters might try, at the end of the day, they represent dozens of companies. You can’t realistically buy into the cultures of multiple companies, especially when you don’t work in their offices—that’s next to impossible.

It’s also incredibly disingenuous because recruiters end up sounding like used car salesmen, pitching the perfect model for you while pitching a completely different one to another would-be sucker. Having a choreographed mouthpiece makes your startup look and sound weasely—the last thing you want when trying to hire quality talent.

Founders are the heart and soul of any startup, so they understand their company’s mission inside and out. If that’s the case, why on earth would you hand over your hiring duties to someone who doesn’t understand such important things? It’s absolutely crazy when you think about it.

Always remember this: THERE IS NO ONE WHO CAN SELL THE COMPANY’S MISSION BETTER THAN THE FOUNDER(S).

  • “Liking the people you work with is pretty important to the right kind of company culture.”

Since you should only hire people you like, this leads us to another compelling reason as to why recruiters are useless. Simply put, recruiters don’t actually work within the company; they are external contractors who are disconnected with the day-to-day running of a startup.

This is why the founders must be the ones to do all the hiring because at the end of the day, the new employees work directly with them, not the recruiter.

As a founder, I want to be able to happily coexist with all future employees. I want to be able to have a beer with them after work. Or belt out a duet at the local karaoke bar.

Recruiters can only make educated guesses as to the viability of a candidate, but they will always fail to determine whether or not they are the “Cinderella fit” for the startup.

  • “Speaking of spending time, you should spend the time to learn a role before you hire for it.  If you don’t understand it, it’s very hard to get the right person.”

This is another key point.

It’s impossible for a recruiter to learn a certain role, let alone dozens of them. Why would you hire a recruiter to find employees for roles that they don’t have a single clue about?

Here is a personal story that illustrates this:

I remember when I applied for a VP of Marketing position at a cloud accounting startup. When I sent in my presentation/application, I was immediately rejected by the recruiter, who said I wasn’t the right fit.

I thought she was dead wrong, so I sent the presentation directly to the CEO of the company. The funniest thing then happened: The CEO liked my application so much that he demanded the recruiter to interview me.

When we spoke on the phone she said how much she “loved” my presentation, which, by the way, was not a traditional resume, but rather a 20 page PowerPoint slide that definitely stood out.

So what happened? Well, I clearly knew the position I was applying for better than the recruiter, so much so that the CEO himself saw things differently. At the time, I was very passionate about the company and came up with unique marketing ideas, which I included in the presentation.

The recruiter failed at her job because she just didn’t understand the position and, in this case, how marketing works. Her lack of industry knowledge in this particular field became a detriment.

Since recruiters can’t reasonably expect to know every role they are recruiting for, they focus their interviews on broad skills and credentials. Which school did you go to? What kind of degree do you have? What companies did you work for in the past?

The problem is: Most startups nowadays tend to look past those qualifications. They want engineers who can demonstrate their coding abilities on the spot. They want marketers who can come up with cool ideas even before the interview starts.

By focusing on generalities, recruiters miss out on the truly great candidates.

  • “Have people audition for roles instead of interviewing for them. This is the most important tactical piece of advice I have.  It is difficult to know what it’s like working with someone after a few interviews; it is quite easy to know what it’s like after working with them.”

Pretty much what I stated above. Recruiters use traditional interviewing methods rather than getting the candidates to demonstrate their talents, making it impossible to come to the best hiring decision.

  • “Focus on the right ways to source candidates. Basically, this boils down to ‘use your personal networks more.’  By at least a 10x margin, the best candidate sources I’ve ever seen are friends and friends of friends.”

This is the dirty secret recruiters don’t want you to know. In my experience, personal referrals have always led to the sourcing of the best candidates. Recruiters just don’t have that kind of muscle to replicate similar results.

  • “Technical recruiters are pretty bad.”

Pretty self-explanatory.

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Dita Margarita

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About the author: Jay Deng

Jay Deng is an angel investor and venture capitalist. He invested in two companies whose exits topped $800 million. He is also the CEO and founder of Diva For Less.

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