The Goldilocks Syndrome: Why Startups Can’t Find Employees


startup hiring

The tech/information sector supports 262,000 jobs in New York City, making it the second-biggest sector of the local economy.  Hiring is definitely on the upswing and is there a company in the city that isn’t screaming for tech help and even help in other areas?

They may be screaming, but they just don’t seem to be pulling the trigger and therein lies the rub. We come across articles all the time about how to hire your next employee, culture fit (which is more or less code for ‘no one over 30 need apply’), and on and on. And of course, everyone is looking for that one person who can do every job imaginable – to perfection. My fellow recruiter buddy David Greenwald refers to it as the Goldilocks Syndrome, and it fits. And good luck with that one.  The fact is that most startups not only don’t know how to hire: they really don’t understand the process. And they often get bad advice. When we saw Jay Deng’s piece on Why Recruiters are Useless for Startups, we realized that most startups don’t understand how to work with recruiters, how to spot a bad recruiter from a good one, how a good recruiter works, or d) all of the above.

Here are 10 things that you need to consider:

1. Recruiters have been demonized. There are those recruiters who ‘smile and dial,’ which means blanketing Linkedin or whatever medium/social network they’re using, with little or no understanding of a potential employee’s skill set. They’re looking at key words, rather than at the overall picture. That’s what many startups do as well. People have figured out how to work with keywords and someone might look great on ‘paper,’ and have all of the right qualifications. But why do they job hop every four months? Are they ADHD, consultants/freelancers, or is it that those keywords seem to get them in the door every time, but they just can’t do the job. Period.

2. Startups turn to recruiters when they’re having trouble filling a position, but… All well and good, but more often than not, many young companies figure that since they have to pay that recruiter, they need to find someone who can do two jobs in one. We kid you not: we were once asked for fill a spot for a marketing director – who would also be the lead developer and creative director. Three very different jobs commanding three very different salaries, and of course, the base salary reflected the lowest paying position. New York cab drivers can defy the laws of physics and create three lanes of traffic where two should be. A Boston-born recruiter may be able to do the same – but could not find a marketing director/lead developer/creative director. Not someone who could do all three well, or probably even adequately. Pick one, and remember, with employees as with goods: buy good or buy twice. Simple physics.

3. Internet speed. Things happen fast online, but that doesn’t mean that someone with five years of experience can do the job of someone with 15 years of experience. Things happen in cycles and someone who has been through it three times a long is much more likely to know where the landmines are. They may cost you more at the onset, but we all know how expensive mistakes tend to be. Again, buy good or buy twice.

4. Everyone is looking for good talent, so when a recruiter presents you with the perfect applicant in the first resume, it’s because that recruiter knows what he or she is doing and doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. Startups ask for several candidates. Fair enough, but when presented with a number of good candidates, the startup client often can’t decide, so they ask to see more candidates, or decide to wait. Don’t expect that that first candidate you met, whom three months earlier, to still be available.

5. Do not hire a kid out of school as your internal HR person or recruiter. Seriously, you’re going to tell us that someone who has never held a job before is going to be your gatekeeper? That’s a serious position. Hire a serious person, who knows what he or she is doing.

6. Try not to hire by committee. Not everyone is going to like every candidate who comes through the door. Fine to get consensus, but is there someone on your team who might feel threatened by the new potential hire? You might miss out on a good one. Listen, but keep your own counsel.

7. Our personal favorite: startups that post a job, then bring in candidates and ‘test’ them by asking that very seasoned candidate to work for free. They may ask them to write their five-year marketing plan, or ask the business development candidate to write their five-year expansion plan. If you think that I’m making this up, here is a true story: A friend of mine in marketing was contacted by someone, through the AngelList. Before the person even had a conversation with her, he said he was interested in her for the position, but wanted her to answer the following questions prior to their setting up a phone call to discuss the opportunity:

1. Can you quantify a few prior accomplishments that is (sic) relevant to STARTUP’S NAME? (check out our Angel List profile)
2. What actions will you take to roll out STARTUP’S NAME to a new city without prior footprint?
3. How would you describe STARTUP’S NAME to a merchant and a shopper?

Yet another one who contacted her sent a series of questions (read: asked her to write their marketing plan for free). One of the questions:

Given no budget for Marketing, what’s your promo and user acquisition strategy for the mobile roll out?  We definately (sic) see a longer term social strategy need here, after a few month we might going to be able to acquire over 100k users.

Better question: if you have no marketing budget, why are you querying a vice president of marketing with 15+ years experience? It’s ok: we know the answer. That was a trick question. And yet, not.

That’s not a test: that’s trying to get work for free. Pay for that experience. It’s called a consulting fee. Not everything is free – especially not experience. In his article, Deng suggests that you audition an applicant for a role, rather than interview them. Would you ask a mobile developer to build the product, as a ‘audition?’ Good luck with that one and give people with expertise in other disciplines the same consideration.

8. Most job descriptions we personally see that come across from startups are more or less wish lists. They want to spend as little as possible so will slip in the phrase, ‘nice to haves,’ and if you do that, remember, it doesn’t say ‘requirement.’ Either be honest about what you really want/need and compensate accordingly, or be prepared to waste a lot of time searching for someone who doesn’t really exist in either of the two known universes.

9. Hire entry level coders/programmers/marketers/whatever, too. We know that in Startupland, one has to hit the ground running. Again, we saw a statistic that one in two graduates with a computer science degree can’t find a job – or can’t get hired. (We’ve personally had that experience with a Georgia Tech grad, who participated in hackathons almost weekly – and won or placed second in every single one. There wasn’t a NY company who’d hire him, so he sent his resume to ten companies on the west coast and got six job offers). New Yorkers tend to be in such a hurry to get out and grab that pizza for lunch, that they overlook the filet mignon dinner that’s waiting for them at home. Don’t just look at what’s on your plate: consider the big picture.  And if you’re bringing on interns, offer an incentive: that there may well be a job there for them.  We do understand that not all Millenials are the same, and that there’s a reason why there is a bifurcation: GenX was followed by GenY – and GenWrecks.

10. A good – read, experienced – recruiter is also very well-connected. We do look at resumes – and then we’ll research you across the social networks. Not to find out how often you get drunk with your buddies, but rather, to see whom you know whom we might know as well. We will then contact that mutual acquaintance to see what he or she has to say about you.

And remember: you’re building a company and hiring talent, not looking for your next BFF. Choose wisely. Make a decision. We know it isn’t easy, Goldilock. Truth be told, hiring is always a bear.

Image credit: CC by berkuspic

About the author: Bonnie Halper

Bonnie Halper curates the StartupOneStop.com newsletter, which focuses on startups and entrepreneurs, and is currently being read in 50+ countries around the world.

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