A team is the number 1 asset of a startup, that’s a given, but hiring is one of the most difficult tasks for founders and managers. Here’s what we’ve learned since starting Labiotech, and the process we use for hiring today.

In January 2016, 15 months after launching the website, we closed our first financing round and were ready to hire our first full-time employees. But as first-time founders, we had no idea how to do it. We talked with our investors and mentors to gather good practice advice, and then we tried it our own way. Now after hiring a team of 15 people, we’ve learned a few useful things when hiring.

The first thing we realized is that hiring is one of the least documented/shared aspects of startups. Instead, most of us in the startup world talk about fundraising, marketing hacks, process, new fancy tools discovered on product hunt, the last series C of the unicorns, the struggle of Uber etc.

A common mistake from early stage startups is to consider HR to be less important than other aspects of the company. The consequence is that many founders start investing their time and focus on their team way too late and spend time fixing the early days mistakes before being able to create real value in their company.

In a startup, hiring is not about finding the most experienced candidate. Focusing on the cultural fit with your company makes it easier to create a strong team and retain your best employees. Obviously, this also means that you need to define well your culture to know what to look for. Our values are posted here and are printed in all the rooms of the company so we can always look at them.

Best fit, perfect fit, what is it actually we’re talking about? A perfect fit is when the person you’re hiring is perfectly aligned with your culture and has the skills to perform at maximum output rate at its position. It’s like love at first sight, you meet the person and you feel “wow, he/she is amazing, we’ll do great work together”.

The process to find that person takes time. We often underestimated the time it takes to hire the perfect fit. It’s long! On average, it takes us between 9 and 12 weeks after posting the offer to have someone start in the position, and even longer for more senior roles. It’s one mistake we often made because we needed someone fast; we tried to shorten the process and made compromises. It often lead to issues of fit/productivity/culture later on, which needed to get fixed. Better to take your time to hire.

Another difficult aspect of hiring, is that it’s very personal and hard to train. A lot of the learnings will come from “doing it”, but you can still give guidelines and advice. This is what we did recently in order to establish a more structured process for us as founders and to enable the rest of the team to hire as well.

Here are the 10 steps we use:

1. Define the job requirements (responsibilities, goals, profile needed)

Hiring actually starts long before the first interview. The better you define the profile you’re looking for and what achievements you expect from the new hire, the easier it’ll be to find the person. Having a goal system in place, such as OKRs, can make it easier to figure out the goals of the person.

2. Write and post the job offer

First impressions matters. You need to convince the best talents out there to work for you. Of course you need to describe what the job will be, but most importantly, start with why you exist as an organization, what’s the culture of the company, why will the person have fun at work every day. These are much more important than having a fancy title, more budget, or even a higher salary. And if not, it’s probably not the person you’re looking for. For us, it’s not. Once you’ve got your offer, post it on your internal blog, your newsletter, your social media platforms, and pay for job posting platforms such as Linkedin, Indeed, Stepstone etc.

Teaser: we have plans for a biotech job board, let me know if you’re interested!

3. Contact the best applicants

When you hire more and more employees and several people are involved in the hiring process, it’s so complex that you need a tool to help you. Before using a sophisticated applicant tracking system, such as Recruitee or some others, you can use multi-usage tools such as Airtable or Trello. As our company runs essentially on Trello, this is what we use and it works great. The candidate applying on our Typeform here (link), are added automatically to a Trello board through Zapier. The application is automatically added to our “Leads” list and dragged over a pipeline view where the candidate move forward with the process.

In this first step, the person in charge of the hiring of the new member has to look through the candidates, contact the ones he wants to have a first chat with and drag the card to the next step.

4. First round of interviews

The manager in charge of the hiring, performs the first round of interviews to decide if there could be a fit. Recommendations for this step include:

  • interviewing max 6 candidates
  • 30 minutes max per candidate (set a timer if needed)
  • scheduling back to back if possible to save time
  • ask a broad set of questions (culture, skills, career plans, hobbies, productivity) instead of focusing on the job itself. We drafted a list of questions that we copy inside each Trello card, for example: if you’re hired, what would you do? What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months? How do you organize your weeks? What are you passionate about?
  • taking a lot of notes, we add them directly to the Trello card

5. Discuss with your manager

Once you’ve interviewed a few candidates, create a shortlist of the best fits and summarise the chat you had with them. You have to pitch the candidates to your manager and why the candidate should make it to the second round.

6. Run a test

This is the first step of the second round. You can see a lot of things in interviewing someone but it’s hard to judge how the person actually works (mindset, skills, getting things done, prioritization). Running tests is a very efficient way to find your answers.

How to run it? You should give a real project to the candidate, one you did a few weeks ago and one you planned for the upcoming quarter. It’ll be more interesting for the candidate and will make it more relevant to you. The test is obviously position specific. Here are some examples: preparing a sales pitch with new customer X, write a 500-word article, design a marketing plan to grow our Linkedin community by X%. We usually give one week to the candidate to finish the test.

7. Check for references

There is nothing better than a previous employer/colleague to tell you how the person really behaved. We ask each candidate to provide us with 5 references and we’ll contact randomly up to 3 to have a quick chat. During the chat, look for qualitative and quantitative answers such as how much performance increase there was on a specific project, how was it to work with them, could you rely on him/her, would the candidate fit perfectly for the position and why?

8. Second round with manager & team

Talking again with someone will make you see stuff differently. Also, from your first steps you’ll have areas you’ll want to dig deeper. Your manager and the team will also help you see the stuff that slipped through the cracks.

9. Decide, negotiate and sign the contract

Once you’re convinced the candidate is the perfect fit, you need to agree on the contract. Biggest blocking points are usually the salary. It usually reflects well the mindset of a person. How much is the person really driven by your mission and by their position, versus how much money is on the bank account at the end of the month?

10. Send feedback and offer alternatives

The last impression matters too. Once you spent time taking a candidate through the hiring process, it’s worth giving candidates feedback on their performance and what they could improve. Lastly, if possible, try to offer something else to the candidate, for example, an introduction to another company having a similar position opened.

That’s it for now. We’ve been using this new process since the beginning of 2018 and it has been working very well so far. We’ve hired great people and we’re excited to continue working with them. It’s also time well invested as your team is the most important asset of any organization!

I hope it helped and please let me know what you think.  

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