How startups can attract and retain the right talent
Date of publish: 06/11/2022
Startups are growing organizations. They need to be nurtured and given the right resources at the right time to help them flourish and grow. Given the buzz around cleantech and innovation, it might surprise some that I cite recruitment as a challenge. But we are in a very unique space – we are a production unit. Our reality does not always match the expectations of someone who wants to join the start-up ecosystem, and my challenge starts there. Through my interactions with various founders, I realized that this is a challenge not just for us – many early-stage non-tech startups face the same challenges. Over the years I have experimented with many recruiting strategies to address this challenge. I don't have an exact recipe for what works yet, but I have a few general principles that I follow and they seem to work.
So what works for hiring early stage startups? It won't help to paint a rosy picture if the reality is different. The first thing is as founders to accept our reality and be honest and sincere about it. Startups are hard work and we don't need to shy away from it. We need someone who is willing to work hard, get their hands dirty, wear different hats and juggle many balls. In a world where there are countless options that are much easier, few people want to take them. As founders and recruiters, let's not be ashamed of this reality and let's not get carried away. More importantly, let's not forget that we shouldn't paint a rosy picture and bring someone in just because we have a position to fill or an investor to please. I have burned fingers to recognize that it is better not to hire than to hire for the wrong reasons. A bad or ill-informed employee is usually a much bigger problem than a vacant position.
That being said, there are many candidates willing to take on the startup challenge. Employees and close stakeholders—investors, vendors and suppliers, and customers—are the best sources to turn to for such references. These stakeholders not only understand the organizational culture, but are also able to judge whether they are a good fit, which is why their references always perform well.
Early stage startups are highly dynamic and their reality is constantly changing. In such circumstances, it is very difficult to precisely define roles and responsibilities. It is important to prioritize this in all discussions with potential candidates and consider hiring only those candidates who are comfortable with this truth. Candidates who are highly specialized in certain roles and those who have built their careers in large established organizations are always intimidated by this idea. Such candidates raise a red flag that should not be ignored. It's safer to wait until you find another candidate who sees this uncertainty as an exciting opportunity to learn and diversify their skills.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and this applies to the early stage of a startup. Given the challenges of attracting and retaining good talent, care must be taken not to disrupt the existing internal balance and momentum when hiring new positions/candidates. While culture fit is something that most recruiters would check, in small organizations and fledgling startups it is very important that new candidates interact with existing employees to gauge their acceptance. It is a well-known fact that internal buy-out always helps a new employee settle in well. It helps in the initial stage of startups in several ways.
Many times the talent will outgrow the organization and vice versa. This happens much more often in early stage organizations than in established larger organizations. Therefore, retention and attrition need to be viewed differently and in context in the early stages of start-ups, and continuous efforts must be made to upskill and retrain existing employees. This not only helps organizations ensure that existing talent remains relevant to their growing demands, but also helps them better manage unexpected departures.
Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge everywhere. However, the rules of the game are different in start-ups, so what works best here is to be open to playing the game differently.

Vadivelan Palaniraj


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