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Introduction

Hiring

Hiring is the foundation for any startup, but convincing a high-quality candidate to leave their job and join your early-stage team is no small task. It might not be easy, but with careful attention, you can make sure your first hires help you find PMF and shape the culture at your company for years to come. 


This chapter will teach you how to build a recruiting engine, sell your vision, and make a compelling offer  to land the best employees possible.

Chapter Authors

Jon Volk
Jon Volk
Jon Volk
Jon Volk
Jon Volk
Jon Volk
Alexis Johnson
Alexis Johnson
Chris Marty

What You'll Get

00 guides      

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This chapter will cover

Hiring Philosophy
Start module

Three Must-Have Traits in Early-Stage Hires



Hiring for an early-stage company is fundamentally different from hiring for a mid-sized, pre-IPO, or public company—and thus requires a radically different approach. As a founder or hiring manager, there's a specific set of traits you need to seek out in each candidate to make sure you're building the right team for the road ahead.


Besides role-specific competence, there are three must-have traits early-stage hires should have:

  1. An authentic attachment to your company
  2. The potential for exponential impact
  3. Cultural alignment


Authentic attachment to your company


In startup circles, you’ll often hear about the importance of hiring someone “mission-driven.” There’s a simple reason for this. If a candidate believes in your company’s mission, she is demonstrating an authentic attachment to your company. This means that when the going gets tough (and it will at an early-stage startup!), she will find the courage to stick it out. Mission-driven candidates exhibit a higher tolerance threshold and are better positioned to navigate the ups and downs of startup life. 


Another benefit to add: mission-driven folks are more likely to be referrers for other hires. And those hires generally are of higher caliber since they are pre-vetted by the employee that has an authentic fit with the company.


However, being “mission-driven” isn’t the only way to demonstrate an authentic attachment. For instance, a director-level candidate might be attracted to an excellent leadership team because that team mirrors her values. Or a senior engineer might be attracted to your technical environment because it offers interesting problems to work on, or a chance to work directly with an all-star technical co-founder. 


The point is there might be several reasons why someone would be genuinely excited to work for your company, and it’s up to the hiring team to flesh those out. If you haven’t done that with a candidate, you’re probably not ready to make an offer. The risks of getting it wrong are too high. 


Pro-tip: A candidate who values a high cash offer above all else does not have authentic attachment! On the flip side, a candidate who wants a lot of equity may be the mission fit you’re looking for.


Potential for exponential impact


With any hire, it’s important that you find someone capable of doing the job. At a startup, however, it’s critical that every hire has the ability (and desire) to extend beyond her core function, demonstrating an interest in scaling her impact as the company scales. 


By nature, startups are chaotic. An early employee’s scope of work doesn’t fit into a neat box and it won’t match the job description. You should aim to hire people who aren’t just OK with this, but are excited by the opportunity. 


During my time as Head of Recruiting at Wealthfront, the founder and CEO Andy Rachleff used to say to me, “Every startup hire should exhibit the potential to be a VP one day.” Essentially, what that means is that founders should set the expectation that change is constant and only hire those who seek out new challenges and thrive in an ever-changing environment. It’s worth pointing out that you don't want to hire the person that EXPECTS to become a VP right away. Rather, it's about the candidate having a very high slope, not very high requirements.


One good proxy for this potential for exponential impact or “professional upside” is looking at a candidate’s career trajectory. Here are few things to keep in mind as you vet the candidate:


  • Has the candidate made good career choices? Did they pick quality startups and demonstrate sound judgement by doing so?
  • Has the candidate exhibited resilience, demonstrated by significant tenure and a track-record of getting promoted from within? 
  • Does the candidate have a clear story for job changes? 
  • Is there clear professional intent behind each decision?


But there are other ways to look for this quality that go beyond a resume: 


  • Did the candidate put herself through college? 
  • Did the candidate earn a graduate degree while working full-time? 
  • Has the candidate achieved more than her peers, maybe having done so while at a distinct disadvantage?
  • Has the candidate shown exceptional ability/commitment outside of the workforce such as devotion and participation to their spirituality, community, or physical feats? (Unusual Partner Andy Johns likes to look for this since it also shows independent drive, which is essential to having a high upside.)


The above is not an exhaustive list. Essentially, you’re looking for a track record of grit and ambition. 


Cultural alignment


An early team sets a company’s cultural foundation. When hiring at a startup, it’s never too early to emphasize cultural alignment. Seeking a candidate that is the right culture-fit does not undermine the importance of making a technically strong hire. They are equally important traits. Remember, you can teach somebody a new skill, but it’s a lot harder to teach somebody passion. 


Maybe you’ve established company-wide operating principles that transcend function and role. For example: “Assume good intent,” or “Strong opinions, weakly held. Or perhaps you’ve already outlined a core set of values that dictate culture at your company. Craft interview questions that compel a candidate to demonstrate how they’ve lived those company values. You should hold the candidate to the same high standard you’ve hopefully set for your team. At Fleetsmith, we worked hard to create a psychologically safe workplace—one in which all employees felt empowered to take risks without fear of retribution or blowback. Weave these themes into your interview process. 


Culture alignment could also be showing that they have the appetite for risk and have worked at startups before. This is a critical trait for any founding team member. If the candidate only comes from big companies, but suddenly wants to try working at an early-stage startup, the risk of low culture fit and organ rejection is very, very high. Churning early team members can be a huge setback for a young startup and seriously injure team morale, so it’s worth spending extra cycles to ensure you’re making the right hire.


Pro-tip: Give candidates from big companies the specifics of their job offer upfront, and let them know that room for negotiation is minimal. Candidates joining startups from larger companies are likely taking a step back in salary, so it's much more efficient to be aligned on that upfront.


I put together this set of interview questions you can ask at each stage of the interview process to vet candidates for each of these must-have traits.


How do you find these candidates?


If you’re looking for candidates that exhibit the traits outlined above (authentic attachment, exponential impact, and cultural alignment), the hard truth is that hiring won’t happen overnight. Finding the right early-stage hire takes time. Here’s the good news: candidates who meet this criteria will often find their way to you. In many cases, the best candidates are running towards your company saying, “This is where I want to be!” Your job is to identify them early, run a swift interview process, and inspire them to join you. 


As a recruiter for our portfolio companies, I spend an outsized portion of my time with the candidates who express the most excitement. As long as I do a good job informing them about the role and company, they often end up selling themselves on the opportunity. If it’s time to extend the offer and you’re not sure they’ll jump at the opportunity, you might not be talking to the right person.


At the same time, you have to be ready to roll up your sleeves and do some active sourcing. Start with your own network and expand outward from there. For example, if you’re hiring a product leader, reach out to product leaders you’ve worked with before and industry influencers. It’s a really good bet they know someone you should meet. When you reach out to people with influence, word spreads quickly. 


Pro-tip: Tap into the “super-connectors” in your network. These are the folks who enjoy receiving an email request for an introduction. They’re the folks not only respected in their field, but also widely known. They derive joy from making connections, so don’t overthink reaching out to them for help!


Eventually, you’ll need to begin sourcing outside your immediate network. Use a targeted approach. Scattershot emailing rarely works. Instead, start by coming up with a list of 15-20 companies whose technical excellence you admire. From here, look for relevant employees at those companies who exhibit the traits we outlined above (eg. start-up experience, a track record of promotions and significant tenure, etc.) Remember, you’re looking for scrappy candidates who have something to prove. 


Once you've put together a thoughtful list of candidate profiles, consider using a modern sourcing product like Gem, which does the heavy lifting for you by automating all outreach and follow-up.


How do you engage these candidates?


Over the past 10 years I’ve partnered with dozens of hiring managers across all functions. Without question, I’ve learned that the most successful hiring managers emphasize relationship-building above all else. That’s not to say that there aren’t other important facets of running a strong recruiting process. Consistent expectation-setting, transparency around compensation, running a timely process, and creating a two-way street where the candidate feels as empowered to ask questions also matter. But at the end of the day, a candidate joins a company to work for someone. Therefore, at the crux of an excellent process is laser-focus on nurturing the potential employee-manager relationship. 


While at Wealthfront, I worked extensively with the design team, supporting hiring efforts across product design, visual design, UX research and design leadership. The team was growing quickly and time was scarce. In spite of this, Wealthfront’s Design VP, Apeksha Garga, made a point of personally reaching out to each design candidate ahead of all candidate on-sites. Apeksha ditched the usual canned email and instead spent 20-30 minutes with each candidate ahead of their final round interviews. Her high 90th percentile close rate reflected how valuable this touchpoint was for candidates. Relationships matter, and early-stage founders and leaders can differentiate their company by making the hiring process feel warm and personal.


Finally, I’ve always believed that the best start-up candidates demonstrate increased enthusiasm with each step of the recruitment process. As you become more excited about a potential fit, so too should the candidate. If there’s a disconnect there and the candidate seems to pull away, have an immediate conversation to understand if it’s worth continuing the process.


Here are a couple of simple steps you can take to get the candidate more engaged:


  1. Share content: Send over a relevant podcast episode, maybe one that highlights a different member of your leadership team. Candidates will be excited to hear multiple people expressing the same level of passion about your company.
  2. Help them backchannel: Ask the candidate, “What more do you need to know?” Offer to connect them with one of your investors or someone else in your network who knows how you work. You want to help the candidate envision what it would be like to work with you.
  3. Find creative ways to highlight your culture: Send a book that everyone in your company reads upon joining or invite them to a team offsite. (We took a recruit axe-throwing and the team surprised her with her own cardboard cutout!)


If all goes well, presenting the offer should feel like a celebration, rather than just a starting point.

Key Takeaways


  • Hiring for a startup is fundamentally different than hiring at a large company. 
  • Understanding a candidate’s technical excellence is always key, but just as critical is your understanding of a candidate’s passion, upside potential, and cultural alignment. 
  • Before you make an offer, make sure you can answer this question: “What makes me convinced that this candidate will still be excited to work here when things get tough?”
  • Consistently gauge a candidate’s enthusiasm for your company, and spend more time with those who are leaning into the process. 
  • Tap into your network to source candidates. Look for the “super-connectors” in your network who enjoy introducing people to each other and making new connections.
  • Make a list of companies whose technical competence you admire and narrow in on relevant employees who might be a good fit for the role. Use a tool like Gem to help automate the outreach process.
  • Build a relationship with the candidate throughout the process and go the extra mile to make the process feel personal and exciting: share content, help them backchannel, and invite them to team events. You want to help them envision what it would feel like to be a part of the team.
Recruiting Brand
Jon Volk
Start module

Developing an Online Recruiting Brand


In the early stages of building a startup, your focus as a founder is building your core team and creating a quality recruiting process. But after you have that in place, how do you start thinking about scaling your efforts to attract even more high quality candidates? You have a beta product and paying customers and you’re looking to scale from 10 to 30 employees at lightning speed. It’s really important you have a repeatable process in place and get ahead of the curve when it comes to your recruiting brand. One thing I’ve noticed during my 10+ years of experience recruiting at Google, Amazon, AppDynamics, and now Unusual Ventures, is that broadcasting your company culture by establishing an online recruiting brand is crucial to attracting top talent as you scale your startup. This means going beyond just your company website. An online recruiting brand includes all online touchpoints that together create your overall brand as an employer.


Your company website


Invest time in tailoring your entire company website in order to tell a compelling and differentiated story for potential job candidates. Many startups make the mistake of focusing on just the Career or About Us pages on their websites and neglect to create a unified company brand that is welcoming to candidates. Future employees will look at your website as a whole, so while certain sections are targeted toward specific audiences, you want to make sure the entire website resonates with potential candidates, not just the Career page. Your goal is to help candidates envision what it would be like to work at your company  by creating a fun, welcoming brand. For instance, you might post pictures of your team or your office if you have an attractive space and weave in messaging that reflects the culture and values of your team. 


Harness (an Unusual portfolio company) does a great job of showcasing their company culture by including pictures of the Harness team engaging in fun outings and gathered together with their families, alongside a clear statement about their mission and hypergrowth:




Glassdoor 


Beyond your own company website, make sure external websites are aligned with the employer brand you want to communicate. One of the most effective platforms for demonstrating your recruiting brand is Glassdoor. Glassdoor has become the go-to resource for job seekers to check the reputation of a company. A lot of early companies have virtually no presence on Glassdoor and in the worst cases, leave negative feedback from candidates unaddressed. It’s important to remember that employees are not the only people who can leave feedback about a company—interview candidates can as well. As we mention in "Sell While You Hire", the candidate experience is a big part of the recruiting brand as well. Having a robust, quality process should prevent bad reviews in the first place, but sometimes a bad experience happens. In those cases, answering these reviews shows you’re being thoughtful and care about the experience your candidates (and employees) have when they interact with your company. Otherwise, leaving negative feedback or reviews untouched can actively deter candidates. For instance, if any company on Glassdoor has a CEO approval rating of 80% or lower, that’s a huge red flag that employees are not happy with leadership and may scare off potential recruits.


One easy way to improve your Glassdoor presence is to get your team to populate the page with reviews. Make sure it’s 100% optional, but try to get as many reviews as possible. Remind existing employees that it’s beneficial to them because if you recruit more candidates, they get more of the help they need. For instance, there might be an automation engineer on your team who is also handling customer requests. That means they’re essentially doing two different jobs. Improving the company’s recruiting brand and having positive company reviews can go a long way to attract needed talent and fill out the team.


Besides adding employee reviews, make sure you upload real photos to your Glassdoor page. This means photos of team outings or events that illustrate your company’s working environment. One thing to be aware of is that these photos can potentially reveal gaps in your team’s diversity. Use this “visual audit” as an opportunity to examine any gaps in your team and surface diversity and inclusion as a priority in your recruiting efforts. It’s important to remember that by all accounts, diversity of thought leads to better products and businesses.


Here’s a great example of a great Glassdoor page from Shujinko (an Unusual’s portfolio company) with a clearly stated company mission and positive employee reviews:



LinkedIn


Another high impact action you can take to improve your company’s online brand is making sure your LinkedIn company page is up-to-date. Even if you’re just sharing blog posts about new feature launches. This is where you can demonstrate thought leadership in your industry. Publish all your articles and press announcements. It sounds trivial, but it can sway candidates by showcasing your company’s momentum.


Here’s a great example from Banyan Security (an Unusual portfolio company):




Notice their original content on industry trends and pictures showcasing their tight-knit team. It does cost a nominal fee to have a LinkedIn company page, but the results are well worth the expense to attract top talent. 


Create a unified, welcoming brand across all platforms


Finally, don’t be afraid to get out there and use multiple platforms to communicate your company’s recruiting brand. Use StackOverflow, AngelList, Twitter, Medium, etc. to cross-post job listings and announcements so you can build awareness and attract candidates. Whether it’s Glassdoor, LinkedIn, or any other platform, make sure there’s regular activity that shows the tangible (free lunch!) and intangible perks (an inclusive company culture) of working at your company. Is it a family environment? What types of events does your team do together? The goal is to make it fun and inspiring. 


At the seed stage, you’re hiring future leaders who will help you build your company. Make it clear to candidates that they will have the rare opportunity to join a company experiencing exponential growth and have a hands-on role in building that “rocketship” from the ground up. No matter how big or small of a company you are, you’re competing for the same talent so your employer brand needs to stand out in some way. Odds are if a candidate is interested in coming to work at your early-stage startup, they don’t want to work in an impersonal, corporate environment. Your job descriptions, your company page, etc. all have to show how their career can flourish and the opportunities available to them if they join your startup vs. a larger company. That messaging needs to be present in any company description and consistent across all platforms so candidates have a very clear understanding of your company’s identity.


Here’s a great blurb from AptEdge (an Unusual portfolio company) that describes employee autonomy and huge growth potential for the company:


It can seem overwhelming to create this online recruiting brand if you’re starting from nothing, but it pays dividends in the quality and type of candidates you can attract to help scale your business. To help you get started, I created this checklist, which you can download to make sure you’re covering your bases when it comes to developing your online recruiting brand:

Key Takeaways


  • First and foremost, have an online presence and be intentional about it. It should reflect the quality recruiting process you’ve hopefully put in place and help attract more talent as you scale. 
  • Describe your company culture and demonstrate it through pictures of your team to showcase the work environment. 
  • Use multiple platforms to cross-post job listings and make sure you’re addressing any negative feedback.
  • Make sure your recruiting brand is consistent across all the platforms you use.
  • Make sure you emphasize the potential for growth and larger vision of your company and the role early employees get to play in that.
Interview Process
Start module

An End-to-End Hiring Process

Hiring is a muscle an organization builds over time, so it’s critical to put a process in place earlier rather than later. Having a clearly defined hiring process can help early startups avoid costly and destabilizing hiring mistakes. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting and each company develops their own process to aligns with their unique culture, but here’s one high-level breakdown of an end-to-end recruiting process for early hires:

Prep Stage

  • Identify the need for a new position
  • Write a job description for the new role or get a job description from the Hiring Manager
  • Select the interview team
  • Approve the salary range from Hiring Manager

Interview Process

1. Pre-screen interview (see pre-screen guide with questions) with recruiter. Forward the candidate to the hiring manager if all looks good. 

2. Hiring Manager reviews resume and relevant data points (i.e. portfolio review for UX/UI engineer,* quota and revenue targets for sales hires**).

3. Hiring Manager does an initial phone or in-person interview. Don’t let schedules be a deterrent. Do a video call if needed and work around the candidate’s schedule to demonstrate how interested you are. Make sure to ask level-appropriate questions.

  • Example: If you are looking for a Software Architect, asking a question around data structures and algorithms would not be appropriate. The candidate might be rusty, causing you to reject a potentially strong candidate. You also risk offending an experienced candidate by asking questions that are too basic.

4. Schedule the on-site interview and pre-sync with the interview team before the onsite to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Assign specific questions for each interviewer to ask.
  • Each interview should be 1 hour (45 min for the interviewer, 15 min for the candidate to ask questions). There should be at least 2 technical and 1 cultural interview.
  • Limit to no more than 5 interviews in a day. (More than this, and the candidate will start to tire, and the interview quality will go down. It’s also unlikely you’ll learn anything more in 6 hours vs. 5.)
  • Have the Hiring Manager or Founder go last.
  • Provide lunch for the candidate so they can get a sense of the company culture. If the interview doesn't fall during lunch, have one session be centered around culture where the candidate can ask any questions they might have.

5. Track all the feedback throughout the day and require interviewers to give a “yes” or “no” immediately after each interview. 

  • If everything is positive, tell the founder so their session can be a pure sell of the company
  •  Example: At AppDynamics, founder Jyoti Bansal would talk to any candidate, regardless of level. They would walk away impressed by his enthusiasm and the concrete plans he had for the business. 

6. Debrief with the whole interview team no later than 24 hours after the on-site interview. Let the candidate know either way, whether it’s a rejection or an offer ASAP. 

7. Reference review/backchanneling can be useful, but takes up valuable time. If you’re going to do a backchannel reference, start from the minute the candidate's resume is submitted so you don’t bottleneck the process.

 


*The majority of UX/UI engineers want to work on Consumer products. The challenge with UI/UX is finding someone who has SaaS experience and is motivated to work on an Enterprise product.


**For sales roles especially, make sure you understand their compensation expectations before you bring them in for an on-site interview. If you can’t do that, continuing the conversation might be a waste of time.



Key Takeaways


  • Make sure the recruiter or whoever conducts the initial outreach conducts the pre-screen before the formal interview process begins. This helps disqualify any candidates who might not be a good fit.
  • If possible, keep the hiring process to 1 technical interview (2 for remote candidates) and 1 onsite interview. 
  • The interview team should pre-sync ahead of the on-site interview and re-convene no later than 24 hours after the onsite interview to debrief.
  • Have the founder go last and if all is going well, let them know so they can be in pure selling mode.
  • Be mindful of asking questions that are appropriate for the candidate’s experience level and remember to provide the opportunity for them to ask any questions they might have about the role or company culture.
  • Be transparent throughout the process and make the offer in a timely manner.
Compensation and Closing
Jon Volk
Start module

Making the Offer


Addressing the elephant in the room

One common misstep I’ve seen founders and recruiters make is waiting until the final stage of the interview process to bring up compensation with the candidate. This might be because they’re used to working at a bigger company where salary bands are more or less set in stone or because they come from a working environment where they’re not subject to budget constraints. In the world of startups where time and resources are scarce, putting off the compensation conversation with a candidate can be a costly mistake. When I work with portfolio founders through our GAP engagement, I advise them to flip the script and surface the candidate’s compensation expectations in the very first conversation.

Discussing compensation can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s a muscle every founder needs to build. If you wait until the final stages of the process before you mention compensation, you risk wasting all your effort if your budget and their needs don’t align. To avoid this, decide what you can budget for the position. Once you have that number in your head, you can ask the candidate for their expected range and move forward knowing you’re aligned and that they’re likely to accept if the interview process goes well. Here’s some suggested language:

“I want to be transparent. You have a certain number in mind and we have our budget for the role. I want to make sure we’re aligned and able to bridge any gaps. What do you need in terms of compensation in order to make this work?”

If you’re coming from a genuine place, the candidate should be receptive to having an open dialogue with you. If they respond with a number that’s way outside your budget, that’s ok. Be honest about it and encourage the candidate to be transparent with you in return.

One thing to note is that while it’s helpful to have a budget in mind, you don’t want to risk losing an amazing candidate because they’re a little outside your budget. I’ve seen founders refuse to budge and waste months of their time restarting the process. Your goal is to find the best person for the role and if you find them, spending an extra $10-15k is well worth it. 

Dimensions of a compensation package

Most people only think of cash and equity when they think about compensation, but there are several different dimensions of compensation a candidate might consider. Here are eight that I’ve seen factor into a candidate’s decision of whether to take the job or not:

  1. Cash
  2. Equity
  3. Flexibility (Work Hours)
  4. Benefits
  5. Commute (This matters more than you think)
  6. Ability to Work Remote
  7. Title
  8. Special Projects or Career Trajectory

How a candidate values each of these dimensions depends on their individual situation. For instance, a candidate without a family might take a lower cash base and more equity because they have a higher risk profile. The key to closing candidates is understanding what the particular candidate is looking for and translating that into the different options that you present back to them. I advise founders to take the candidate’s life situation into account, be empathetic, and try to understand what is most important to the candidate. That means thinking about the compensation package comprehensively and making lifestyle accommodations where possible.

Presenting the offer

When you put together your offer, don’t forget to provide a couple different compensation packages so the candidate can choose the best option for them. You might include one that’s higher on equity with less cash, another higher cash and lower equity, or another with additional conditions or benefits. In other words, take the range of what you want to pay and create multiple tiers around that number. Here’s an example:

  1. $130k, 1.5% equity 
  2. $175k, .5% equity 
  3. $140, .75% equity, $10k performance-based bonus

The candidate can then choose the option that best suits their needs and life situation. 

As much as you want to be flexible and make it work for both parties, the compensation conversation can be a useful tool for weeding out candidates that aren’t in it for the right reasons. If a candidate is solely interested in cash and isn’t making an effort to meet you in the middle with higher equity, it’s a strong signal they aren’t invested in your mission or ready to join an early-stage startup. It’s a challenging journey ahead and you want to make sure you’re bringing on people who are in it for the long haul.

Closing the candidate

When it comes to closing the candidate, there are a number of tactics that can make you seal the deal. First and foremost, you want to make sure they are considering the exit. Prompt them to consider what their 1% of equity would mean if the company got bought for $1B. When you present the offer, include the number of shares (i.e. 250,000 shares) as well as the percentage to help them visualize what their ownership could mean. 

Besides the financial upside, walk the candidate through what the opportunity could mean for their career trajectory. For instance, you might highlight how coming in as an early engineer can be a stepping stone to them becoming a future Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering. One advantage startups have over larger corporations is that they can emphasize the ownership candidates can have in building a company, not just a product. 

If the candidate has reached this final stage and they're still hung up on compensation, there are ways you can meet them where they are. For example, if your offer is $20k below their compensation expectations, a one-time $20k signing bonus can help bridge the difference. Candidates joining a startup usually know they're taking a cash hit, but a signing bonus can ensure it’s not a huge lifestyle adjustment and be a gesture to show you’re invested in bringing them on board. 

Even if you apply all the principles above, you can’t win them all and there will be candidates you miss out on. It’s part of the process and you shouldn’t be discouraged. Add them to your applicant tracking system (ATS) so you can stay in touch and follow up as you secure more funding. Building a company comes down to having the right people. Routinely checking in with the right candidates will make sure your relationship is warm for when they are ready to make the leap.

Key Takeaways


  • Collect your budget for the role beforehand and the candidate’s compensation expectations in your very first conversation with them.
  • Be transparent about your company’s budgeted range and encourage the candidate to be honest with you too.
  • Don’t risk losing out on an amazing candidate because they’re a little outside your budget.
  • Understand what the particular candidate is looking for and translate that into the offer that you present back to them. 
  • When you put together your compensation package, don’t forget to provide a couple different combinations of cash and equity so they can choose the one that best suits their needs. 
  • If the candidate isn’t meeting you in the middle, it’s a strong signal they aren’t invested in your mission.
  • To close the candidate, walk them through what their payout could look like and what their career trajectory could be.
  • Signing bonuses can help bridge any differences in cash compensation to make sure the transition isn’t a huge lifestyle adjustment.
  • If the candidate passes on the offer, make sure you stay in touch and add them to your applicant tracking system in case their situation changes.
Employee Onboarding
Alexis Johnson
Start module

Creating an Employee Guide



Alexis Johnson is the current Engineering Manager at Ride Report. The Ride Report Employee Guide came into being when Alexis joined the company back in 2018 as the fourth employee. At the time, Alexis spent a lot of time speaking to a fellow female engineer. They discussed what type of company they’d want to work for and the environment they wanted to create. As female engineers, they had experienced discrimination at previous workplaces and asked themselves, “How can we make sure we feel included in the long term at a company founded by two white males in a male-dominated industry?” After sharing their concerns with Ride Report’s Co-founder William Henderson, they decided that a good place to start would be a handbook or employee guide. 

Start with your values


Alexis notes that the most critical part of creating the guide was defining the company’s values. In other words, answering: What is our shared goal? All CEOs have a vision of what they want their company to accomplish. That implicit founder vision comes across in the product, sales pitches to candidates, company website, etc., but when they took the step to create an employee guide where the employees were the primary stakeholders, they started with a company-wide survey that asked:

“Based on your experience working here, what do we believe and what are we trying to accomplish?”

Ride Report’s mission was implicit in the work they were doing. No one would be working at a six-person, pre-seed company without knowing why they were doing it, but making the mission explicit and putting a stake in the ground was really helpful and formed the foundation for the company’s employee guide and organizational culture. It’s unlikely that this will be 100% right the first time, so shaping company values will be an iterative process as the company scales and evolves over time.


The mission section from Ride Report’s Employee Guide


Create clarity around the hiring process

The second key piece was around clearly defining the company’s hiring process. That was the first thing Alexis and team added to the employee guide. Defining the hiring process involved outlining not only how the process itself would work, but also the underlying hiring principles and an explicit agreement around the way they were going to evaluate candidates. This came from the desire to know as employees that what they had to say during the interview process would matter. They wanted clarity around whether or not their evaluations would be taken into consideration or if the CEO would just decide who to hire in the end regardless. As Alexis put it, it was important to them as employees to know how their contributions would be utilized or referenced, and to at least have an understanding of why decisions were made, even if they disagreed with it.


Once they had their stated mission and values and explicitly documented their hiring practices, they had a starting point to collaborate around. The guide has since grown into what it is today, encompassing everything from the company’s “core questions” to its vacation policies and project management.

To get started on creating your own employee guide, Alexis shares these tips:

  • Pick a tool that you won’t hate in five minutes. Ride Report started with Github and landed on Notion. (Airtable or Glitch might also be good options for a custom solution.) As with any central organizational tool, write everything down in a version-controlled system.
  • Make it accessible to everyone you work with or are considering working with. Give people an opportunity to comment, and make the guide visible so that everyone can interact with it in some way.
  • Define a process around change management. Ride Report keeps an external Notion and an internal Notion. You can draft something, share it, and then depending on what the change is, the heads of the department or managers can finalize and add. 
  • Make it fun! Topics can be light, like policies around dogs in the office. It gets people excited about collaborating.
  • Welcome edits. Documentation goes stale. It’s key to empower people to feel like they can change and add to the guide.
  • Be clear what you stand for. This might be the most important aspect of creating a powerful employee guide. It means making your values and processes clear and explicit. Individuals can then decide how to engage with them.
  • Start small. One of the biggest roadblocks to developing something like this is that it takes a lot of time drafting, gathering feedback, making revisions, etc. It can be daunting, so it’s important to start with one topic at a time. For example, most of the initial handbook at Ride Report was around engineering practices. Other ideas include a company style guide. Hiring is a big one for every company, even if it’s just a paragraph outlining what you care about.


Today, the Ride Report Employee Guide helps keep the team aligned and ensures that the culture they are forming is intentional. Whether it’s the way people are using Slack or the way they resolve disputes, the Ride Report team has the opportunity to ask, “Have we aligned on this company norm or is it just coincidental?” The employee guide gives anyone in the company the chance to gather information, synthesize it, and share the practice for comment and revision.


It’s also become a powerful recruiting tool for the company. Since Ride Report has chosen to make their employee guide open source and freely available to anyone on the internet, it’s often the first point of contact that people ever have with them. A popular interview question for them is asking candidates, “Talk about something in our Employee Guide that you value.” The rubric for evaluating the candidate is the degree to which they’ve given critical thought or specific examples for the way they do or don’t value a specific practice from the guide. Alexis reflects that having this rubric in place has been a huge leverage for hiring and recruiting candidates and makes their process much more efficient.


Ride Report recently conducted their annual survey, and although there are differing opinions about how particular processes work, there is overwhelming sentiment across the company that the employee guide provides clarity and creates a safe work environment where they can be their most productive selves. Alexis has observed that the guide serves as a common resource that helps provide cohesion for the team. That means the team doesn’t lose a lot of speed on the day-to-day because they know how to work together.


That being said, there are limitations to having an employee guide. At Ride Report, they’ve made a point of communicating that the guide only delineates the current state of the world. In other words, it is not completely comprehensive and won’t ever cover 100% of everything they do all the time or be 100% correct. With the exception of when someone violates the company’s Code of Conduct, if an employee isn’t adhering to practices, there are no predetermined consequences. Instead, the team tries to find the underlying cause that causes that behavior: Is it a problem with the individual’s performance? Or is the policy too prescriptive? Or is it just wrong? Are we striving for something that isn’t possible? In this way, the guide is moreso a tool that the company can use as a jumping off point for larger conversations.


For those thinking of putting together their own employee guides, Alexis relays a piece of startup wisdom that William shared with her in one of their first 1:1’s,

“As soon as you think it’s time to do something, you probably should have done it already.”

The common thread that comes up in articles about toxic company cultures is that it’s extremely hard to undo things that are woven into the fabric of your organization when they are small. Alexis notes that Ride Report has gone from four to 18 employees, and it’s evident already that company practices and culture are deeply embedded, for better or for worse. To undo them or redo them is almost impossible, which makes being intentional and transparent about building your company culture even more important in the earliest stage. 


As Alexis puts it, “It’s never too early to write down things that are meaningful to you. There’s no right one way to build a company, but you can do it in a way so that employees understand why and how you’re doing it, even if they disagree. Being honest and upfront about what you stand for will empower people who work with you and give them visibility into your choices. At the end of the day, the goal of our employee guide was to foster an environment that said, ‘Please make this a place you want to be and make changes if there are gaps that you see. It is in your hands.’”


Ride Report’s Employee Guide is publicly available and "open source", so that others can use it for inspiration or as the basis for their own guide. You can check it out here.


Candidate intent assessment

Employee guide template

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Pre-screen Interview Questions

Offer Letter Template

Company/candidate checklist

Recruiting Brand Checklist

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Hiring

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Long before you interview your first candidate, you need to establish your overall philosophy. We always start by vetting for three key traits in early-stage hires, then strategizing how to engage the candidates that possess them. Discover how in our first step: The three must-have traits in early-stage hires.