Whether you’re hiring your first employee, your first team of engineers, or making plans to hire at scale, it’s never too early to implement — or at least start thinking about — a holistic approach to hiring.
Holistic hiring is a people-forward approach that recognizes the need to bring the entire company along for the hard task of scaling during hyper-growth. When done well, everyone’s on board to drive the company’s mission forward. Philosophically speaking, instead of viewing hiring as a siloed function, holistic hiring is an agreed-upon cross-functional process that prepares for long-term evolution.
These days I’m a Talent Partner at Unusual Ventures. Previously, I’ve worked in recruiting for fast-growing companies like Fleetsmith (acquired by Apple in 2020), Wildfire (acquired by Google in 2012), and Wealthfront. I supported Fleetsmith’s growth from 45 to 90 employees in less than six months, and at Wealthfront, helped to quadruple the team during my tenure, while personally closing more than 130 experienced candidates.
In the last decade, I’ve witnessed a number of hiring approaches and have learned that a holistic approach not only helps an organization’s forward trajectory but also retains talented people and fuels a diverse, equitable, and inclusive company culture. Or, as I like to say, a “culture-add workplace.”
One-off hiring focuses merely on filling an open position and tends to take a figure-it-out-as-you-go-along approach. Holistic hiring considers both the short- and long-term impact of filling a particular role along with how that role will evolve and help the company grow.
Holistic hiring recognizes the critical need to build a well-functioning “recruiting engine” — a scalable operation that’s ready to absorb new internal stakeholders in the recruiting process, and understands the required inputs to achieve desired outcomes. Employees with “recruiter” in their titles are not the only stakeholders here — fellow team members, hiring managers, and founders also interview candidates and play an important part in hiring decisions.
In “one-off hiring,” recruiters and hiring managers tend to focus on doing whatever’s necessary in the moment to hire for a particular position, which often involves inconsistencies in methodology and compensation. With holistic hiring, members of the hiring team are aligned upfront on objectives, philosophy, candidate criteria, and compensation — not to mention how salaries for new roles compare to existing employees’ salaries.
Whereas taking a fragmented approach to hiring can be nebulous and chaotic — adding stress to a startup’s disorganization — a holistic approach helps companies jumpstart their recruiting engine for human-centric hyper-growth.
And while we recognize that holistic hiring might not apply immediately to a company of, say, two or three people, we recommend thinking ahead about how you can implement holistic hiring before you get there. … And hopefully you’ll be there sooner rather than later.
Before we dive in, I want to recognize that recruiting can be tough during a company’s early stages, when you’re just getting off the ground and the world doesn’t know that your company is the Next Big Thing in X. I’ve been there.
“It’s harder to play catch-up in your recruiting practices later on, when your company most needs scalable processes. While you may not need a fully charged holistic hiring machine during your Seed Stage, you’ll definitely need it before you raise a Series B round.”
— Chris Marty, Unusual Ventures Talent Partner
You can begin incorporating a holistic hiring mindset during your company’s earliest stages. In other words, plan ahead for future growth and success. Keep in mind: It’s harder to play catch-up in your recruiting practices later on, when your company most needs scalable processes. While you may not need a fully charged holistic hiring machine during your Seed Stage, you’ll definitely need it before you raise a Series B round.
It’s true what they say about company cultures starting at the top. When leaders decide to take a holistic approach, it drives a positive people-first culture for years to come. Ideally, the founder or CEO should not only buy into holistic hiring but also be a champion and driver of the approach.
Spotlighting hiring on a company’s center stage not only benefits recruiters — team members across the board reap the rewards. Doing so sends a twofold message to employees: everyone in the company matters and teamwork makes the dream work.
Holistic hiring helps employees get into the practice of clear, open communication and alignment across teams. As your company grows and more weeds need tending, your company will get into the groove of aligning on goals and decision-making.
As you’re laying a solid foundation and everyone’s getting on the same page about your company’s direction, you’ll establish best practices and operational procedures. And that helps your business scale. Let’s face it: When you’re gearing up for hyper-growth, hiring the right people is the key driver in getting you to your next funding round.
Because every company is unique, my suggestions are not meant to be cut-and-dry. While I avoid being overly prescriptive, I do want to share my best advice based on experience implementing and teaching startups about holistic hiring.
In other words, my advice is as tactical as possible. Individual actions aren’t as easy as a formula, but the overall picture is somewhat formulaic. I also want to point out that, depending on your company’s growth stage, you might not walk through each of the three primary steps in the exact order that we lay out. Part of a holistic hiring process involves surveying your current hiring practices, assessing gaps, and identifying low-hanging fruit for improvement.
Also, I’ll be the first to say that you should never steamroll your agenda á la “my way or the highway.” As a consultant and formerly as a recruiting leader, I’m passionate about hiring in a thoughtful, inclusive way that considers multiple points of view.
Resist scrambling to fill new positions that seem like the entire company will tumble down if you don’t get it done asap. And keep in mind that timing affects hiring seasons — for example, your end-of-year hiring needs might differ from your beginning-of-year or Q2 hiring needs.
Take a step back and think about your company as a thriving organism. Then visualize where you want the company to be in a defined period of time — say, in six months or a year. As you’re writing job descriptions and developing team structures, keep your company goals front of mind.
Also decide whether you want your company’s salaries to rank at the top of a role’s potential hiring band, in the middle, etc. Many startups don’t necessarily need to pay at the top of the band when they can provide equity and other perks.
Meet with your company’s leaders and discuss these questions and topics:
For example, you might be compelled to prioritize high-caliber executives or director-level roles but when you take time to think about it, you realize that you need to develop a pipeline first — such as partnering with a search agency — to source these leaders.
I suggest that you take a step back to figure out what talent or discipline “buckets” you’ll need to grow during a specified period of time. Perhaps you need four engineers as soon as possible but then realize you’ll also need product managers to steer projects.
Some roles are easier to fill or require more output than others; some roles naturally attract the best of the best candidates; and others are highly specialized roles that require a recruiter to scour possibilities. Some roles are focused on specific experience whereas others require the right kind of energy and attitude regardless of experience.
Decide the necessary mechanisms to support your headcount plan:
Research competitors to understand what’s average and above average for required experience, salaries, benefits, and equity in similar roles. Align on how much you want to offer to stand out from the competition and get into the habit of reviewing compensation data every quarter — not just for new hires but for existing employees as well.
How will the timing of bringing on these roles impact current and future initiatives and plans, and what resources will be required to make sure the new hires are successfully onboarded?
Read more about making an attractive offer here in Making the offer.
Be open-minded as your company develops and the world changes (hello, global pandemic and flexible working arrangements). I think of recruiting and hiring as A/B testing as you grow.
“Be open-minded as your company develops and the world changes. I think of recruiting and hiring as A/B testing as you grow.”
For perspective, when I worked with a fintech company, we realized that we needed to refine our original headcount plan to support hyper-growth. As is often the case in fast-moving startups, our hiring outpaced the thoughtfulness of the process. We hired dozens of people but weren’t always clear why we needed to fill certain roles. Because of this, we decided to slow down our pace because hiring is expensive and we wanted to make sure we were thinking through the impacts of our decisions.
When your company is small (say, fewer than 10 people), you can rely on the help of staffing and recruiting agencies that specialize in certain fields such as design, engineering, and leadership.
Keep in mind that when you work with agencies, a typical placement fee is approximately 25% of the new hire’s salary. If you do the math, you’ll see that paying agencies can become cost-inefficient in the long run when you’re scaling your company.
When you’re ready to scale your team and hiring efforts, I recommend establishing an in-house talent team. This is the perfect time to further develop your holistic hiring methodology and decide who’s in charge of which aspects of the process, such as negotiating salaries. When you’re interviewing candidates for your company’s talent team, ask them questions about how they’ve approached hiring. See 3 must-have traits in early-stage startup hires for more suggestions on finding the right culture fit.
If your company is post–Series A with approximately 20–25 people and plans to double in size in the next year or so, start making plans to build your internal recruiting team. These following roles can join your company in any order. If you’re a hyper-growth company from 30 on up, you need a core team of four people by the time you hit 75 people.
My thesis in recruiting is to be open-minded and humble because you never know exactly where the best person for the job will come from — through standard applications, referrals, direct recruiting, etc. (By the way, referrals should account for up to 30% of hires in a well-run, recruiting engine.) Open up as many recruiting channels as possible and be very clear about the characteristics you’re seeking. When the right person arrives, you’ll recognize them.
In other words, you can’t stand behind a computer and only source talent all day. The good news is that if you’re spreading the right messages about opportunities to work for your company, the best candidates will find their way to you. This is exactly what's happening at Contra, an Unusual portfolio company I'm consulting with. Truly, before my very eyes, I’ve witnessed the new independent work community transcend from being a brand nobody knows to a company that attracts terrific inbound talent.
If you build an attractive talent brand, they will come. That is, if you tell a compelling story about your company’s vision, team, culture, and opportunities for candidates to make an impact as you grow, you will attract candidates.
Companies preparing for hyper-growth must make a memorable impression — and every company has to start somewhere. We understand that your company might not have generated substantial awareness yet. But this might actually be a good thing.
When your company is young, you have the opportunity to establish how you want people to perceive your brand — it’s the prime time to define the very culture that will bring in talented people in the years ahead.
• Review your company’s messaging
Put yourself in a potential job seeker’s shoes and then read your About and Team pages. What kind of energy are you putting into the world? Does your company seem like an inspiring place where people would enjoy working? Partner with your marketing team and refresh where refreshing is due.
• Get creative with distributing your brand story on multiple channels
Take a look at your social media, especially sites that attract job seekers, such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Angelist, TechCrunch, and Handshake. Is your messaging compelling and consistent? Think about how you can make your company stand out from the competition. Can you produce some posts about new initiatives or inspiring employee stories?
What are current employees saying about your company on Glassdoor? If you have very little information about your company on Glassdoor, ask your employees to write reviews about their experience working for you.
• Build a talent referral program
There’s nothing more valuable than current employees spreading a positive message about your company to potential new hires. Develop a referral program to encourage your team to help spread the word about job opportunities.
The whole point of holistic hiring is to bring everyone along. What better way to do that than to incentivize the hiring process? Giving an employee a $5K bonus costs less than, say, a $25K talent agency fee. Encourage your team to share your company’s opportunities with their networks.
• Develop your team’s interview skills
Team members who meet with candidates are not only helping to decide who joins the team, they’re also representing your company. It’s important that all potential candidates have a positive experience interviewing and interacting with your company. Chances are, they might tell their friends about their experience and they might even write a review on Glassdoor.
Before team members interview candidates, sync to discuss the most important criteria and also sync on the questions that you’ll ask. Candidates appreciate it when they don’t have to answer the same question over and over.
• Document your processes
You’ll thank yourself later if you write down best practices that you want everyone to remember, such as questions to ask candidates, notes about interviews, and key messages you want to convey.
Whether you use an internal wiki, Google Docs, etc., pull together resources such as your company’s origin story, product launches your team is excited about, company goals, DEI initiatives, etc. Candidates will likely ask these kinds of questions and it’s important that your team is aligned on the answers.
• Be transparent and honest
Don’t oversell your company. Be truthful about where your company’s at in its development and talk about why you enjoy working for your company.
3 traits in early-stage hires