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How the best founders recruit their first engineers

Craft a company and candidate narrative to recruit top developers for early-stage startups

We’ve seen companies in the earliest phases — before they’ve created a marketing website or recruiting materials — hire outstanding engineers based solely on a compelling narrative. Founders who do this best have the ability to clearly communicate their company vision so that candidates understand how joining their company will enable them to prosper in their careers. 

In this module we’ll focus on how you communicate your vision. To do this well, you'll need to carefully craft two essential ingredients of your messaging to candidates:

  1. Your company narrative
  2. Your candidate narrative

Your company narrative

Your company narrative is an extension of your company’s mission and vision that should appear at the top of job descriptions. You and everyone on your team who will speak with candidates, including recruiters, should understand the narrative and consistently communicate this message to candidates. This narrative conveys how you want your company to be perceived by people who don’t know what you’re all about — yet.

Address these elements in your company narrative

  • Your founding story in a nutshell
  • The main problem you’re aiming to solve and why you are the right team to solve it
  • Why your company will be successful, and its unique attributes


Chances are, you’ve covered aspects of these topics in your investment pitch. Think of your company narrative as a natural extension of your fundraising pitch. The messaging should inspire talented engineers to join you in writing the next chapter of your company’s story. 

Keep your message simple and impactful 

Your company narrative should get to the point as soon as possible. For example, Traceable AI’s message is attention-grabbing and gets to the heart of a very real problem that engineers connect with:

Traceable AI is on a mission to build a complete solution that helps companies counter the new style of attacks on the ever-changing landscape of Cybersecurity. TraceableAI enables developers, Security Ops and DevSecOps teams the ability to secure their APIs via Observability, and ensure Protection and Analytics to manage risk, protect the business, and enable speed of development with safety.

As you’re writing your narrative, put yourself in the candidates’ shoes. Is your vision intriguing? If you were an engineer working full time for an amazing company and heard from a recruiter at your company, would you quit your job to work for yours? 

Make your narrative compelling

Here are two examples to consider:

RunX

RunX is building a solution to enable engineering teams to deploy and manage microservices environments. We want to make engineers more productive by supercharging the creation and ongoing operation of microservices. 

 

We are a small team of experienced industry veterans who have many years of experience in leading Infra/Devtools teams for various Silicon Valley companies. Our CEO started the Infra team at Flexport (multi-billion-dollar SF unicorn) and led the company through a major microservices transition. We’ve seen first-hand the pain experienced in such environments and are really passionate about solving it.

 

We are venture-funded and backed by industry legends such as Unusual Co-Founders Jyoti Bansal (AppDynamics founder) and John Vrionis (lead investor in AppDynamics, Mulesoft, and Arctic Wolf Networks). We also have an illustrious group of Silicon Valley CTOs, CEOs, and CISOs among our angel investors.

Unusual Ventures

Unusual is building the premier Seed Stage venture firm with an approach that provides an unprecedented level of depth with regard to assistance for founders in their journey to achieving product market fit. We provide world class mentorship with best in class operational assistance in the core areas founders need the most help with in the early years. 

We are a diverse organization that is team-first and committed to an unusual standard of performance and conduct. Our investment Partners and Founder Services team are dedicated to bringing founders their craft secrets and and best practices learned from investing in and building some of the most successful startups in history including: Appdynamics, Arctic Wolf Networks, MongoDB, Mulesoft, Nextdoor, Okta, Snowflake, and many more.

We work on behalf of many of the world’s leading Limited Partners as well as diverse and inspiring organizations such as HBCUs and foundations supporting the arts and fighting climate change. We aspire to make the “unusual” usual as we are reinventing the way the best venture capital firms are staffed, what founders should expect from their early stage investors, and where the immense profits in successful venture capital investing end up. Come join us!

Your candidate narrative

Your candidate narrative succinctly describes why someone should want to work with you. As with the company narrative, everyone who communicates with candidates should convey the same message clearly and consistently. On a job description, a candidate narrative often appears after the company narrative and addresses why the role is important right now. In your candidate narrative, you will want to describe the challenges a candidate will face and why solving them will lead to meaningful outcomes.

An effective candidate narrative spurs an emotional reaction in job candidates and tangibly connects the mission of your company to the work the candidate will be doing.

While you’ll need to talk about the product your company is creating, remember that writing to sell a product and writing to sell an engineering role are different things.

It’s essential to share your company’s values and basic information about your company’s senior leadership. Two of the most important factors in most candidates' decisions will be culture and senior leadership, according to a Glassdoor survey.

Get clear about the engineers you’re recruiting and what they want:

  • Why should they leave their current job to work for you?
  • What do they care about and how do you appeal to that in your candidate narrative?

Be specific about the purpose of the role 

In a sentence or two, describe the reason the job opening exists and the outcomes this person will drive in the next 12–18 months. 

Examples of compelling candidate narratives

From Square: Commerce is changing, and as part of that, Square is transforming from a product company to a platform company. You will help create an “AWS of Commerce” as our developer platform exposes core primitives for other companies to build on top of.

From Heartex: Heartex is looking for someone to lead open-source engineering who excels in bringing together the whole development team. You'll partner with our Founders, and be reporting directly to the CTO. This is a rare chance to help transform the machine learning space with a next-gen solution.

Test and validate your messaging

Before engaging with a recruiter, founders should contact people in their own networks and try to recruit talented engineers. How was your outreach received? You will know that your messaging is working when those in your network ask to meet to learn more about the role. Kind words about how you’ve structured your narrative from those you’re connected to don’t mean much. Iterate on your message until you begin to see people in your network lean in to learn more.


Once you’ve received constructive feedback and are confident about your messaging, you’ll be ready to make it official. Include the messaging in the job description and incorporate it into your website’s hiring page, LinkedIn page, social media, etc. (See Develop your startup’s online recruiting brand and the recruiting brand checklist.) 

Prepare to talk about how candidates will grow in their careers at your company

Before interviewing candidates, be prepared to speak confidently about the points you’ve written in your company and candidate narratives. Top engineers are in high demand — how can you help them visualize the impact they’ll make at your company and grow in their career along the way? 

Talk about how your experience and vision as a founder will steer the company and help them understand how they’ll succeed with you.

Be prepared to answer these questions from candidates:

  • Why is my role important? How will I make an impact if I work for you?

  • What opportunities for growth will you provide, and how long do you think it would take me to move up the ladder?

  • How would I fit into the existing team, and who would I work most closely with?

Written by
John Vrionis
Co-Founder & Managing Partner
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John Vrionis
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