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Startup Founder and Recruiter-in-Chief: Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

Updated: Jan 17

This is the second in a series of four blog posts in which I share the steps and processes we followed when making the all-important first two hires at RecruitLoop. In the first post, I focused on how we identified candidates. Here I discuss strategies for the screening and interviewing process.

Initial screening process

To move through the incredibly time-consuming process of screening applicants, we did the following:

  • If a candidate was so-so on paper (in terms of either experience or cultural fit), we had them do a brief recorded video interview. After all the founders viewed the videos and provided their feedback, very few candidates made it to the next step. This saved us unnecessary meetings with more than 30 candidates who were not the right fit.

  • If a candidate looked fabulous on paper, we set up a coffee meeting, phone call, or Skype call.

Whatever your approach, you need a system to quickly triage every applicant, focusing on the ones with real potential while minimizing wasting time.

Time invested = 44 video interviews (5-10 minutes each)

Initial interview

The most promising candidates on paper and the ones with a solid video interview were invited to a Skype call – more insightful than a simple phone call but far less time-consuming than going for coffee.

Some of the high-level questions we asked were:

  • Why are you interested in the role?

  • Tell me about a time you …

  • What are you looking for in 3-5 years?

What were we looking for at this stage? Most importantly, we were screening for cultural fit (which included shared values and interests). We also looked more deeply into specific areas of experience.

Because our founding team was split between two countries, the next step for promising candidates was a follow-up Skype call with another team member.

Time invested:  17 Skype interviews (20-60 minutes each)

Face-to-face interview

Because several of our top candidates weren’t local, in-person interviews at this point in the process were challenging. However, several promising candidates lived in the region, giving us a chance to meet face-to-face and discuss more thoroughly specific questions from the previous screening interview.

This in-person interview was also our first chance to apply the ‘airport test’, which we believe is a critical one for any new hires: How would you feel about being stuck in an airport with this person if your flight was delayed by six hours?

Time invested: 18 interviews (50-60 minutes each)

Skill verification

To determine if a potential candidate is truly a good fit for the role, your best bet is to have them work on a project for your company. Unfortunately, a genuine trial isn’t possible for most candidates, since they’ll likely have full-time jobs elsewhere. However, a short project is usually possible—and highly recommended.

Here are the projects we had our top candidates do:

1. Demonstrate your skill.

We invited our top candidates to develop a list of potential projects that would take roughly three to five hours and would best showcase their relevant skills. This project was useful in determining their understanding of the problems we’d need them solve—and how they could add value to our company.

From this list, we mutually selected a project that required a combination of strategy and tactics. This gave us valuable insights into how they liked to work, their technical understanding, and creativity.

2. Demonstrate sales savviness.

We asked our sales-focused candidates a more general question: “How would you plan and execute your first 100 days in the role?”

Our goal: to gain insight into the candidate’s strategic thinking, tactical execution, and hustle.

Time invested: 3-5 hours from each candidate, plus 2 hours of discussion

Check references

Once we had narrowed the field to two applicants and were seriously interested, we wanted to learn more about their professional experiences.

To do so, we pursued two strategies simultaneously:

1. References provided by the candidate.

Do candidates ever provide a reference that will offer a negative opinion? No. But such references are still valuable. Listen for verbal cues, pauses, and side-remarks, because they can give you deeper insight into the candidate. We recommend conducting two references for every candidate you’re seriously considering.

2. Back-channel references.

These are more sensitive and more useful. We looked through LinkedIn to find contacts that were not directly connected with the candidate but we were removed by one degree. In other words, we sought a connection who could introduce us to someone our candidates had worked with.

Most applicants understand the need for back-channel references. But you still need to approach them with caution and common-sense. Avoid contacting anyone at their current company, and remember that your back-channel digging will almost certainly get back to them at some point.

Time invested:  3 hours searching LinkedIn + 2 hours of reference calls

The last round

It’s hard to tell, exactly, when “final interviews” began. Our discussions at some point moved from testing the waters to trying to see if there was a mutual fit. From the outset of contact with specific candidates until we made offers, we had a total of:

Candidate 1:  6 calls and 2-hour breakfast

Candidate 2:  6 calls, a 2-hour meeting, and a dinner with partners (theirs and mine)

There’s no right number of calls or interviews. Since both candidates lived outside the Bay Area, and our other co-founders live on the other side of the world, this process probably took a lot more time than it would have if all co-founders and candidates were local. We aimed to strike a balance between gaining enough insight and confidence into their ability and fit, without wearing them out.

Guest blogger Michael Overell is the co-founder and CEO at RecruitLoop, a marketplace for elastic recruiting. You can follow him @mboverell. This article was originally posted on the RecruitLoop Blog to document Michael’s experience to make his first two key hires.


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