How To

March 21, 2019

How to build a brilliant team: Hiring advice for startups

We asked six startup hiring pros from around Europe for their top tips on how to recruit right.

Amy Lewin

16 min read

Ask any founder in Europe what their number one challenge right now is, and guess what they’ll say? Hiring.

Every leader with their head screwed on knows that building a team of talented people who are right for their particular business, at this particular moment in its journey, is vitally important to the success of that company. And yet still, so many startups get it wrong, over and over again.

So Sifted called up six people who’ve dedicated serious time and energy to learning how to hire well — from tech and operations managers to professional recruiters — to ask for their advice.

Tom Rogers

Tom Rogers

Tom Rogers is cofounder and chief technical officer at Farewill, a London-based legal tech startup, where he leads an all-female developer team.
What's the one question you always ask potential hires — and why?

I've not got one question (we ask a lot and write the question set specifically for the candidate and role), but I have one phrasing I use all the time: 'Can you tell me about a time when you've...'

Do you follow any particular hiring processes?

Yes, when we're hiring we put a lot of time and effort into it because we think it's really important and that it all pays off — we also try and get the whole team involved as we think that makes for better results. Here's the process for a typical hire:

  1. Spend time writing a great job spec — make it exciting, representative of the role and appealing to a wide range of people (e.g. check gender bias by putting it through a gender decoder).
  2. Create a job scorecard for key competencies.
  3. Put the ad up on a range of sites, our hiring page and LinkedIn etc.
  4. Run a team sourcing session.

Then, when we get applicants:

  1. Phone call with our head of talent Mike.
  2. Take-home task (e.g. code task) — should be representative of the role and also not take too long (some people have jobs/kids/life).
  3. Invite them in for a group task (e.g. pair programming) and CV interview.
  4. Reference calls and offer.
What's one change you've made to how you hire over time which has had a positive impact?

Getting better at asking questions that result in specific, real examples that we can tie to competencies (scorecard).

What's one big mistake you made with hiring in the early days?

Not putting enough effort into sourcing potential candidates. When we were starting out, as a small startup in an un-glamorous area (wills and probate), the queue of people applying for jobs was small to say the least; to get great hires you need to put in a lot of effort to reach enough interested people.

Would you recommend any hiring platforms / tools?

We find Workable really good as an applicant tracking system (ATS) — but unless you wangle a discount it can get really expensive.

Keji Mustapha

Keji Mustapha

Keji Mustapha is head of founder network at European early-stage investor Connect Ventures, where she helps startups like mobility app Citymapper and fintech app Curve find great talent.
Do you follow any particular hiring processes?

We recently decided to add to our (small) team and so I led the redesign of our hiring process. It’s the first time we’re growing our team since I joined a couple of years ago, so it was a good time to reflect on the previous process and identify areas for improvement.

1. The job spec: I used the free review on Applied’s job description analysis tool to check that the language of the job descriptions wasn’t overtly skewed to a specific gender. This is obviously crucial if you want to attract diverse, top talent.

2. The application process: We asked interested parties to complete an application form, to put themselves forward for the roles.

3. The questions are mixture of formal (eg “Can we get the link to your LinkedIn?”, or “Why Us?”), and fun (“Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?”, or “What food sums up happiness?”). The goal of the mixed bag of questions is to let applicants get a sense of who we are, our culture and to show that we’re not your traditional VC firm. We’re approachable and don’t take ourselves too seriously.

4. The interviews: These are a mixture of telephone interviews (stage one), and face-to-face interviews (stages two and three). My personal interview style is quite conversational as I’ve found this is the best way to get the most out of the interviewee and for them to get the best out of us, the interviewer (it’s a two-way interview!)


5. Setting the expectations at the start of the call or face-to-face meeting of the flow of the interview, topics to be covered and then an intro from the different interviewers, I‘ve found, sets us up for a productive conversation.

6. The assessment: We focus more on scenario-based questions and the aim is really to get a sense of how they think and how they’d approach the real-life challenges they’d come up against in the role.

Referencing… is an opportunity to find out, from someone who’s worked closely with the individual, what areas we can help support them in when they join the team.

7. Referencing: The goal of this stage is to use it as an opportunity to find out, from someone who’s worked closely with the individual, what areas we can help support them in when they join the team. And it’s always helpful to see how the feedback from the referee aligns with the individual’s development goals.

8. Onboarding: The crucial final step of the process — which is often neglected (I certainly have mistakenly done so in the early days). The goal here is to really think about and design a process that sets the individual up for success. To this end, the key is ensuring that the new team member understands who we are as a firm, our goals, how their role impacts the achievement of these goals and their key deliverables for that first quarter.

What's one change you've made to how you hire over time which has had a positive impact?

Reaching out to groups and organisations that have a diverse makeup of members, to share open positions. After many conversations with talent from underrepresented backgrounds and heads of people at a number of high-growth startups in the ecosystem, my takeaway was that a mixed pipeline of diverse candidates won’t just happen. It’s up to the hiring manager to seek out these groups and organisations, build relationships with them and share relevant job openings as and when the time comes.

What's one big mistake you made with hiring in the early days?

Not giving the same level of attention to the design of the onboarding process as the interview process. Of course we had the welcome team lunch, the new laptop, all the logins setup, info for them to read about the company, time to meet department heads — but I hadn’t built any time in for reflection, to quiz them to check who they understood us to be as a company and how they understood their role fitting in to the delivery of the company’s goals.

Would you recommend any hiring tools?

Workable is my ATS of choice, Calendly to keep track of interviews, Applied to check my job specs (in terms of job boards, AngelList, Escape the City and Work In Startups are all places I’ve successfully recruited from in the past).

Alex Helmer

Alex Helmer

Alex Helmer is cofounder and head of operations at Lisbon-based startup JungleAI, which helps factories and wind farms predict when assets will fail and fix them before they do.
What's the one question you always ask potential hires — and why?

We ask our candidates to rate themselves on their proficiency for the job that they're applying for. This may seem like a weird question to ask, since why would anyone apply if they didn't think that they were proficient? But we want to see the extent to which the applicant is biased by the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

As a secondary result, this question reveals the candidate's capacity for self-reflection, which touches on a number of Jungle's values: for example, being honest with ourselves and accepting that we don't know everything.

Do you follow any particular hiring processes?

We always start with a relatively informal 'getting to know you' call. This is where we find out more about the candidate's background and interest in Jungle, as well as seeing how much they have thought about the role and its challenges. We approach this as a two-way interview, where the candidate also gets time to interview us about our company, products, people, and vision. We want the candidate to enter the interview process with a clear understanding of what we do and why it matters, what it's like to work at Jungle, and why we're recruiting for that role.

Next, we shortlist for a task-based interview, where we send the candidates a technical case study to work through in advance. Via an analytical discussion we can dig into how the candidate structures their thinking to solve problems, and find out how well they communicate. We want to hire smart and engaging people, so discussing the candidate's approach to the task, offering a challenge, bouncing ideas around — these dynamics help us find recruits who are energised by solving problems in a collaborative way.

The third — and often last — round is typically a continuation of the second round. We will supply more data, broaden the challenge, and release more unknown variables. We make sure that this round is always attended by at least one of the founders, preferably two.

For senior positions there will be a final round which consists of a wide-ranging discussion with another founder and a member of our advisory board. The purpose of this is to test team fit and the candidate's ability to bring a broader perspective to the role.

What's one change you've made to how you hire over time which has had a positive impact?

We've recently been experimenting with hosting the applicant for a day to solve the task. Apart from evaluating the results of the exercise, we can also observe their approach, progress, and most importantly, their interaction with the team. One can keep up a facade for an hour or two, but for a whole day it becomes pretty much impossible!

What's one big mistake you made with hiring in the early days?
We used to hire mostly on intelligence [but] humility, values and culture have proven far more important factors to hire on.

We used to hire mostly on intelligence. The smarter the team, the faster our progress, right? Well, not really. Humility, values and culture have proven far more important factors to hire on. Humility is the basis for learning. If you cannot recognise that someone else may know something a lot better than you do, you will miss the greatest opportunity to grow your knowledge!

Secondly, teams function a lot better when all members express empathy towards each other. Research has shown that under pressure, individuals tend to perform less well. That's why we work hard to create an environment where people feel safe and supported by their peers.

Lastly, we hire in support of our culture. At Jungle, we have a culture that strikes the right balance (in our view) between producing results and allowing space for quirkiness. One cannot live without the other, but moving too far towards either extreme will cause a toxic or inefficient culture.

Would you recommend any hiring platforms?

We use Recruitee which makes it really easy to review applicants, keep track of the pipeline and share recruitment resources as a team. It gives much needed structure to the recruiting process if, like us, you don't have a HR guru to play the coordinating role.

Sophie Theen

Sophie Theen

Sophie Theen is head of HR and talent at London-based fintech consultancy 11:FS. She was previously head of people at fast-growing digital bank Revolut.
What's the one question you always ask potential hires — and why?
Where do you see yourself in your career now?

“Where do you see yourself in your career now?” I want to know how good their self reflection is; this is leadership 101. Without this, you’re just trodding along in job after job without a North Star and that scares me from a growth point of view. We all want to unleash better, more effective leaders for our future generation, don’t we?

Do you follow any particular hiring methodologies?

We’ve adopted the social hiring methodology [using social media platforms to source and attract talent] and it’s one of the most effective I’ve seen throughout my career. This is a way to humanise recruitment, which is often seen as just another sales pitch to candidates. You’re creating engagement with the right people in the right forums and that’s so important for hiring now because whether we like it or not, candidates have options and they certainly do not want to walk blindly into a company without at least being given some indication it’s the right place to be.

What's one change you've made to how you hire over time which has had a positive impact?

Reviewing every aspect of the process as a candidate myself. Yes, my preference of engagement may be different from another person’s but if you are able to align expectations to engagement, then I think you’re on the right track.

I also treat candidates as “future leavers” because it helps you reverse engineer the process critically. That way, you’re always thinking about treating your candidates right at the very start of your engagement.

What's one big mistake you made with hiring in the early days?

In the past I’ve allowed workload to affect quality hiring. I was taking on more open roles that I should, and naively thought the watertight hiring process we have created will curb all issues that may arise. I was proven wrong. Recruitment is 70% emotional, 30% process, because there are no two same candidates who want the same things. As soon as the quality of candidates’ experience is taking a hit, it’s time to improve the efficiency of the hiring team.

João Mira

João Mira

João Mira is chief operating officer of Startup Guide, a Berlin-based publishing company with physical stores in Berlin, Copenhagen and Lisbon (and a member of the Sifted community).
What’s your hiring process?

We have identified three main virtues that all our employees should have — humble, hungry, and smart — and we intentionally look out for those when meeting with a candidate.

We try to avoid the classic format of an interview with predefined questions as that would not reflect the work environment present at Startup Guide. We try to have informal chats with the candidates and many times we even take them to the coffee shop next door, so they can feel more relaxed in a neutral environment and we can get to know each other better.

Finally, as soon as the candidate goes through the first step of the process their CV is not relevant anymore. We frequently don't hire the best candidate on paper, but rather the one we feel that will better fit the culture of the team.

What's one change you've made to how you hire over time which has had a positive impact?

We now involve other people from the team when hiring someone, and the candidate goes through more rounds of conversations. When the candidate is going to work close to one of our team leads, we even let them take ownership of the process. This has helped us find better people but has also helped us to improve our onboarding process, as by the time the new hires join they are more aware of the tasks that await them and they have a better knowledge of the team.

Always wait for your top candidate, even if that means that you'll have to spread yourselves thin for a couple of months.
What's one big mistake you made with hiring in the early days?

We've hired the second best candidate because the first one could not start earlier and we wanted to fill the position quickly. Always wait for your top candidate, even if that means that you'll have to spread yourselves thin for a couple of months.

Also, do not chase a candidate if you feel like you have to convince them to take the position. If that's the case, you're most probably hiring the wrong person.

Anna Stenberg

Anna Stenberg is founder of Swedish executive recruitment agency WES, which finds women for leadership positions in companies ranging from Ikea to Rocket Internet and Readly.
What are some changes companies can make to their hiring process and job ads to make roles more appealing to women and diverse candidates?

More and more companies apply the 70/30 rule in order to attract more female and diverse candidates. It means that 70% of the job ad should be about the company values, culture and leadership and only 30% about the actual competence requirements.

Company values and leadership approach are the two most important decision factors when talent choose an employer. Usually 95% of the job ad consists of a long list of requirements needed to apply for the job. That tends to scare candidates away – especially female stars.

What's one big mistake you see startups make when hiring for their leadership teams?

They hire friends and candidates that have approached the company instead of the best ones on the market. In the early stage startups are grateful for anyone who is ready to come and work for them. They are usually not that picky or careful when they hire their first employees despite the fact that the first external hires are extremely important and completely business critical. If these initial hires go wrong it will affect the expansion tempo as well as the cash flow and revenue growth.

A strong recommendation is to ensure recruitment processes are conducted in a professional way. If you can’t afford an external recruitment agency you can always get a cost-efficient second opinion from them for very little money to double check the quality of the candidates you have identified yourself.

How can startups and smaller companies make themselves more attractive to experienced, senior talent?
Look for candidates who understand what it means to build a plane while flying it.

It is all about explaining the journey the company is about to make, in an inspiring yet honest and transparent way. Use the vision and purpose of the company to attract candidates who share that vision rather than just focusing on finding candidates with the right CV.

Look for candidates who want to be part of your journey, who have an entrepreneurial mindset and understand what it means to build a plane while flying it. Not all leaders out there are ready for such a challenge.

Many experienced and senior people are not looking for a fancy title or optimised salary anymore. Purpose, meaning and impact becomes more important every year and that’s what an interesting startup often can offer.

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on X and LinkedIn