How early-stage startups can outcompete the big guys for top-notch talent

By Editor January 7, 2013

Rich KleinBy Rich Klein, Executive Vice President and Advanced Technology Search Lead, JobPlex

As an executive recruiter I get asked a lot about what I know about company X or Y. Being a search consultant in the online technology space, I am always open to providing my honest opinion good, bad or indifferent. Now, if the perception of a startup in the market is not complimentary the company has some fundamental issues to tackle. If the potential talent pool has heard great things about the startup’s management, product, vision, etc., they are clearly on the right track. But a majority of companies just starting out in the very crowded digital startup world fall in bucket number three: the unknown.

So the big question is how does a company become known to the ‘A Players’ that will help grow the business? Unknown companies need to do four things very well to attract and sway top talent to join their team in the New Year.

Commit to networking

Networking is not easy for everyone. It demands a lot of energy, time, and the ability to tell a story in a precise and simple way. One of the fantastic aspects of the digital space is how closely tied we all are to networking tools, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and industry-specific online communities. This makes it rather easy to create a profile and get the ball rolling. What happens next is critical. They have to be willing to turn a quick LinkedIn message or tweet into a phone conversation or, ideally, an in-person meeting. Even though they live in a fast paced digital world nothing has yet replaced the power of a candid face-to-face conversation. It is still the best way to meet and learn about people.

Consistently ask ‘A Players’ who they know

When I was at a client lunch a few years ago I was told one of the most beneficial networking nuggets I have ever learned. The CEO of my client company asked me what some of my best practices were in leveraging and building my personal business network. I told him a few of my tricks of the trade. My client, who has been a very successful entrepreneur, responded with a simple concept he has been effectively utilizing for decades to attract a large and very influential network of professionals. He said that in every networking opportunity he always asks individuals that he is impressed with a simple question: “who do you know?” This approach is easy and makes a lot of sense. Talented people in all industries and company functions want to work with like-minded and smart people. These same people tend to also attract great people to their teams and companies. The only thing that this concept really asks you to do is consistently ask your favorite people to introduce you to some of their favorite people.

Only work with recruiting partners you really trust

Building mutually beneficial partnerships typically takes a lot of thoughtful planning and seamless execution. Where I see many early to mid-stage startups make an acute mistake is not taking those same business fundamentals and applying them to recruiting their people. Many companies depend on a passive networking approach or farming out many of their most important open positions to a bevy of unknown contingency firms. In my experience this method of searching for top talent can lead to a great deal of wasted time, potentially bad hiring decisions and poor representation of the business’s brand. When working with a recruiting partner or establishing a trusted network of peers, make sure expectations are properly set in two respects: clearly communicate the mission, objectives, skill set, and additional criteria needed for each position that needs to be filled and recognize that this business partner is an extension of the business. How they sell their company culture, unique product or service is going to play a big difference in landing an A Player or not. It is vital to put the work in at the beginning, setting expectations and getting on the same page to ensure a successful hiring. Keep in mind any thoughtful recruiting expert or trusted professional will want to take the time to learn about the business so they can deliver the quality of individuals needed. If they are not engaged in the process, they may not be the right partner.

Keep it simple

My grandfather use to always say “keep it simple, Richie.” My grandfather was a baker for 50 years and his bakery was well known where I grew up in Upstate New York. One of the main reasons that so many people loved his cookies, cakes and other sweet treats is that his recipes had a simple elegance to them. As a patron you could look at his case of freshly baked bread or donuts and you knew exactly what you were getting. I think this same transparency is essential to attracting top talent. As I always say, top talent always has a lot of professional options. The easier a business leader can keep their value proposition and interview process typically the better the result. This does not mean taking short cuts in the process, but putting the majority of time in the planning and preparation phase. If the business appears buttoned-up and organized in the hiring process, the candidate will take notice, respect it and appreciate it. Strive for simplicity and the probability of building a business with great people will increase.

I am the first to recognize that these concepts are not overly complex. In my opinion that is exactly why they work. When it comes to attracting the best people, it’s all about building meaningful and thoughtful relationships.


Rich Klein serves as Executive Vice President of Jobplex, Inc., a DHR International company. He is based in the firm’s headquarters in Chicago, and is a generalist with a specialty in the online technology and digital media industry.

Prior to joining JobPlex, Rich spent over four years serving as co-founder and president at Breakthrough Search Partners, a boutique search firm specialized in building sales and operations teams for online technology companies nationwide. Rich successfully completed searches for positions including account directors, senior account managers, client services and vice presidents.

Rich is known for being a trusted business partner for growing companies at both the mature startup and more established stage. He brings a common sense approach and insightful business acumen for solving his clients’ recruitment challenges. Rich has an exceptional ability to quickly assess his client companies’ hiring needs and identify relevant candidates.

Before starting Breakthrough Search Partners, Rich worked in several senior sales positions selling online technology and software. He was a top producer and recipient of several company awards.

He holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Health Promotion from Bowling Green State University. He resides in Geneva, IL, with his wife and three children.