Many bootstrappers try to maintain the “I can do it myself” mentality for as long as possible. As such, it's not uncommon for bootstrapped founders to actually wait too long to hire full-time employees, and end up spending their precious time on areas that do not match their strengths or interests. This type of behavior will stunt growth, as the founders are randomized across tasks and not focused on their core competencies. When a bootstrapper finally bites the bullet and decides to hire, it can often be an urgent affair.
Unfortunately, the truth is attracting great talent to a bootstrapped startup can be difficult. Typically, you’re operating with lower budgets than the VC-backed startups that are competing for the best talent. You lack the ability to spend large amounts of cash on big conferences, massive advertising campaigns, and armies of recruiters.
There is no way to sugarcoat it - most job seekers are looking for companies with significant resources and near-certain growth. It will be daunting to go head-to-head with the VC-backed, sky-rocketing startups or the incumbent cash cows with guaranteed stability. Why would world-class talent go to a startup that lacks significant funding?
That question is exactly what I’ll be answering in this article.
Before I get into solutions for hiring at bootstrapped startups, I’ll share my credentials on the topic. I co-founded Grovia.io in May of 2020. We did not take traditional institutional capital and instead scaled via revenue and alternative funding sources. In 2021, our revenue grew 10x and we hired 27 full-time employees.
At the time of writing this, all but a few of these employees are still with Grovia - which was acquired by Acceleration Partners in May of 2022. While much of the world was suffering from the Great Resignation in 2021, Grovia typically experienced triple-digit applications to our job opportunities within a day of posting on LinkedIn. It appeared the Great Resignation was actually a good thing for Grovia - all that talent was flocking to us. In hindsight, there were some clear steps we took that helped us accomplish this.
See below for 6 detailed steps on attracting great talent to your company:
This is the primary role of the CEO - setting a clear vision and articulating thoughtfully. Strangely enough, I often see CEOs skip over the vision in their interview process, focusing entirely on the specific role and associated responsibilities. CEOs at small bootstrapped companies should put the same effort into sharing their vision with job candidates as they do investors or sales prospects. This also applies to the job description, which I will address below. Job seekers that apply for startup companies want to join something that is fulfilling and meaningful. Do not get so focused on the candidate, the role, and the interview that you forget to share why you are starting this company and why the candidate should care.
At Grovia, we made it clear that we were building a new category within the partner marketing industry: partner recruitment. It was a gap in the industry that we had identified, and we were setting the foundation for new methodologies and best practices to help companies find revenue-generating partners at scale. We were also transparent about our product/service roadmap, exit strategy and growth projection in these early calls with candidates.
Important advice coming in: do not make up job titles. Do not use unusual job titles. Use standard, common job titles for your job board posts. For example, if you are hiring for a sales role, do not title the role “strategist”. That is not what sales people type into LinkedIn when looking for a job. If you are hiring for a marketing manager, do not title the role “automation expert” or “growth manager”. You can get more specific in the job description, but the title should be general enough that it has significant reach. “Sales Executive” and “Marketing Manager” are better titles for job board posts.
Additionally, spend some time on your job description. You can use existing job descriptions for inspiration, but do not simply copy and paste. You want your company and job to stand out. Highlight what makes your company unique, highlight what people will love about the role, and make the role sound attractive.
This is also another opportunity to share your company vision. Build excitement for your role. Go above and beyond here, and you will attract better talent.
When I first started Grovia.io, I built my own website using Squarespace. It was not pretty, but it got the job done for cheap in the early days. My mistake was waiting nearly a year to get it professionally developed.
The difference was apparent nearly overnight after launching. Our credibility skyrocketed. Our web traffic doubled. Our leads tripled. We started having inbound inquiries about job openings before we even posted a job. It was game-changing.
Our company grew quickly after our website launch. In the couple months following our website launch, we hired 10 new employees. We were often complimented on our website by candidates. Better yet, these candidates typically came better prepared for their interviews because they were engaged enough by the website to read about our product and services.
For most job seekers, the first thing they do upon seeing a job listing is to check out the website. If your website looks like it was built by me… then you need to probably find the money to invest in something better.
This tip is nearly old news at the time of writing this. If you want to attract and retain talent to your company, offering a flexible work culture is a sure-fire way to boost the number of candidates you receive.
Remote work is unsurprisingly a big selling point, especially for Gen Z candidates. This generation does not want to live the 9-5 commuter/cubicle lifestyle. If you go talk to people in this age group, many will tell you that lifestyle is their worst nightmare. It may sound dramatic to someone who lived it for most of their life, but this generation knows they can find roles that provide more flexibility and freedom. For more information on remote work and digital nomad policies, you can read my full blog post on it here.
Another key aspect of a flexible work culture is offering flexible paid time off (PTO). At Grovia, we set PTO minimums with no limits and were very transparent with our team that taking PTO is not a crime.
While “unlimited PTO” is the terminology I used while running Grovia, I’ve actually begun rebranding “unlimited PTO” to “open, self-managed PTO”. I think it is a more accurate articulation of what this concept is.
Aside from flexible work culture, offering a generally competitive benefits package is a no-brainer way to attract talent. It’s not rocket science.
Finally, providing an equity incentive will help you recruit employees that believe in the vision and want to see the company succeed. At Grovia, every single employee received an equity incentive - it aligns everyone with the ultimate goal of building a high-value startup. We used stock options as the mechanism for sharing equity - and the number of stock options granted was based on seniority.
Now that you’ve laid down the foundation for a successful hiring campaign, it’s time to post your job. I prefer LinkedIn over other job boards.
LinkedIn gives you the ability to “promote” your job post on LinkedIn. It’s structured as a pay-per-click pricing model, where you can set your daily cost and get a guaranteed number of clicks. Assuming you’ve done everything mentioned above in this article, promoting your job on LinkedIn at the minimum cost per day will get you hundreds of applicants within days. You do not need massive budgets for job posting promotion if you’ve spent the proper amount of time developing your job description, job title, website, and benefits.
Once you’ve actually secured interviews, it’s time to seal the deal. Not every applicant is gonna be a good fit, and in most cases, very few will be. It’s up to you to weed through the candidates and find the gems.
Now, in the case of bootstrapped startups, you might not have the highest budgets for salaries. It’s possible you can’t compete with the other guys with millions of VC dollars. At Grovia, we occasionally ran into candidates that appeared to be a great fit, they had years of experience and were confident they could come in and make a positive impact - the only problem is that their salary expectations were about 2x our budget... In situations like this, there is no benefits package, equity comp, or product vision that will tip the scales in your favor - you simply have to move on to the next candidate.
Somewhere along the way, we started to realize that with our smaller budgets, we had better luck hiring based on culture/behavioral fit as opposed to experience. The new hires that came in with little to no experience, but had great charisma, intelligence, and autonomy often performed better than the new hires that were expensive and had more experience.
I do not think this realization is necessarily novel, many companies come to the same conclusion, bootstrapped or not. However, I do think it’s an especially important learning for bootstrapped founders with smaller budgets and very limited room for expensive mis-hires.
Hire based on culture-fit and propensity to learn and you will be a happier founder!
I hope I have helped provide some guidance on attracting talent to a bootstrapped startup. There is plenty of opportunity to hire amazing people, if you take the time to set your company up for successful hiring campaigns.
It can be difficult to take that first leap, but do not let the one-man-army mentality stop you from making that first hire - eventually you will need to delegate work that lets you focus more time on your strengths. It will make you a better founder, and if you hire properly, it will have an exponential effect on your growth.
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