Startup Hiring

Startup Hiring 101: A Founder’s Guide. Part 12 - Nurturing passive talent

Steve Bartel

Steve Bartel

CEO and Co-Founder

Posted on

April 1, 2024

Welcome to part 12 of our series, Nurturing passive talent from your network — let’s dive right in.

Once you’ve identified who to engage with, reached out, and started to have initial sales conversations, you’ll need to nurture these relationships to get them excited about your startup. Nurturing can be applied to anyone you’re interested in hiring but is especially important for those 1st and 2nd-degree connections from your network.

Some people you talk to may already be looking for a job and will jump straight into an interview process (active candidates). Still, most won’t be considering new opportunities (passive candidates). Your goal with passive candidates is to build momentum and excitement over time through multiple touchpoints (texts, calls, coffee chats, lunches, happy hours, etc.) while continuing to get a read on their interest level and timing.

Types of nurture touchpoints

The key to nurturing passive talent is to be armed with a broad spectrum of touchpoints, depending on the situation. At a high-level, you want a mix of indirect vs. direct touchpoints and low-touch vs. high-touch.

Indirect touchpoints

Indirect touchpoints are ways to spend time with passive candidates that aren’t necessarily in the context of a recruiting process (e.g., regular happy hours, game nights, coffee catch-ups). The more passive the candidate, the more you’ll deploy indirect touchpoints. After all, it can be off-putting to jump straight into a “recruiting” conversation before someone’s ready. Catching up over coffee chats, calls, emails, and text messages are great indirect touchpoints.

Consider setting up a recurring indirect touchpoint with your entire team, such as a happy hour or game night, that you can invite passive candidates too. This accomplishes two things:

  • Making these regular and recurring means there will always be a low-pressure and easy default option for your co-founders and team to engage with their friends and referrals.

  • Because your whole team is there; it’s a great way for passive candidates to meet your co-founders and the rest of your team without feeling like they’re being “recruited”.

At Gem, we hosted social events every two to four weeks. While there was usually wine and beer, we never made drinking the focal point in an effort to be inclusive. Instead, we had creative themes around food, like chocolate/cheese/hot-saucing tastings or make-your-own pizzas/sundaes. We did many game nights and even hosted a puppy petting event, which was a huge success. To spread the load, different team members took turns planning each social event. A big part of making these successful was sitting down with the team for 30 minutes a week in advance to invite friends and referrals (via Facebook events), and then two days before the event, to follow up with invitees.

Not only was this a great way to spend time together as a team, but social events also ensured we always had a low-pressure excuse to spend time with 1st-degree connections and referrals. This was especially important for referrals where our team wasn’t always comfortable having a recruiting conversation with their friends out of the gate. It also provided a great opportunity to spend more time with candidates in our interview process. And the fact passive candidates met active candidates that were also interviewing was good social validation because it showed candidates were actually taking our startup seriously.

Note: if your company is remote, consider a virtual game night over Zoom. At Gem, we love Jackbox Games, Codenames (online version here), and Scribble.

Direct touchpoints

Direct touchpoints are where it’s more clear you’re trying to recruit a candidate. These can be things like coffee with another co-founder/founding engineer or lunch with the team. Deploy direct touchpoints if you learn that the candidate is actively interviewing at other companies or if you start to feel them lean in during an indirect touchpoint. The goal with direct touchpoints is to get them excited enough to start interviewing with your startup.

Low vs. high touch engagement

Deploying a variety of touchpoints across the spectrum is also a good idea to keep candidates engaged. Illustrative examples include:

  • Low-touch — Quick emails, texts, calls.

  • Medium-touch — Coffee chats, video calls.

  • High-touch — Happy hours, game nights, lunch with the team, coffee with another founder/engineer.

Nurture cadence

As a best practice, try to have a touchpoint every one to three months and ramp them up if you get the sense someone is leaning in. If someone is actively interviewing, aim for an active touchpoint with them at least weekly until you can get them excited enough to interview with you. Inversely, if someone becomes less responsive, consider scaling back to every three to six months.

High-level best practices

Nurturing best practices are largely a continuation of many of the best practices in the initial sell conversation, but spread out over multiple touchpoints:

  • Before the touchpoint - Review your notes from your previous touchpoint and come prepared with a few next steps depending on where the conversation goes.

  • Continue to get to know your candidate - Every conversation is a chance to learn something new about them. This will help you frame your opportunity in a way that makes sense to the candidate.

  • Be excited - Excitement is contagious. Share exciting updates about the business, the product, key hires you’ve made, fundraising, etc.

  • Demonstrate momentum over multiple conversations - Always share a few exciting things you’re working towards that will likely happen in the next few weeks (revenue milestones, marquee customers you’re about to sign, new product launches). I’d recommend sharing things you’re fairly confident you’re going to hit or speak in general terms, so you don’t over-promise, under-deliver. Circle back on these things next time you chat to create a sense of momentum over multiple conversations.

  • Get a sense of their timing - I always like to tease out whether they’re starting to think about new opportunities to get a sense of timing. This helps me know whether to make my next touchpoint more direct or indirect. “How are you doing at XYZ company? Any chance you’re starting to think about what’s next?”

  • Always suggest a next step - Consider pulling up your calendars and scheduling it live.

    • If you get a sense that they’re ready to make a move and/or leaning in, consider asking directly “if they’d be interested in exploring working together.” If they’re ready to interview, great! If not, lunch with the team or coffee with a co-founder might be what tips them over the edge.

    • If you get the sense that it will take some more effort, ask if they’re down to catch up again in a few weeks/months, or suggest an indirect touchpoint to continue to build momentum (e.g., dropping by a happy hour).

  • After the touchpoint - Write your takeaways down while it’s fresh and schedule a follow-up task to circle back with your next touchpoint. Consider sending a quick email/text after the fact. Perhaps, share an interesting takeaway or let them know you’re looking forward to spending time soon.

How Gem nurtured its own founding team

At Gem, 25% of our hires were already looking, and we were able to convert them into candidates quickly. 75% of our founding team was passive, meaning we had to nurture them using multiple touchpoints over the course of three or more months. For some of them, it took nine or more months before they finally converted into candidates!

Nurturing passive talent is hard work and can take time to see results. It’s important to remain persistent and have a system to ensure follow-ups. At Gem, we nurtured over 100 candidates from our network, with a consistent touchpoint every one to three months. It took the course of three to six months to hire our first four founding engineers. This was a combination of indirect (coffee chats / happy hours) and direct touchpoints (lunch with the team/coffee with a different co-founder or engineer). All in, it took 500 touchpoints!

But nurturing talent from your network is definitely worth it. Once they convert into candidates, they’ll perform better in your interview process and have a much higher chance of accepting your offer because they’re in-network. And even if the timing isn’t right in the short term, many of the people you’re nurturing in the first three to nine months will continue to convert into candidates over the medium-long term, which makes hiring the rest of your founding team progressively easier.

Up Next

So now that you’ve nurtured some great candidates, you have to move to the next step – the interview. In part 13 of our series, we will discuss the do’s and don’ts of the interview, from the interview loop to the reference check, and everything in between.

In the meantime…


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