Startup Hiring

Startup Hiring 101: A Founder’s Guide. Part 4 - Sourcing 1st-degree connections

Steve Bartel

Steve Bartel

CEO and Co-Founder

Posted on

January 18, 2024

Sourcing and recruiting from your network is going to be the highest ROI way to hire your early-stage team as a small startup, especially engineers. Start here. Every co-founder should be spending time on this regardless of their role once you’re ready to hire.

In-network hires are great because it’s easier to get an idea of whether they’re a good fit (either you’ve worked with them or can back-channel easily). More importantly, people from your network are going to be more likely to take a leap and join you. Joining an early-stage startup is super risky and a huge commitment on their part. With personal connections, you’ll have insight into what would motivate them to join and can lean on your network to help them decide.

If you or your co-founder or your team are uneasy with reaching out to your network about working at your startup, I urge you to get comfortable with it. If you don’t put yourself out there and engage with talent, you won’t hire a team, and your startup will fail. It’s as simple as that.

Tooling stack

Before diving in, you may want to spend 15 minutes setting up on a few tools. Of course, we recommend giving Gem a spin. It’s free for two years if you apply to our free for startups program.

LinkedIn (Basic or Recruiter Lite) + Gem will cover all of the bases between candidate search, candidate work history, email finder, outreach, CRM, and ATS. But you can also piece together your own custom stack if you want to, e.g., LinkedIn + ContactOut + Spreadsheet + MixMax. Check out the Startup Tooling Stack in the complete startup hiring 101 guide for more details.

Build your list

Start by building your short-list of 10-25 people and then cast a wider net. At Gem, we call these our “L1 connections” and “L2 connections”:

  • L1 connections - These are your “Gems.” The shortlist of 10-25 people who you’ve worked with closely, or know by reputation, that you’d want to work with no matter what. This is where you and your co-founders should start.

  • L2 connections - These are folks you suspect are good but maybe haven’t worked as closely with. L2 connections may be classmates from school, friends from previous internships, and colleagues from former companies.

Carve out a few hours to go through your Facebook and LinkedIn connections to build your list of L1 connections. There’s a good chance this will turn up a good number of L2 connections as well. If you’re using Gem, you can create projects for L1 connections and L2 connections, and download our Chrome Extension to seamlessly import each person from LinkedIn with one click.

If you haven’t done a great job maintaining Facebook or LinkedIn connections, run a search on LinkedIn to find people you know that you haven’t connected with yet. Try running a search for your school and then each company you’ve worked for (don’t forget your internships).

Reach out

When reaching out, your primary goal is to get to an initial conversation, whether that’s a call, Zoom meeting, coffee, lunch, etc. (see nurturing passive talent from your network for many more ideas).

For candidates in your network, we recommend reaching out as you build your list, so you can take a few minutes to personalize your messages. If you’re using Gem, you can personalize and send emails right alongside LinkedIn without having to jump between tabs.

Consider using text and/or FB messenger for L1 connections and L2 connections, you know well. Be sure to mark this in your spreadsheet or 1-click log your outreach in Gem, so you know you’ve reached out.

Hold yourself accountable for contacting and following up with at least 25 people per week. This is super important and should only take a few hours (even less if you’re using Gem to automate the manual work!).

Email messaging best practices

  • Keep your subject line short (50 characters or less) - Most email is read on mobile where there’s less screen real estate.

  • Personalize your outreach - Do heavier personalization for your L1 connections. Consider light-weight personalization for L2 connections, like how you know each other (school, a former company, etc.) or mutual connections for social proof. Make sure your personalization is front and center, so there’s no need to scroll on mobile.

  • Include a clear Call-to-Action (“CTA”) - Don’t force your candidate to think of the next step. Suggest a specific next step and time/date to lower friction to respond.

  • Keep it short -Target 100-250 words when reaching out over email and avoid long paragraphs.

  • Share links - Linking to fundraising announcements, product launches, and press can give you external validation. Links can also be a great jumping-off point for candidates to learn more while keeping your initial message short. If you don’t have anything, consider writing a blog post about your startup (see example blog post by our co-founder Nick), so you have something to include in your outreach.

Example reach out templates

Here’s a template we use to reach out to our engineering L2 Connections from MIT. This is how we hired our second engineer, Jet Zhou. Please note, we reference MIT and namedrop me, Nick, Drew (who all went to MIT) for social proof. Also, notice the use of links for validation, which also serves as a jumping-off point to learn more.


A few of us from MIT / Facebook / Dropbox (me, nick, drew) are getting a startup off the ground. We just raised an exciting seed round from Accel and are partnering closely with customers like Dropbox, MuleSoft, Pinterest, so we could really use some help!

Interested in grabbing a coffee next week to explore teaming up?

For people you know pretty well, you may want to catch up casually before jumping straight into a recruiting conversation. Consider an indirect message & CTA:

Hey {{first_name}}, it’s been a while! [INSERT PERSONALIZATION]

A few of us from MIT (me, nick, drew) are working on a startup, and we’re starting to get some interesting traction. I would love to get your feedback on what we’re building.

I’d also love to hear what you’ve been up to. Want to catch up over coffee next week?

Of course, don’t copy these templates verbatim. It wouldn’t be great if every candidate starts seeing the exact same language. Use these as a starting point and make them your own. Also, if you’re remote, consider suggesting catching up over call/video chat instead of a coffee.

Other best practices for reaching out

  • Send emails, not InMail - Again, many people on LinkedIn have their InMail notifications off. Especially engineers — 40% of technical talent have notifications off.

  • Follow up 2-3 times - Many people may not respond to your initial messages, especially L2 connections. In fact, our data shows you double your response rate by sending two to three follow-ups. You can use Gem to send automated follow-ups that only go out if there’s no response.

  • Keep your follow-ups short but interesting - Your follow-ups should be shorter than your initial outreach. It’s ok to reinforce a key point, but consider introducing a new concept to avoid being too repetitive. Try a “break up email” for your final follow-up.

  • Send from multiple co-founders - Consider sending follow-ups from different co-founders to be extra high-touch. You can use Gem to automate follow-ups from different senders, which response rates by 20%.

  • Use Gem - Gem automates most of the manual, tedious work that goes into list-building and reaching out, making it easy to follow these best practices.

If you want to go even deeper on outreach best-practices, here’s Gem’s “Definitive Guide for Email Outreach,” a data-driven guidebook based on millions of messages sent through Gem.

How to handle responses

Most of your responses will fall into one of four categories:

  • Interested - Sweet! Reply immediately to schedule an initial coffee chat or call. Aim to schedule it no more than a few days out.

  • Not Interested - You’ll get a lot of rejections, which is ok. It’s a numbers game, so keep at it. If someone says no, thank them for responding, and ask for the top three people they’d recommend you reach out to, especially if they’re in your network.

  • Later - Chances are the timing may not be right. Plant the seeds that you’ll follow up down the road and set a due date for yourself. Alternatively, if you use Gem, you can schedule a long-term nurture email directly from your inbox.

  • No response - Regardless of how you reached out, it’s important to follow up 2-3 times if you don’t get a response. Reaching out to a friendly acquaintance to catch up is rarely going to be considered annoying or bothersome if you have a prior relationship.

And, if you’re using Gem for your outreach, you can create templates for each type of response and respond in one click from your inbox, or set a reminder to follow up later.

Up Next

Up next in part five of our series we will discuss what an important role sourcing referrals from your employees can play in sourcing quality candidates.

In the meantime…


Request Demo Image

Get started today

See how Gem can help you hire with remarkable speed and efficiency