How Startups Can Use Recruiters, and Learn from the Process

How do recruiters think? What’s their motivation? Are some better than others? How do you know if you’ve got the best recruiter, who’ll offer you real help?

These are just some of the questions Elaine Wherry, co-founder of the sharing service Meebo, had when hiring more engineering talent. She had hired 23 great engineers and wondered what kind of recruiter would be able to help her start-up hire more. In an effort to find a great recruiter, she created some bait — a fictitious Meebo employee, Pete London, whose resume was 90 percent comprised of Wherry’s resume and 10 percent of her husband’s.

The “Pete London Experiment” was an 18-month research effort, and while Wherry didn’t discover a great way to find recruiters, she learned a lot about the engineering landscape and how to recruit great engineers.

Here are some of things that Wherry discovered with her guerilla research:

  • When she posted the standard resume of Pete London, he got zero traffic from recruiters. But once he posted a profile on LinkedIn, he got 237 responses from 180 recruiters and 195 companies over 18 months. That sounds good, but it turns out the site wasn’t particularly effective in actual recruiting. Meebo only found one of its 23 hires there. It’s a really crowded space.
  • External recruiters are pretty darn good, especially with helping out start-ups when they’re trying to get off the ground. Even though they don’t have the same kind of resources that recruiters working for a large company have, they’re more scrappy and send more personalized messages than internal recruiters.
  • The dark side of external recruiters is that they pull young companies from both ends. Wherry says that every recruiter she worked with also tried to poach Pete London. One recruiter sent two e-mails (“Hey Pete, we’d like to help you get a new job” and “Meebo, would you like some new engineers?”) within 15 minutes of each other.
  • Speaking of Bay Area/Silicon Valley hiring, the greatest competition isn’t from big consumer tech companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Zynga, AOL, Amazon, Adobe, Mozilla, Netflix, Yahoo, Skype or Apple. They only accounted for 18 percent of the recruiter communication.
  • Eighty percent of the recruiter communication came from small start-ups. You need to differentiate yourself from other start-ups, not big companies. Just saying, “We’re a fast growing start-up” isn’t going to cut it.
  • The real competition is actually from the 2 percent of VCs that are also recruiting. They’re extremely aggressive about getting the best people.
  • The most common white lie is, “I was referred to you.” In many cases, this line came up as the recruiter claimed he was referred to Pete by specific people within Meebo. Since Pete doesn’t really exist, this couldn’t be the case. The people supposedly doing the referring didn’t know about Wherry’s experiment.

In separate research, Wherry discovered that free food goes a long way to making sure people on your team are happy.

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