Best practices for attracting top talent to your startup and how to define the 10 elements of your employer brand, including your mission, culture, and benefits
Having a strong employer brand can reduce your cost per hire by 50% while scoring you 50% more applicants, according to LinkedIn's research. Yet most startups waste jump right into hiring before thinking deeply about what makes them an appealing place to work. It's counterintuitive, but moving too fast can waste time and money. In this first chapter of SignalFire's Startup Recruiting Guide, we'll teach you how to craft your policies and messaging to convince people you're a rocketship opportunity with an inviting company culture.
That all starts with building an “employer brand” - which is defined as how your company is perceived as a place to work, both by your employees and the outside world. Think of it in contrast to your consumer brand, which is how people perceive your product or service.
Your employer brand can be summarized by these 10 elements:
Compensation and benefits
Developing a great employer brand allows startups to spend less time soliciting job candidates and instead attract inbound interest from top talent.
This post will walk you through codifying your employer brand into a concise "employee value proposition" that you'll communicate through candidate interviews, a shareable recruiting dossier we'll teach you to make below, and your website's careers page that we'll cover in-depth in the Startup Recruiting Guide's next chapter. In future posts, we'll break down how to source job candidates, run structured interviews, make offers, onboard new hires, and more. Subscribe here for access to the rest of the Startup Recruiting guide plus more startup tips, market maps, and industry trends.
So why should you care about employer branding now? It’s hard to stand out on salary or perks alone, but employer brand is where you can differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace. You’ll know you’re improving your employer brand when cost per hire drops as your inbound applicant volume, staff retention, and profitability grows. Early and executive hires set the tone for talent, and greatly influence who else will want to work with you. That's why it's never too early to start. So let's get to it.
Defining your employer brand
What exactly is employer brand? It’s the “market perception” or the qualities of your company that you share with the public. It’s the personality and voice that defines your company. It exists as a loose set of ideas outlining characteristics like:
Company story: Your origin and journey. How did you come up with the idea for the product? Did you experience the pain point yourself? How did you launch, and what traction have you seen since? What important milestones have you hit? Make it an inspiring story that talent will want to play a part in.
Mission: What you're trying to improve about the world. What's broken without you? Whose lives get better directly because of your product, and what downstream benefits will you generate for society at large? Success isn't enough. You need to have an impact that employees are proud to tell everyone about.
Values - The steadfast ideals and ethics that guide your actions. How do you approach collaboration, transparency, self-expression, reliability, customer focus, iteration, social responsibility, speed, and resilience? What do you prioritize? Your values can attract, motivate, and retain employees and customers who align with your beliefs
Company culture - Your flexible norms and policies for applying your values to work/life balance, shared rituals, hierarchy, inclusion, trust, autonomy, and volunteering. How quickly do people respond to emails after-hours? Does the team socialize together after work or go their separate ways? Are you managed closely or allowed to determine your own solutions?
Work environment - Your headquarters, offices, and approach to remote work as well as your policies on open vs closed floor plans, company meals, office events, pets at work, and employee transportation. Do you mostly work in the same space or distributed around the world? How many days a week will local employees come to the office after the pandemic? Is everyone chatting or wearing headphones?
Team - The talent that candidates are eager to work beside including leadership and their peers. Is the organization relatively flat or quite hierarchical? Is headcount growing 20% or 100% per year? Who can employees turn to if they have a problem?
Product - The purpose and potential of what you're building. Why are employees proud to make this for the world? How does it solve customers' problems?
Challenges - Opportunities for learning, contribution, and advancement. What will employees get to brag about on their resume after working here? What new skills will they get to pick up? Are there chances to lead new projects?
Compensation and benefits - Compensation, as well as your health, time-off, and retirement perks. Do you offer the legal minimum or industry-leading parental leave? Do you have a fixed amount of vacation days or unlimited as long as you get your work done?
Recruiting - Your marketing, recruitment style, hiring process, and candidate experience. Do you highlight your business momentum or company vibe? Do you make decisions quickly or deliberate and keep looking for candidates? Is interviewing grueling but efficient or fun but time-consuming?
It’s not just about marketing yourself to prospects and candidates — it’s also about living up to those values with your existing employees, alumni, consumers, and customers. These groups are not as separate as they might appear at first glance: prospects and candidates can soon become employees, current employees can be ambassadors to those prospects and candidates (or they may leave the company and join the ranks of your alumni), and at any stage they can influence or become your customers and consumers.
Now let's discuss how to refine your employer branding document into a pitch for why people should want to work for you, which will also help you design your careers page.
Creating your Employee Value Proposition (EVP)
An Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is a concise paragraph that communicates what makes your company a great place to work and what you can offer employees that’s unique. The EVP should consist of a few sentences that describe what your company does and what you stand for.
To get a sense of the hierarchy, you start with your employer brand which is a broad concept document with lots of information about your company's identity. You structure that into answers to key questions about your company and job openings in your Recruiting Dossier. You highlight the most salient, evocative, and differentiated points from your employer brand and dossier in your EVP paragraph. Then you use the EVP as an outline of the top talking points for your careers page, with different sections supported by details from your employer branding document and dossier.
You’ll likely want to base your EVP on some surveys and focus groups with your current employees. That will help you understand why they find your company an appealing place to work and what benefits (beyond compensation and total rewards) they get out of working there. All your research can inform your employer branding doc, while the most commonly cited and memorable highlights make it into your EVP.
Here are a few key survey questions for your employees to help you determine your EVP:
Who are we as a company?
What do we do?
Why does it matter?
Why do people work here?
What do people like or dislike about working here?
Why do people leave?
This exercise can have a real impact on your business, as point-of-sale startup Clover Network found. They had a largely unknown brand and were trying to catch up to Square’s transaction volume. Their head of recruiting John Vormbaum led an EVP exercise that helped them better define their appeal to job candidates while simultaneously screening out those who were a poor fit. Clover was able to massively increase its rate of hiring, adding 135 engineers in 2017 without sacrificing quality at a cost per hire of just $7,000. The product improved, sales grew, and soon Clover was neck-and-neck with Square.
To achieve this same success, you need full buy-in from leadership and employees plus a mandate to change whatever necessary about your underlying culture and the brand it produces.
As we’ll cover in the following sections, there are tons of activities you can do to build your employer brand, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why it’s helpful to have a clear and concise EVP that you can always come back to. If you’d like more perspectives on the topic, check out SignalFire's EVP template, this SHRM post on perfecting your EVP, and TalentLyft’s video and visual EVP walkthrough.
Distill your identity into a “Recruiting Dossier”
The next step is to turn your EVP into an external-facing "recruiting dossier" about why people would want to work for you that you can share with potential hires. This includes what sets you apart from the competition and what you are building, both on a team and company-wide scale.
In addition to defining the role and the ideal candidate, this dossier is your opportunity to highlight interesting details (only share what is public information) about your products/services, technical challenges, big ideas, team, culture, and anything that would attract talent to your organization. We were introduced to the dossier concept by recruiting firm Riviera Partners’ founders Ali Behnam and Michael Morrell, and it’s something we recommend for companies of any size.
The dossier can be customized for different roles and departments. These can really come in handy when you know you’ll be hiring a lot for one specific team like Sales or Engineering. You’ll save yourself time in initial calls by addressing frequently asked questions in the dossier, and it’s always helpful to have materials you can link to or share with prospects. To get a feel for what yours should look like, this is an example of OneSignal's (outdated but illustrative) 2018 recruiting dossier.
Don't want to handle this all by yourself? Recruiting is SignalFire’s superpower. Our Beacon Talent engine tracks most of the top tech talent in the Western world and can generate reports on the best and most hireable job candidates for any role. SignalFire’s talent program is headed by former Facebook Talent leader Mike Mangini whose team assists our portfolio companies with high-level strategy and on-the-ground recruiting to make sure you score your ideal hires. We made over 1000 job candidate intros to our portfolio companies last year -- just one of the reasons we receive a net promoter score of 96 from our portfolio founders, over 85% of whom say we’re their most valuable investor.
For first-time founders and serial entrepreneurs seeking a refresher, we start by offering a program based on our team's decade of experience leading talent operations for startups. We partner with founding teams to help them establish a world-class recruitment process. We refer to this as a “recruiting engine” — systems implementation, brand building, role definition, recruitment process, sourcing, interview training, and compensation benchmarking to enable teams to identify, attract, engage, close, and onboard top talent quickly and effectively.
This Startup Recruiting Guide is part of our Recruitment Process Optimization program where I work in tandem with our founders and talent teams to devise a comprehensive recruiting strategy, advise on systems development, and aid in recruiting execution via our various individual contributor talent pipelines as well as Beacon Talent. To support this program, the Talent Academy Playbook outlines the nuts and bolts of implementing a well-oiled recruitment machine which is a compilation of best practices and learning from my recruiting career. This should help guide your thinking as it relates to building your talent engine.
Subscribe for future chapters of SignalFire's Startup Recruiting Guide on building a careers page and sourcing job candidates
Employer branding tactics
Now that we’ve covered the essentials of what your employer brand is and how to match it to job candidates, let’s look at some of the tactics you can apply to your employer brand to recruiting.
Understanding your candidate audience
At its core, employer branding and careers pages are a type of marketing, which means that they rely on understanding your audience. If you don’t know who you’re trying to attract, how will you determine if your efforts are successful? First, you have to build out an ideal candidate persona.
Take the characteristics of your company culture and employee value proposition, and build a vision of someone who’d align with and appreciate them while fulfilling your open roles’ needs. Your candidate persona should include:
Work experience, education, and skills
Personality, principles, and goals
Work style and preferred environment
Where they’re reachable with marketing during hobbies, socializing, and job research
What selling points from your EVP and messaging will resonate
Take some time to define which characteristics of your company map most closely to your ideal candidate persona. Are you targeting engineers who value autonomy, junior employees seeking a career path, would-be parents excited by generous paid leave, or product managers who want to build a well-known product?
The best employer branding doesn’t just attract the right people to you — it also convinces some people that your company isn’t the best place for them, and that’s a good thing! It’s much better to hire people who have bought into your company culture so you can avoid the expense and frustration of losing people who are a poor fit.
By understanding some key information about your ideal candidates (where they live, which websites and apps they use, and what they value in a job and employer), you can be much more targeted and effective in creating all your employer branding materials across your site, ads, and communication to employees so they talk up your highlights. For more tips for becoming a recruitment magnet, check out The Right Resource & SignalFire’s Talent Branding 101 guide.
Personalized recruitment messaging
There is one branding tactic that costs essentially nothing while also yielding the highest ROI. When it comes to recruiting, there is no better strategy than: 1) knowing your ideal candidate persona and identifying the type of prospect who would find the role most intriguing and 2) creating a personalized message to engage them with your company. People want to feel seen by your company, not like just another generic seat-filler.
Your goal is to create a message that shifts the focus from being about your company’s needs to instead demonstrating your interest in the candidate and addressing their potential needs. If you do this well, not only will you engage more candidates, but you will also show passive candidates that your company is knowledgeable, thoughtful, considerate, and intentional in your approach to recruiting.
Personalized messaging can be segmented by the candidates you’re targeting or the medium through which you’re reaching them. You could mention you know they attended a company-related event, have a particular type of work experience, or have a mutual connection in your networks. If you have the time and staff to do custom 1-to-1 recruitment messaging, mentioning something specific the candidate has accomplished or mentioned on their social media can significantly improve conversion rates, though don’t go so far that it gets creepy. When contacting people directly, ensure your subject line or first sentence feels personalized or mention their name. Stripping out industry jargon that makes it sound like you’re just pasting in corporate talking points can also help.
When reaching out to a candidate, you should always think about how to speak to their needs. How is your opportunity a logical progression in their career? Whether you’re offering greater responsibilities, a larger team to manage, a bigger budget, or the opportunity to build their personal brand through more innovative work, it’s important to spend time crafting your pitch. Similarly, you’ll want to highlight why you’re reaching out to them specifically. What is it about their profile or background that sparked your interest?
Why does personalization matter? A prospect that receives a thoughtful and personalized message is much more likely to respond and be willing to hear about the opportunity, whether the timing is right or not. Responses are important because even if the person isn’t the right fit right now, your conversation can still lead to referrals and introductions to their friends and colleagues.
Employer branding vendors
There are a number of employer branding vendors that are worth investigating, including Glassdoor, LinkedIn, The Muse, and Job Portraits. These vendors offer various services to help you create employer branding content and advertise your job openings. It can be easy to dismiss them when you see the price tag but don’t do that. When you consider what you’d pay in agency fees to fill a single role, you’ll often get a better return on investment from an employer branding vendor, and you can get a lot of mileage out of the assets they create for you by sharing them on your website and through your social channels on an ongoing basis.
In order to widen the scope of your employer brand, you can create content to share on social media. The most common social media platforms that are used for employer branding include LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Depending on the platform, you can opt to share videos, photos, links, or short or long-form text, and each platform gives you the option of reaching people “organically” (in other words, without paying), or through various types of paid advertising options if you want to expand your reach.
Look for ways to promote and celebrate the interesting things people at your company are doing — encourage them to share photos, videos, and status updates about work milestones, side projects, or company culture. Keep in mind that these types of posts don’t need to be too polished or professional — try to keep it real and give genuine insights into what it’s like to work at your company. We also recommend keeping a curated list of recent media/articles to share via email once a month (or around any big press releases or events). Send the link along with some recommended text that’s already formatted for social media so employees can easily copy and paste it to share via their preferred social media platforms.
If you don’t have a dedicated social media manager, or they’re struggling to create enough content, consider asking each employee to create one post per month of informative or entertaining content about your product or brand. Then your marketing or comms team can review and schedule them to post consistently so you’re always making use of your company and employees’ reach.
Like social media, blogging allows you to share your message with a wider circle and can be a hugely valuable part of your employer branding strategy. You can also link to blog content from your social media platforms, helping to fill out your marketing calendar so you have plenty of things to post about.
If you already have a company blog, consider whether you want to publish employer branding posts there, or on a separate team- or recruiting-specific blog. Posts can include interviews with employees or guest articles written by people from various departments, photos and videos from company events, and anything else you think would be interesting and appealing to prospective candidates. If you don’t have a company blog set up, you may want to share blog posts on a third-party platform like Medium or LinkedIn that come with built-in distribution. Check out Flexport’s Engineering blog on Medium for an example of how to approach this.
Targeted ads can help you market your employee value proposition to new audiences and people who have already visited your website, social media profiles, etc. Paying for targeted ads can be useful when you want to create multiple touchpoints for candidates and generate a sense of buzz about working at your company. However, they are typically too expensive for early-stage startups. Unless you're filling multiple roles with the same title, have exhausted other outreach strategies like referrals, and desperately need to fill a position now, you're better off relying on recruiters and your own labor to spread your employer branding. We'll cover more cost-efficient ways to source job candidates in an upcoming chapter of the Startup Recruiting Guide, so subscribe here.
Show off your team! They are your best marketing collateral
One in four candidates views other employee profiles immediately after finding out about a job opportunity. Encourage your team to keep their online profiles up to date, and offer resources like quick email reminders, video tutorials, or in-person workshops to help accomplish this. Your employees can also build their personal brands (while contributing to your employer brand) by presenting on panels or writing guest posts in their area of expertise. Feature them on your blog and social media. If job candidates see you invest in your team's long-term career success and highlight their accomplishments, you could become the next place they're hoping to work.
In an upcoming Startup Recruiting Guide chapter, we'll show you how to build your employer brand into a careers page that can attract top talent. Subscribe here for more of SignalFire's how-to guides & essays on startups trends.
Recruiting is SignalFire’s superpower. Our Beacon Talent engine tracks all the top tech talent in the Western world, and can generate reports on the best and most poachable job candidates for any role. SignalFire’s talent program is led by former Facebook executive recruiter Mike Mangini whose team assists our portfolio companies with high-level strategy and on-the-ground recruiting to ensure you score your ideal hires. We helped make over 1000 job candidate intros to our companies last year — just one of the reasons we receive a net promoter score of 96 from our portfolio founders, over 85% of whom say we’re their most valuable investor. Want to start working with SignalFire’s Talent team? Contact this article’s author, our Managing Director of People & Talent Heather Doshay: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Portfolio company founders listed above have not received any compensation for this feedback and did not invest in a SignalFire fund. Please refer to our disclosures page for additional disclosures.
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