How to battle start-up anxiety when competing for staff

Some business owners suffer 'start-up anxiety’ when candidates are deciding whether to join them or a more established company. Here, Alex Pavlou looks at how to beat it.

2016 has certainly been a year of geopolitical instability and divisiveness. The outcome of which, whether you’re a business owner or a candidate, is for people to err on the side of caution. Joining a start-up or small business is often seen as risky; and lets be honest – it can be! Nine out of ten start-ups fail and candidates know this. Most recently in the UK Karhoo and Yubl were victims in the tech sector and there is always press about a start-up’s failure.

Now that we’ve got the rather gloomy outlook out of the way, here’s the positive.

According to a new report from Virgin StartUp, entrepreneurs bring a £196 billion boost to the UK economy and employ 3.24 million people nationwide (that’s 12 per cent of all employment in the country!) Attracting talent and hiring the right team is one of the most important aspects for success. The right people help grow your business while the wrong ones keep you static, or worse, send you tumbling backwards. I’ve learned this as a small business owner myself. This is not about hiring the wrong people however; it’s about winning the right people. As recruiters we know about ‘start-up anxiety’ all too well, and as a business owner, I’ve lost out on people as they’ve been wooed by a larger firm or put off by the current economic and political conditions that are seeming to make people risk averse.

Want to take on the big firms and hire the talent you need today? Here are my five tips to make sure you never miss out again.

1. Don’t underestimate the power of the candidate experience

This cannot be emphasised enough. In a recent report by Software Advice, of 300 candidates surveyed, 78 per cent were more likely to accept a job offers after receiving a positive candidate experience, 15 per cent were somewhat more likely, and only 7 per cent said it had no effect. Please have a look at my last article on about how to build an effective candidate experience.

There’s a key thing small businesses and start-ups do here that has advantage over larger corporates and established firms – they are agile. Where large corporates have long, laborious and clunky but fixed recruitment processes – the agile company can streamline, adjust and flex according to the needs and desires of the candidate.

To illustrate the point, we were recently working with a candidate considering both a big firm and a small boutique. They were leaning towards the larger firm, as perceived it to have more security, global opportunities, and a better work-life balance.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, it was the perception. What did the smaller firm do knowing this? They completely changed the third stage of the process, which was usually a task, to an informal meet and greet with their founder in another location. They also organised drinks to meet the wider company so the candidate’s fears could be dealt with in an informal face-to-face conversation. Fears about security, global opportunities, and work-life balance were totally relieved. This coupled with the great feeling they had about the company lead to the offer being accepted.

2. Understand a candidate’s motivation up-front and avoid any wasted time

If a candidate you’re considering is looking for a very secure role, and you’re unsure if you can offer this, then it’s best they know this straight away. On the flip side if a candidate is looking for more breadth to their role, to be in an environment where they can make things happen fast and they can get exposed to lots of different areas of the business then you immediately know what your selling points are.

Don’t be afraid to ask why a candidate is leaving their current role and what their true motivations are. Equally don’t be afraid to just accept that you might not be the right fit for them. You’ll save each other a lot of time; in my experience you can change a candidate’s perception of you but you can’t change their motivations, nor should you try.

3. Be transparent about your business and expectations

If you want to reduce anxiety, be transparent. This goes back to the candidate experience. People experiencing your business want to know the truth and they want their digital experiences they have in their daily life with brands such as AirBnB and Uber to be reflected in a recruitment process. This is about being human. The human traits of transparency and honesty are usually what make us lifelong friendships so it makes sense that this would be reflected in our behaviour when picking an employer.

Whether it’s Glassdoor allowing candidates and employees to openly feedback on your business or it’s a quick search on your business on Google or Companies House, candidates are tech savvy and they will find out the truth. Do yourself a favour and replace anxiety with confidence. Added to this if you’re hiring millennials they will want to see inside your work culture and they will check you out across social media channels.

Make it easy for them to find out more about you. If you’re open about your workplace and allow candidates to understand if they’ll be a fit, they will help you in the selection process and if they fit your culture, will more than likely pick you over a larger incumbent.

4. Have a clear business mission, vision and plan and communicate it effectively

If there’s one thing that will immediately breed ‘start-up anxiety’ it’s lack of vision. Get your messaging right, understand what your business goals are, and have an engaging and inspirational vision. Can’t pay as much as the larger companies? Don’t worry; candidates are more motivated by mission that money. And once you know your mission it’s about finding the candidates that share it, understand it and ultimately engage with it.

This is not just a case of having it on the wall in your office. You have to live and breathe it. Candidates and employees need to match culturally with your mission and when they do, they will become brand advocates. A person becoming an extension of your business is an incredibly powerful tool for your brand.

Edelman’s annual trust barometer shows that the employee voice is still more credible than a CEO as a source of information about a company. If you want to get the right message out, whether it’s online, at events, or during the recruitment process where your employees will certainly be involved, make sure the company mission is reflected. It will set you miles ahead of some of the more established businesses.

5. Understand the real opportunity and know how to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’

You need to be clear on where you sit in the market, why a candidate should join you, and what your key USPs are against the larger, more-established firms. If you can’t communicate this in an interview or when a candidate is considering an offer then you’re starting the competition in second place.

As the ‘wait and see’ and risk-averse approach to decisionmaking starts to creep in further, candidates are going to ask you more questions than ever. They are going to be more curious and will want to dig deep. Why is your product different to the next competitor? Do you work long hours? What are your plans to deal with Brexit? Are you profitable? What’s unique about you? These are all questions you need to think about and prepare answers for. As much as a candidate will do their research on you and prepare for potential questions on their experience, you should do the same to prepare for them.

Interview prep is something you can get outside help with. You would be surprised how many never considered it. Not using a recruitment partner? No problem. Speak to friends, family, fellow work colleagues and get them to ask the difficult questions of you. Practice makes perfect and you need to make sure you know how to sell the opportunity of working with you.

In summary, for start-ups and small businesses, competing with large organisations to win candidates is going to get harder. But if you ensure a great candidate experience, be clear on your vision and transparent and honest, prepare for every recruitment experience well and take advantage of what you can offer over these large companies – you’re in with as good a chance as anyone.

Alex Pavlou is co-founder of Bamboo Crowd.

Further reading on hiring

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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