Sales Methodologies for Startup Hiring
How to apply discovery and qualification to your interview process
Happy Thursday and happy June! I’m writing to you from Williamsburg, where I’ll be for the rest of 2023 (I promise, I have a real lease this time). In this post, I’m sharing a framework I wish I’d adopted earlier in Alloy’s journey. For founders who prioritize org design and picking world-class talent, this might be useful:
In the early days, you’re constantly doing two types of pitches: Recruiting and sales. So many startup legends point to some magical chemistry between startups and their early customers and hires. But the reality is that, unless you’re a second-time founder or seasoned operator, both require heavy process engineering behind the scenes.
Great sales leaders know that a poorly executed process will kill a deal, even if your product is the perfect fit for the prospect’s needs. The same applies to hiring. Picture this: You have a pool of a dozen candidates and you’re particularly excited about one from the start. In your gut you know they’re your ideal VP of Engineering. Over a few weeks, you and your team conduct a flurry of interviews and you finally corral three people to the final interview. You reject two and the day before the star candidate’s interview, they inform you that they've been moving fast with another company and are withdrawing from your process. Your heart sinks.
Interviewing isn't an accurate word for what you do as an early-stage hiring manager. It’s more like you’re balancing selling and evaluating, considering your company's needs and candidates’ psychology. You’re juggling multiple candidates’ interviewing timelines and keeping them all excited while trying to determine which is “the one.”
In the early days, hiring really feels like sales: reach out, pitch your vision, close the deal. So why not approach the interview process like a sales process?
To apply sales methodologies to hiring, you need to completely reframe the way your team thinks about interviewing. Rather than trying to convince and evaluate candidates simultaneously in calls, you need to completely divorce these two goals. Implement a rigorous sales-like process as a first phase, and only after candidates pass that, do they get put into your interview funnel.
While the actual sequencing of calls and who on your team takes calls doesn’t have to change, you have to update your perspective on pipeline, put stricter structure around call agendas, and refocus the notes you’re capturing on candidates.
There are three ways candidates come into your funnel: Warm referral, inbound application, or outbound messaging. Most great candidates aren’t on the market at any given time. Unless you get lucky with an inbound or referral who’s on the market, you’ll have to hard sell someone you know or a total stranger (ie outbound).
The concept of product market fit exists in hiring. Your product is the job you’re offering, and the market is the pool of talent that would fit in the role. Like with any product, you need to design an internal spec and an external vision before you start selling.
Early-stage companies often fall into the trap of focusing on big names without precisely defining their needs and prioritizing them. Simply stating, "We're PLG, so let's hire a sales leader from Figma or Notion because they're the best PLG companies out there," isn't enough. Your internal job specification should be extremely specific, and every requirement should be a reflection of your company’s needs. For example:
Our ideal customer profile includes product leaders and devops engineers. We need someone with experience selling to them and understanding their buying habits.
We have a target of achieving $5M in annual recurring revenue (ARR) by the end of this year. It's crucial to find someone who has led revenue teams in a similar range and understands what it takes.
We're still experimenting with usage-based pricing, so an ideal candidate must have experience leading experiments and handling related aspects such as commission plans, customer success strategies, and more.
Once you've finalized this spec and spun it out as a JD, you can start building a list of target candidates. Be careful with your list though. Hiring brand matters and you don’t want to cause reputational damage by spamming too many people. Only focus on the top candidates, or focus on batches of 15-20 people every sprint, because you’re going to spend a lot of energy bringing each person through your sales process.
In your initial interview, you may have a list of questions or approach it as an informal "get to know you" chat. But that’s what’s killing you. Without a well-defined agenda, the call can lack direction and set off a negative chain reaction for the rest of the interview process. It’s critical to run a structured first call to ensure success.
Discovery calls are all about needs analysis, and it’s meant to be about understanding candidates’ needs so that you have the tools to sell them when you become more confident that they are the one. A standard discovery call should look something like this:
Set the agenda and get candidate buy-in
As transactional as this might sound, clarity is ultimately better than lack of it. A candidate will appreciate the upfront transparency in how you want to spend your time with them.
Clarify pain points
Why are they even entertaining a conversation with you?
Why are they unhappy or unfulfilled in their current role?
What are you missing out on?
What are your career dreams?
Where do you want to be this time next year?
What gives you energy?
Tell the story of your product (ie the company) and the specific features they should be excited about (go over the key points of the JD)
Offer clear next steps and timeline between now and your final interview
By the end of this call, you should understand what makes your candidate tick, and you also should have had a chance to share the vision and story of your company.
In the previous call, you sold the candidate on the opportunity. Even if they weren’t ready to take the leap before the call, you might’ve been able to convince them to move sooner than even they expected. Regardless, after a successful first discovery call, you’ve locked them in network and down the line they might circle back to be considered for a role.
In contrast to discovery, the second call is about understanding the timing, salary expectations, and the other key considerations before moving the candidate into your true interview phase. Usually your HR or people team might handle this call, and they can be extremely upfront about this being a ‘qualifying’ call for both the candidate and your team. It’s also important that there’s a high level qualification against what you have in your JD in this step.
For qualification, your team needs to come up with notes you must gather from the call. In sales, frameworks like BANT (Budget Authority Need Timing) and MEDDICC (Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision criteria, Decision process, Identify pain, Champion, and Competition) are commonly used to guide the qualification process. Similarly, you can develop your own framework, such as MIST (Management level, ICP experience, salary, timing), to ensure you gather the necessary information for effective evaluation.
Besides determining timing, skill, and comp fit with a candidate, proper qualification also ensures that your team is spending time on the right folks. Interviewing is time intensive and distracting, so the faster you can disqualify candidates, the more likely you’ll get to spend your time capital on more worthwhile ones.
You don’t need a specific tool stack to implement this sales process. You can easily adapt an ATS like Lever or a plain old spreadsheet. For example, if your current interview stages looks like:
Call with hiring manager
Call with CEO
Call with other teammates
All you need to do is reframe the first two calls and implement the call structure for the first, and the note requirements for the second. That’s really it.
It’s worth noting that, unlike sales, where one sales rep focuses on a prospect, the hiring process involves passing the baton along the team.
Even after running the sales phase of your process, you still have the interviewing portion. It’s important to keep your interview process quick once you’ve qualified the candidate. Time kills deals.
Finally, maybe you don’t have any issue with your hiring process or losing candidates. If you haven't faced challenges in hiring, it may be a sign that you haven't aimed high enough and pursued a candidate who's 'out of your league.' Once you go after all-star candidates and experience rejection, you might be more inclined to try this process out.
Good luck and let me know how this works for you and your team :)