Good people have good jobs. Here’s how to poach them

It’s a founder's job to sell the company vision not just to investors but also to future staff, writes Sean Percival.

Sean Percival er CMO i Iterate, engleinvestor og forfatter.

Very often I find an email in my inbox either from founders or other investors. The question that comes up time and time again is, «Do you know anyone great we can hire to lead our marketing?» But, of course, asking this question in Norway is relatively futile. Thanks to janteloven and a higher education system that cranks out more management consultants than marketers, there are few to choose from in Norway. All that aside, the hard truth is that anyone good probably already has a good job. If you want them to join your startup you’ll have to do something that I think makes Norwegians slightly uncomfortable. You’ll have to steal them or ‘poach’ them as we often call it.

After starting my new role recently as CMO at Iterate two startups reached out to say congrats but also added something along the lines of “I didn’t know you were looking! I was going to ask you to join us!”. Well, I can tell you I’m almost never looking for new jobs. I looked back through my resume, and as it turns out, I didn’t apply for my last nine jobs. In every case, usually, the founder came to me and convinced me to join.

This leads us to the point of this particular startup rant. That being that as a founder, poaching great talent is one of the most important jobs you have. There’s actually a great quote that I can unfortunately not find the original source but it goes something like this.

As a founder you only have 3 jobs:

  1. Set the company vision

  2. Recruit and retain talent

  3. Don’t run out of money

You could even say all of these jobs are related or the same with regard to hiring. It’s your job to sell the company vision not just to investors but also to future staff. In the early days, you’re also the head of HR so you need to keep your best people. Finally, you need the money to pay these talented people that usually comes in the form of fundraising. All of this is on top of everything else you need to do to build and scale a company. Much respect to the founders and your many many jobs.

Let’s go through a few questions that will hopefully help as you think about scaling your organization. This applies to hiring senior marketing people but also all senior hiring you’ll need to do.

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Is it my investor’s job to help me hire?

As we discussed above, this job falls on the founder at least in the early stage. It perhaps makes some sense you would ask your investors if they know anyone but don’t expect them to be your hiring recruiter. While many investors like to talk about being “value add” and so forth, they have their own job which is to deploy money into the best deals. It’s tough enough to keep up with all those new deals let alone also to have a pulse on who’s in the market for a new job. I’m guessing several investors will disagree with these statements, but this is what I’ve found to be true.

Should I just hire a professional recruiter to do it?

In the early stages, the answer is probably no. Mainly because you likely can’t afford a recruiter, at least not a good one. They mostly place people in top-level jobs and at high salaries (1M NOK per year and above). So recruiters are great to use after the Series A round and when you’re filling in your top management. But, for everything before that, sorry not sorry, it’s still the founder’s job to do.

Fine, I’ll do the job, but where do I start?

Firstly, hiring great people is much like fundraising, wherein it takes a while to build up relationships. So start thinking about who you want to join your team tomorrow, today. This usually means setting up lots of coffee and lunch meetings with them. Or I guess in today’s environment of on-and-off-again lockdowns, that means lots of video meetings. Get to know them and begin selling your company vision to them. Next, you can start exposing them to your company culture; for example, have them join a team retreat or group workshop. This can be very effective because team retreats usually have good energy and lots of social interaction. There’s also much planning for the future at a team retreat that might spark the interest of the potential new employee.

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I still don’t know where to start, can you really spell it out for me?

Alright, I’ll tell you exactly where to look. It’s on the ‘People’ tab of the LinkedIn company page of an organization you admire. Or an organization that’s doing something similar to what you do. Right there you’ll find the smiling face of your next great hire. Now the tough part and something that also makes Norwegians uncomfortable…cold outreach.

To make things easier for you I wouldn’t recommend being so direct in your outreach by saying that you want to hire them right off the bat. Norwegians are, unfortunately (at least for the purpose of poaching) incredibly loyal! So a better approach is to ask them to share their experience, their point of view on a topic, or request to meet up and ‘compare notes’. As a small side rant, busy and experienced people hate it when you say, “I’d like to pick your brain!”. First of all, it sounds gross, and furthermore, as you get older and have the experience you value all that knowledge stored in your brain. So the last thing you want is someone picking at it! That being said experienced people like to tell stories and the end result is generally the same. They’re sharing knowledge, and you’re able to look for opportunities to bring that knowledge to your organization. And hopefully, bring the person along with it.

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OK, last question. When do I outreach?

That depends on a lot of factors, but the answer is probably yesterday. It’s going to take some time to lure that super awesome and experienced future colleague to your team. Norwegians will also stay in jobs (even ones they don't like!) for many years. As being perceived as a job hopper can be a bad thing in Norway. In the case of my recent job with Iterate, we have been talking and getting to know each other for 5+ years before I joined full-time. That is perhaps an extreme example, but I would factor in at least 6-9 months for a successful poach.

There’s also some seasonality to factor in. For example, most people make job switches in January or February. I guess that’s something related to the whole ‘new year, new me’ mantra. So give yourself a few months to convince them to make the jump and put in their usual three-month notice period.

So with that, I say happy new year and happy poaching! I wish you good luck with your hunt, but please don’t send me a LinkedIn message after reading this.

Sean Percival is an American investor, author, and entrepreneur living in Norway. Today he’s the CMO of Iterate, a Norwegian venture builder and author of Living with Norwegians, a guide for moving to and surviving Norway