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How To Hire When Your Startup Is In Stealth Mode

Confidentiality is just one challenge when recruiting talented people to join a startup operating in stealth mode.

How To Hire When Your Startup Is In Stealth Mode
[Photo: Flickr user João Lavinha]

Hiring is heavy with challenges. Hiring when a company’s just getting off the ground is even harder. Most people in tech (or any other industry) light up at the mention of a brand name and go after a position at a company based on that rather than considering whether it would be a good environment for them to succeed. Startups, especially when they’re in stealth mode (an industry argot that defines a business operating in secret to avoid potential competitors) aren’t an easy sell to potential candidates.

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Daniel Portillo knows the hurdles quite well. “I’ve been the first person [hired] at almost every company that I’ve worked for,” he tells Fast Company. “I’ve interviewed as early as in the founder’s living room.” He’s gone on to lead hiring efforts at Rypple and Mozilla, among other fast growing startups, and is now talent partner at Greylock Partners, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm.

“Because we invest in such early-stage companies, my team at Greylock works with startups in stealth all the time,” he says, recruiting talent including cofounders, engineers, product managers and designers. “We even helped bring in a head chef to Sprig,” he says. They are now assembling a founding team for another company that Greylock is currently incubating.

Confidentiality is challenging, but not always a killer of conversations. Portillo recalls, “The first time I went to Facebook, they made me sign an NDA to use the bathroom.” For companies looking to maintain strict confidentially, he advises taking that route. “For most cases, I think a verbal commitment is fine,” he says.

From there, recruiting for early-stage startups is a two-pronged effort, says Portillo. “When I first started, top tier funding would be enough to get a conversation,” he explains. A marquee brand investor isn’t enough to open doors as much as it used to, Portillo observes. That’s why one of his roles has been to help establish the company’s story –a.k.a. value proposition– and give it enough oomph to get people interested in interviewing without giving away sensitive information that is still in development.

But now that unemployment is low and , especially in tech, is running high, it takes more than a good story to engage potential recruits. “It’s more about research and targeting [talented professionals],” says Portillo. That includes reading their blog and talking to people who work with the person.

For an early stage startup, no one is disqualified for specific reasons such as lack of experience or education. “I believe that everyone has something to bring to the table,” says Portillo, “Instead, I look for something exceptional.” He remembers a time when Mozilla hired an intern because he wrote an application for his foosball league based on the BCS ranking system.

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Portillo says that the longest he’s pursued a candidate before placing them is 10 years. Most take less time than that. On average though, Portillo says, it takes at least a year to get to know the person.

The benefit of hiring in stealth is that you don’t have to hire that many people right away, he says. “You can be thoughtful and look for the exact right person,” he adds. That person will often be connected to an existing network which makes the first encounter more personal and tailored to their specific skills and experience.

As Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren told Fast Company recently, “Companies at different sizes are hospitable and attractive to different kinds of people.” Portillo agrees and says that’s why targeting talent is so important. “You have to catch people at the right stage of life who are willing to take that risk,” he says. The trick is to get people to want the job while you are still evaluating them as a potential employee. It’s especially important because, as Portillo points out, the recruiter came looking for them, not the other way around.

One way to do this goes back to the beginning and the company’s story. Getting a potential recruit excited about the possibility of working at a new venture that will have an impact makes it easier to transition to more traditional evaluation procedures such as taking a skills test.

Portillo believes startups should not have to compromise on talent, especially when they are first getting created. “When you’re building a early stage company, the key to success is to create a strong team that believes in the mission and shares the same values,” he maintains, “Launching a startup is not easy – you need to find the right people that can maintain focus and drive to help build and scale the company.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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