Employer brand for startups
Recruiting is often the biggest challenge for early-stage startups. When your product is unproven, your credibility as a founder is yet to be established, and you compete with established employers, it can be difficult to convince anyone to join your venture. Corporate tech companies have bigger budgets, generous perks, and great brand recognition. But startup building is all about punching above your weight. Recruiting gets easier as a startup grows and establishes itself as a desirable brand to work for. It is possible to accelerate this process with intentional employer brand design.
Understanding employer brand
Startups with a strong employer brand find it much easier to recruit new staff. Instead of paying recruiters for expensive outreach-driven recruiting, candidates come to them. They don’t need to work as hard to sell the dream to prospective employees. They attract the highest-quality talent in the market.
A brand can mean different things to different audiences. Your value proposition for customers differs from your value proposition for employees or partners. Still, all the principles of good branding apply to employer brands. Like product brands, employer brands consist of two core elements:
- Positioning is what you bring to the table, who you target, and how you’re different to the competition.
- Awareness is the reach of your brand. Essentially, how famous are you?
A well-positioned brand that nobody knows about is worthless. A famous but poorly-positioned brand is a public relations disaster. Both of these areas need investment.
Employer brand positioning
How you position yourself in the talent market will greatly impact your ability to recruit. Startups lean more heavily on employer brand positioning than awareness because fame is difficult for fledgling, unproven companies.
When corporate technology companies position themselves as employers, they prioritise the following value propositions:
- Generous compensation, including both salary and stock options.
- Structured career development.
- Perks like a personal office budget, office amenities, company retreats, and free lunches.
- The status that comes with working for a well-known brand.
Most startups copy these value propositions to establish themselves as desirable employers. While this works for some generously-funded ventures, most startups cannot compete with established technology companies on any of these dimensions. This is why startups should instead take a completely different approach.
Corporate technology companies are safe, slow, and well-compensated places to work. Startups are risky, fast, stressful, and resource-poor. When a startup adopts the corporate tech talent playbook, they not only fail but also attract the wrong type of talent. The kind of person who desires an easy, well-compensated cruise through corporate tech life is likely to fail at a startup. Startups that act like corporate tech companies will attract people who want to work for corporate tech companies. This is not to say that people with corporate tech experience can’t succeed in startups — the same employee can have very different needs at various career stages.
Instead, startups should differentiate themselves from their competition in the talent market. While every startup needs a different employer brand, some of the dimensions to consider are:
- Mission alignment. Every startup needs a mission. By defining your company culture and brand around this mission, you will attract people with the same values. If your goal is to topple Intuit’s dominance of the tax industry, you need to recruit people who want to change the world in this way.
- Challenge/opportunity alignment and risk tolerance. Nobody should rest and vest at a startup. If you are clear with prospects that yours is a company where people will work hard to achieve something big (or fail miserably), you will attract people willing to work hard for the slim chance of a major payoff in the increased value of their shares. Most people don’t want a job like that, and that’s OK.
- Opportunity for rapid learning through unstructured career development. Startups don’t offer structured career paths where the average employee can slowly climb the corporate ladder. Rather, they offer an environment where the best people can move from entry-level support to hands-on leadership positions within a year. People wear many hats and become versatile generalists at startups. They learn how to found their own company.
- Community. While any organisation can contain great communities, no corporation can compete with the sense of purpose, belonging, and camaraderie that even dysfunctional startups often achieve.
- Impact. An employee can individually impact a small organisation much more than a large one. Every early-stage startup employee should feel like an entrepreneur.
Great brands are defined not only by what they are but what they are not. To create a great brand, lean into the strengths of your startup. But, more importantly, don’t try to pretend you are something you’re not.
Employer brand awareness
While some startups achieve fame very quickly, most cannot compete with established tech brands for attention. Fortunately, positioning is much more important than fame. For every founder who is laser-focused on startup building, there are many more who spend their time building fame on LinkedIn or Twitter. Fame is worthless when you have nothing to sell.
For many startups, the best way to build employer brand awareness is the same as the best way to build product brand awareness: starting with a niche. By focusing on a niche, it is easier to attract the attention of the most important part of your overall audience. From there, you can expand into other niches, and before you know it, you’ll have broad brand awareness.
- It takes a long time to pay off, but all startups should build a community around their product. Your startup is built around your vision for the future. You need to assemble your fellow radicals. As a community forms around your startup, opportunities for growth, partnerships, and recruiting will emerge naturally.
- As an employer, you should align yourself with a technology community. Become the biggest supporter of the Tasmanian Rust ecosystem. Host the meetups. Support open-source projects. Always choose technologies that are growing in popularity. The more fanatical the existing community seems, the better.
- Join and build communities centred around the audience for your product. If you sell software to hospitality companies, you should become a cornerstone of that community. You might not get as many great engineering recruits through these communities, but you’ll find some of your best account managers and salespeople.
12 February, 2023
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