Hiring for startups: one perspective on what works in India and what does not

Early this year we needed to hire good engineering talent for our new startup. Unlike larger Indian companies who hire by the thousands and train by the hundreds we needed 3 people. A lead developer (backend: python, php or Ruby), a front end engineer (Javascript mostly) and a junior backend and database developer.

I had a 3 month goal for 3 people. I also decided not to hire any recruiters (I had used recruiters before), not for the money, but I had been warned about perverse incentives, aggressive, pushy people who try to close on sub-par candidates and poaching of your existing staff. A story that I learned about (turned out to be true), was that a recruiter was helping a company hire 2 developers and after those 2 were hired, the hiring team of 3 folks were placed by the recruiter in another company within 3 months.

I started at earnest looking primarily for people in my network. I have a reasonably large network in the entrepreneur community and was convinced by many that it was the best way to hire developers. I also avoided hiring from larger Indian companies (for developers) since many of them dont enjoy startups after they learn about the longer hours and pressures of shipping product.

This is not a blot against the individuals, but more the reality that many of these large companies have a very low bar set by their customers. Product release cycles for most IT organizations (that outsource work to India) ranges from 6-9 months. Multiple conference calls to “nail down requirements”, a process which takes 3 months, are normal.

The “network” included emails, twitter & facebook posts and linkedin status updates with the job description, the perks of the role and our company’s culture. A week later I got 3 resumes, and none of them were even a close fit.

I did get spam messages from Sutralite, Naurki and a freelance recruiter.

Plan B was to attend many developer events and network to meet qualified candidates. I got more people pitching me to invest in their company than possible candidates. I attended 3 events and the total number of people at those events was close to 300+.

Plan C was to post the job on some technical, developer friendly forums. I started with hasgeek. I have been a fan of their events and a couple of entrepreneurs mentioned their job board as a good one, so I posted my first job description.

I was fairly pleased with the results. I got 11 resumes in total, 7 were good quality and fit the JD reasonably well, 1 was over qualified (and expensive), and 3 were not a fit.

I did get a spam message from Sutralite again.

Plan D was to post on Pluggd.in. It was not a featured job listing. I got 1 resume for a totally unrelated position (marketing) that we were not hiring for.

I did get a spam message from Sutralite again. Different person. I emailed back and asked the individual to stop spamming me. Got no response back.

I also got another resume from a person who was a recruiter for a mid-sized company offering to “help” me recruit from her database for a “fee”. She claimed to have access to a large database of good quality developers (obviously rejects from that company’s database). She did not send me her email from her company ID, but a simple google search revealed who she was.

What I learned:

1. Recruiting from your network is hit or miss. If you need to hire a specific set of people by a particular time, there’s no choice but to spend money either to buy a database, hire a recruiter or to pay a lot of money for referring candidates. The other approach is to pay-it-forward. Build your networks way before you need them.

2. There are a lot of startups that claim that they exclusively hire from their network. Many also claim they “attract” very high quality candidates because of their unique culture or work environment. I have visited those companies and met their people. I did not find anything different or unique and also found that most people hired there were recruited by consultants. Dont believe that myth.

3. If you are a startup and you dont have an aggressive hiring strategy – which includes spending money on multiple means to recruit, then dont plan on scaling or growing fast. There’s value in growing slow and steady, so your culture assimilates everyone, giving room for hiring mistakes.

Next post – how to word that job description so you can increase your chances of success.

Related post & ht to Elaine for triggering the thought – The recruiter honeypot.

42 thoughts on “Hiring for startups: one perspective on what works in India and what does not

  1. Sudhi

    It is all mafia out there. The HR/recruiting is sort of a underworld where I some how perceive every one a bad Don. Yes there are some good recruiters who genuinely want to help.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Reply
    1. Mukund Mohan Post author

      Avlesh, sure. I understand. Please try to replicate in Bangalore. I have to be skeptical because I have heard this from *every* startup. Companies that had no issues hiring in Mumbai or Chennai move to Bangalore and struggle. I think most startups have a “different” culture than big companies, but not unique compared to any other good startup.

      Most startups I know have the following:
      1. Open environment (everyone can approach the CEO, founders, learn about every aspect of the business, etc.)
      2. Free food (or communal lunch)
      3. Flexible work schedule (ok to work from home, as long as you get the job done, etc.)
      4. Challenging problems that developers like to solve and work on relatively newer technologies like HDFS, no SQL etc.
      5. Good teamwork and bonding
      6. Pay that’s similar to large companies with perks like profit sharing or stock options
      7. Fun environment – frequent movies, celebrating festivals & birthdays, etc.

      What’s different from one startup to another is the people running them, but the elements of the culture are all the same everywhere.

      Reply
      1. Amit (@amit0)

        Guys other than existing team’s friends how does work culture attract others? unless you have been covered by some media for your culture? How do people come to know about the culture?
        And Mukund, every passionate entrepreneur wants to make ‘awesome’ work culture so when you heard it from ‘every’ startup that they have good culture, I would believe them. They probably are trying to do that :)
        I believe whats really important to attract good people is a success story.

      2. avlesh

        People running them makes a lot of difference Mukund. I found it very amusing when people said that Flipkart is run by a closely knit group of people. There’s nothing wrong in it. That’s culture. The one’s that have such a culture, are the one’s that are unique. This is how the DNA makes a difference – http://avlesh.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/the-burrp-mafia-awesome-people-who-built-extraordinary-products-and-companies/

        All that said, I totally agree with you that it is a rare phenomenon.

  2. Kunalkant Sen

    Yes. Hiring is the big pain for startup. I dont find good solution to address the problem. Would love to see some pointers/insight on how we should solve this problem

    Reply
  3. Niraj Ranjan Rout (@nirajr)

    I agree on the culture thing – all ‘good’ tech startups have a similar culture, and the issue is that in Bangalore, there are a lot of good startups jostling to hire.

    We’ve hired just two people till now at GrexIt, and it has all been through our personal networks. Its a good method, but as you point out, it won’t scale beyond a certain point if you don’t build the network in advance.

    Its very interesting how Facebook has helped us in hiring more than Twitter. I make it a point to share all the good news about GrexIt with my friends on Facebook, and while my intention is just to share the good news, it actually creates a strong force field that helps us in many ways :)

    Reply
      1. Niraj Ranjan Rout (@nirajr)

        Mukund, I just post the good news. And it has helped in passing on a strong message to my close network that what we’re doing is very interesting and we’re making good progress. I’ve had more than 5 friends who referred people they knew very well to us as potential hires.

  4. Kishore K

    There are many people who want’s to come out of co-operate pleasure work culture and sweat out to start their entrepreneurial journey, its really tough to overshadow their past.

    Reply
  5. Manimaran Malaichamy (@manimaranm)

    Really a good post that clearly tells you experience on hiring. Attending developer events will definitely help to increase the network and to find good people. We ourselves tried that option but unable to get success anyway. Thanks for sharing your experience Mukund.

    Mani

    Reply
  6. Chaitanya

    I have a proven mechanism. But this takes a little time and works only for freshers.

    I teach in engineering colleges. Either full courses(thats my passion) or even guest lectures. Its a win-win situation as students get to hear from a qualified real world industry professional and I get to interact with the students which allows me to easily identify the right candidates who would fit in our startup. Generally, a couple of close interactions are more than enough to identify the right candidates.

    The advantage is that the students, through my interactions know about the startup and hence know what they are getting into. Also, since in India, the teacher is given more respect there are generally lesser desertions. This has worked very well for Ozonetel.

    Reply
  7. Srinivas R

    How about going back to your colleges getting few student summer interns (now that RVCE, PESIT etc are autonomous) you can get good ppl.(But with no experience :( )

    Reply
  8. adeel siddiqi (@Adeel_Siddiqi)

    Dear Mr Mohan,

    My name is Adeel Siddiqi and I work with SutraLite as Head – Business Development. So most of the “Spam” that irked you so much was sent to you by members of my team. Firstly let me start of by apologizing to you on behalf of the entire company for any inconvenience caused to you by our 3 emails. I know and understand how frustrating it may be to receive mails/calls for a service that you are not interested in signing up for.

    While we never claimed we are perfect, the article makes us sound like the Guerrilla warfare practising mafia of the startup world. I would like to bring a few points to your notice:

    *We feel the problem of Startup hiring is a grave one and the fact that someone with a social network as large as yours also finds it difficult to hire quality folks for their startup hits the nail on the head. We have been in operations for the last 3 years and through our ventures SutraHR and SutraLite we have helped over a 1000 startups hire.

    * Moving to your thoughts on “Recruitment Agencies” and their “Pushiness”.. While I agree that the recruitment setup in India may not be the best, passing judgement on an entire industry based on a few bad experiences you have had maybe a little prudent if not more.

    *Spare a thought for a guy who has dropped out of college or just quit his job to follow his passion of starting a company and has 0 Social presence within the startup ecosystem and minimal funds to spend on hiring. What you call “SPAM” can be just the mail and the kind of service he was looking for but couldn’t find.

    *You mention in the article about we “Spamming” you on multiple occasions. While I looked into this and turns out you are correct, I would like to point out that the JOB POSTS that you put up were on the world wide web and in the public domain and in none of these was there any mention that you were so averse to the idea of a Recruitment agency assisting you in your search. However we are working on our processes to ensure no client who has declined our services is pitched to repeatedly via mails or calls. We would welcome any feedback or suggestions a seasoned entrepreneur like you makes.

    Our simple aim is to help startups hire and since we lack the mega bucks backing of VC’s or Angel investors and dont spend a trillion dollars on advertising like our friends at some of the leading Job Portals in the country we try and reach as many entrepreneurs as we can with a simple mail. It’s a classic David vs Goliath battle that we face against these guys day in and day out. Also you would be surprised by the number of people within the Startup Ecosystem who aren’t aware of cost effective ways to hire and feel we have a good idea and are working our butts off towards executing it. We also offer a 50% refund and a 100% refund for 10 days to any of our clients who feel they have not benefitted from our service.

    So with all due respect and humility Mr Mohan, I suggest that a person of your stature and network within the relatively small startup society in India should refrain from passing judgements on a startup whose services you haven’t even used ! You see while you may think we are sending a mail which is spam, there maybe a guy in a garage in a tier 2 town of India who is neckdeep in coding and has a client deadline approaching and could use the help of another hand at a reasonable cost. These are the people who swear by us and they too are just as much of a Startup as you and we.

    I am always available to talk in person on +91 9768444455 or can be reached on mail at adeel at sutralite dot com and if you are ever in Mumbai, I invite you to drop in to the office for a cup of coffee and share your feedback with us in person :)

    Thank You

    Reply
    1. Mukund Mohan Post author

      Adeel
      Thanks for your note.

      I know the problem of startup hiring is a grave one, and I am sure you help, my issue is one of you contacting me without me asking your team to do so. That’s not helping, that’s spamming. I would highly recommend your team stop that practice (regardless of whether a prospect posted online the requirement online). Until a few days ago hasgeek did not have the option to mention whether we’d like recruiters to contact us or not. Now they do.

      I have asked over 17 people who I consider peers in the startup industry who have either heard of your services or heard about your practices. None of them unfortunately have any good things to say about you. Three of them have used your services, but I would expect people who have not used your services to have a neutral impression of you. Not a negative one. That to me indicates a bigger problem. They did have very positive things to say about job boards such as hasgeek, pluggd.in and Linkedin.

      Reply
      1. adeel siddiqi (@Adeel_Siddiqi)

        Hi Mr Mohan,

        Thanks for the relevant feedback.

        I appreciate and understand your thoughts on the service itself. As the norm of society and the world, people will always be quicker to point out the negatives than the positives and we are ok with that. We had a call with folks at Hasgeek post their tweet and assured them we respect their clients privacy and people who choose to NOT BE CONTACTED will not be bothered. However, Kiran himself also agreed that there were many of his clients who had given the service a shot and were successful. The choice of working with a consultant or not is subjective and we see no harm in a person posting a job online being asked the question. When you receive an invite on Linkedin from a stranger you dont shoot a mail to Linkedin, do you ?

        What I wanted to put across in my earlier comment is that if you have a problem or know people who have a problem with the service, we are receptive to feedback and criticsm. All it takes is to pick up the phone or write a two line mail and we would welcome that. However when you tweet/blog about a startup in the public domain, it influences a lot of people who havent tried the service, know the entire story or are on the fence. I cant tweet a list of 1000 companies who are happy and appreciate the service, but maybe this will help the cynics : http://www.pluggd.in/sutralite-the-low-cost-recruitment-service-for-startups-and-smbs-297/

        And in terms of our work, we are proud of what we have done so far and also know that no service is perfect. We have a few people who feel dissatisfied and they are always welcome to to give us their crticism or feedback through right channels. I’m sure you would have experienced the same, building your own companies.Lastly, I understand your views on not being contacted if you havent asked for it and we are building processes around that but I’m sure there are bigger spammer out there the world needs to worry about :)

        P.S – I don’t see the spam guys from Naukri acknowledging or responding to your tweets or blogs, that should also tell you that we have our heads on our shoulders and our feet on the ground and given time and support we will solve the problem of Startup hiring.

        Cheers & Peace !

      2. adeel siddiqi (@Adeel_Siddiqi)

        Hi Mr Mohan,

        Thanks for the relevant feedback.

        I appreciate and understand your thoughts on the service itself. As the norm of society and the world, people will always be quicker to point out the negatives than the positives and we are ok with that. We had a call with folks at Hasgeek post their tweet and assured them we respect their clients privacy and people who choose to NOT BE CONTACTED will not be bothered. However, Kiran himself also agreed that there were many of his clients who had given the service a shot and were successfull. The choice of working with a consultant or not is subjective and we see no harm in a person posting a job online being asked the question. When you receive an invite on Linkedin from a stranger you dont shoot a mail to Linkedin, do you ?

        What I wanted to put across in my earlier comment is that if you have a problem or know people who have a problem with the service, we are receptive to feedback and criticsm. All it takes is to pick up the phone or write a two line mail and we would welcome that. However when you tweet/blog about a startup in the public domain, it influences a lot of people who havent tried the service, know the entire story or are on the fence. I cant tweet a list of 1000 companies who are happy and appreciate the service, but maybe this will help the cynics : http://www.pluggd.in/sutralite-the-low-cost-recruitment-service-for-startups-and-smbs-297/

        And in terms of our work, we are proud of what we have done so far and also know that no service is perfect. We have a few people who feel dissatisfied and they are always welcome to to give us their crticism or feedback through right channels. I’m sure you would have experienced the same, building your own companies.Lastly, I understand your views on not being contacted if you havent asked for it and we are building processes around that but I’m sure there are bigger spammer out there the world needs to worry about :)

        P.S – I dont see the spam guys from Naukri acknowledging or responding to your tweets or blogs, that should also tell you that we have our heads on our shoulders and our feet on the ground and given time and support we will solve the problem of Startup hiring.

        Cheers & Peace !

    1. Mukund Mohan Post author

      Pradeep, I can filter using interview street but hiring is something that I have not considered. You mean like setting up a challenge and asking people to solve them. I am not sure how much it costs, but that’s a good idea.

      Reply
  9. Kanchan

    In the past 3 yrs., we have done everything that you mentioned Mukund – HR consultants, network/personal references, social networking sites, etc. But hiring as per me is THE BIGGEST PAIN of any start up. We got success from personal references; though only from those who were sensitive & understanding of the start up culture. But you know what the most difficult part is how many candidates make it to the final stage of selection. 6 in 600. You bet! And then how many accept the offer is an altogether different story :)

    Reply
  10. Pingback: How to A/B test your job description and hack your way to hiring success « Be a Force of Good

  11. Subramanyam Kasibhat

    Hi Mukund, Nice point. I run a technology company in HR space ;-). Many companies fail to understand the importance of Brand building for hiring. No matter who the HR consultant is, or how hard or good their network is, the actual sale depends on the quality of the product (In this case it is the company/startup) and the overall image it has created in the market. Startups using their web presence mostly to show case products or investor pitches but rarely showcase aspects that would be key for good candidates to talk to you. Like Niraj Ranjan Rout (@nirajr) pointed out, you need to inculcate the habit of sharing insights and successes on regular basis. Provoke their curiosity and interest in you/your startup. Things like financial success, growth, excitement at regular intervals would solve most of the problems.

    Reply
  12. Pingback: Big disruptions in the recruitment industry « Be a Force of Good

  13. Sriraman

    Hi Mukund. I recenty moved into the role of a Practise head – Recruitment. (after 16 years in IT consultancy). To help others get the right talent, I first had to build my own team. That is when I realised that getting the ‘right’ people is no cake walk. I am still struggling, but have managed to get a couple of people who are ‘just perfect’. So, this struggle is here to stay – whether its a start up or a mid-size or the biggies.. A strategy that worked somewhere need not necessarily work in another scenario.!

    Reply
  14. Raunak Guha

    Hi, getting your initial employees and developing your team early on is crucial for the success of a company. These employees set the culture of the company early on. As a founder, you need to be able to motivate these employees for the bigger picture. Here is an interesting read on Interview Techniques for Hiring:

    http://blog.foundermates.com/adapt-a-behaviour-based-interview-technique-for-hiring-part-1/

    and part 2:
    http://blog.foundermates.com/adapt-a-behaviour-based-interview-technique-for-hiring-part-2/

    Reply
  15. Pingback: “Recruiting a techie for a start up in Delhi | Learning to Fly

  16. Amjad

    Mukund,
    You can imagine what I was looking for if I came across this blog.
    What are your thoughts on organising walkins? Any views on what kind of candidates would turn up for a walkin interview? I am faced with a similar dilemma as yours and did most of the above.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s