Sourcing and recruiting from your network is going to be the highest-ROI way to hire your early-stage team, especially engineers. Start here. Every co-founder should be spending time on this regardless of their role once you’re ready to hire.
In-network hires are great because it’s easier to get signal on whether they’re a good fit (either you’ve worked with them or can back-channel easily). More importantly, people from your network are going to be more likely to make a leap and join you. Joining an early-stage startup is super risky and a huge commitment on their part. With personal connections, you’ll have insight into what would motivate them to join, and can lean on your network to help them decide.
If you or your co-founder or your team are uneasy with reaching out to your network about working at your startup, I urge you to get comfortable with it. If you don’t put yourself out there and engage with talent, you won’t hire a team and your startup will fail. It’s as simple as that.
Before diving in, you may want to spend 15 minutes getting set up on a few tools. Of course, we recommend giving Gem a spin. It’s free for 2 years if you apply to our free for startups program.
LinkedIn (Basic or Recruiter Lite) + Gem will cover all of the bases between candidate search, candidate work history, email finder, outreach, and CRM. But you can also piece together your own custom stack if you want to, e.g. LinkedIn + ContactOut + Spreadsheet + MixMax. An ATS is probably optional at this stage.
candidate searchcandidate work history
You’ll almost certainly search your LinkedIn connections. Even if you find people outside of LinkedIn (e.g. Facebook), you’ll still want to check their LinkedIn to see their most recent work history before reaching out. You’ll also want to update your LinkedIn in case candidates look you up.
LinkedIn Recruiter Lite
candidate searchcandidate work history
If you start hitting LinkedIn paywalls (# searches or # profile views), you may need to upgrade to LinkedIn Recruiter Lite. Recruiter Lite is likely the best plan for early-stage startups as it’s 1/10th of the price of a full Recruiter seat.
If you don’t know someone well enough to text them, email is going to be your best bet because many people (especially engineers) have InMail notifications off. Gem will help you find personal emails for free or you can pay for other email finders like ContactOut.
Clearbit will help you find work emails. Candidates will prefer you reach them via personal emails, but work email may be a nice plan B if you can't find one.
free for startups
You’ll want a place to organize the people you’re reaching out to, kind of like a light-weight sales CRM. Gem projects are great for this because they’re designed for recruiting. Gem will also find you email addresses and automate your outreach.
You can also get started with a spreadsheet.
MixMax SMB Plan
MixMax can help automate your initial outreach over email, but is going to be mostly designed for sales (e.g. not integrated with LinkedIn or help you find personal emails).
Greenhouse or Lever
Once you've built out an in-house recruiting team and are hiring at scale, you'll probably want to invest in an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). In the early days, an ATS may be optional, as you probably won't have enough inbound interest to justify a career site or pain-points around tracking complicated interview loops.
Build your list
Start by building your short-list of ~10-25 people and then cast a wider net. At Gem, we call these our “L1 connections” and “L2 connections”:
- L1 connections. These are your “Gems”. The shortlist of 10-25 people who you’ve worked with closely, or know by reputation, that you’d want to work with no matter what. This is where you and your co-founders should start.
- L2 connections. These are folks you suspect are good, but maybe haven’t worked as closely with. L2 connections may be classmates from school, friends from previous internships, and colleagues from former companies.
Carve out a few hours to go through your Facebook and LinkedIn connections to build your list of L1 connections. There’s a good chance this will turn up a good number of L2 connections as well. If you’re using Gem, you can create projects for “L1 connections” and “L2 connections”, and download our Chrome Extension to seamlessly import each person from LinkedIn with one click.
If you haven’t done a great job maintaining Facebook or LinkedIn connections, run a search on LinkedIn to find people you know that you haven’t connected with yet. Try running a search for your school and then each company you’ve worked for (don’t forget your internships!).
Your primary goal when reaching out is to get to an initial conversation, whether that’s call, Zoom catch-up, coffee, lunch, etc. (see
For candidates in your network, we recommend reaching out as you build your list, so you can take a few minutes to personalize your message. If you’re using Gem, you can personalize and send your emails right alongside LinkedIn without having to jump between tabs.
Consider using text and/or FB messenger for L1 connections and L2 connections you know well. Be sure to mark this in your spreadsheet or 1-click log your outreach in Gem so you know you’ve reached out.
Hold yourself accountable for contacting and following up with at least 25 people per week. This is super important and should only take a few hours (even less if you’re using Gem to automate the manual work!).
Email messaging best practices
- Keep your title short (~50 characters or less). Most email is read on mobile where there’s less screen real estate.
- Personalize your outreach. Do heavier personalization for your L1 connections. For L2 connections, consider light-weight personalization, like how you know each other (school, former company, etc.) or mutual connections for social proof. Make sure your personalization is front and center so there’s no need to scroll on mobile.
- Include a clear Call-to-Action (“CTA”). Don’t force your candidate to think of a next step. Suggest a specific next step & time/date to lower friction to respond.
- Keep it short. Target 100-250 words when reaching out over email and avoid long paragraphs.
- Share links. Linking to fundraising announcements, product launches, and press can give you external validation. Links can also be a great way jumping-off point for candidates to learn more while keeping your initial message short. If you don’t have anything, consider writing a blog post about your startup (see example blog post by our co-founder Nick), so you have something to include in your outreach.
Example reach out templates
Here’s a template we used to reach out to our engineering L2 Connections from MIT. This is how we hired our second engineer, Jet Zhou. Note, we reference MIT and namedrop me, Nick, Drew (who all went to MIT) for social proof. Also notice the use of links for validation, which also serves as a jumping-off point to learn more.
For people you know pretty well, you may want to catch up casually before jumping straight into a recruiting conversation. Consider an indirect message & CTA:
Of course, don’t copy these templates verbatim. It wouldn’t be great if every candidate starts seeing the exact same language. Use these as a starting point and make them your own. Also, if you’re remote, consider suggesting catching up over call/video chat instead of a coffee.
Other best practices for reaching out
- Send emails, not InMail. Again, a lot of people on LinkedIn have their InMail notifications off. Especially engineers — 40% of technical talent have notifications off.
- Follow up 2-3 times. Many people may not respond to your initial reach out, especially L2 connections. In fact, our data shows that you double your response rate by sending 2-3 follow-ups. You can use Gem to send automated follow-ups that only go out if there’s no response.
- Keep your follow-ups short, but interesting. Your follow-ups should be shorter than your initial outreach. It’s ok to reinforce a key point, but consider introducing a new concept to avoid being too repetitive. Try a “break up email” for your final follow-up.
- Send from multiple co-founders. Consider sending follow-ups from different co-founders to be extra high-touch. You can use Gem to automate follow-ups from different senders, which response rates by ~20%.
- Use Gem. Gem automates most of the manual tedious work that goes into list-building and reaching out, making it easy to follow these best practices.
If you want to go even deeper on outreach best-practices, here’s Gem’s “Definitive Guide for Email Outreach”, a data-driven guidebook based on millions of messages sent through Gem.
How to handle responses
Most of your responses will fall into one of four categories:
- Interested. Sweet! Reply immediately to schedule that initial coffee chat or call. Aim to schedule it no more than a few days out.
- Not Interested. You’ll get a lot of no’s, which is ok. It’s a numbers game, so keep at it. If someone says no, thank them for responding, and ask for their top 3 people they’d recommend you reach out to, especially if they’re in your network.
- Later. Chances are the timing may not be right. Plant the seeds that you’ll follow up down the road and set a due date for yourself. Alternatively, if you use Gem, you can schedule a long-term nurture email directly from your inbox.
- No response. Regardless of how you reached out, it’s important to follow up 2-3 times if you didn’t get a response. Reaching out to a friendly acquaintance to catch up is almost never going to be considered annoying or bothersome if you have a prior relationship.
And, if you’re using Gem for your outreach, you can create templates for each type of response and respond in one click from your inbox, or set a reminder to follow up later.
Feedback? Suggestions? Ideas? Comment directly or email firstname.lastname@example.org