4. Nurturing passive talent from your network

4. Nurturing passive talent from your network

Once you’ve identified who to engage with, reached out, and started to have initial sell conversations, you’ll need to nurture these relationships to get them excited about your startup. Nurturing can be applied to anyone you’re interested in hiring, but is especially important for those 1st and 2nd-degree connections from your network.

Some people you talk to may already be looking for a job and will jump straight into an interview process (active candidates), but most won’t be considering new opportunities (passive candidates). Your goal with passive candidates is to build momentum and excitement over time through multiple touchpoints (texts, calls, coffee chats, lunches, happy hours, etc.) while continuing to get a read on their interest level & timing.

Types of nurture touchpoints

The key to nurturing passive talent is to be armed with a broad spectrum of touchpoints depending on the situation. At a high-level, you want a mix of indirect vs. direct touchpoints and low-touch vs. high-touch.

Indirect touchpoints

Indirect touchpoints are ways to spend time with passive candidates that aren’t necessarily in the context of a recruiting process (e.g. regular happy hours, game nights, coffee catch-ups). The more passive the candidate, the more you’ll deploy indirect touchpoints. After all, it can be off-putting to jump straight into a “recruiting” conversation before someone’s ready. Catching up over coffee chats, calls, emails, text messages are great indirect touchpoints.

Consider setting up a recurring indirect touchpoint with your entire team, such as a happy hour or game night that you can invite passive candidates to. This accomplishes two things:

  • Making these regular & recurring means that there will always be a low-pressure & easy default option for your co-founders and team to engage with their friends & referrals.
  • Because your whole team is there, it’s a great way for passive candidates to meet your co-founders and the rest of your team without feeling like they’re being “recruited”.

At Gem, we hosted social events every 2-4 weeks. While there was usually wine & beer, we never made drinking the focal point in an effort to be inclusive. Instead, we had creative themes around food, like chocolate/cheese/hot-saucing tastings, or make your own pizzas/sundaes. We did a lot of game nights and even hosted a puppy petting event, which was a huge success. To spread the load, different team members took turns planning each social event. A big part of making these successful was sitting down with the team for 30 minutes a week in advance to invite friends & referrals (via Facebook events) and then 2 days before to follow up with invitees.

Not only was this a great way to spend time together as a team, but social events also ensured that we always had a low-pressure excuse to spend time with 1st-degree connections & referrals. This was especially important for referrals where our team wasn’t always comfortable having a recruiting conversation with their friends out of the gate. These were also a great opportunity to spend more time with candidates in our interview process. And, the fact that passive candidates met active candidates that were also interviewing was good social validation, because it showed candidates were taking our startup seriously.

Note: if your company is remote, consider a virtual game night over Zoom. At Gem, we love Jackbox Games, Codenames (online version here), and Scribble.

Direct touchpoints

Direct touchpoints are touchpoints where it’s more clear that you’re trying to recruit a candidate. These can be things like coffee with another co-founder/founding engineer or lunch with the team. Deploy direct touchpoints if you learn that the candidate is actively interviewing at other companies or if you start to feel them lean in during an indirect touchpoint. The goal with direct touchpoints is to get them excited enough to start interviewing with your startup.

Low vs. high touch engagement

Deploying a variety of touchpoints across spectrum is also a good idea to keep candidates engaged. Illustrative examples include:

  • Low-touch — Quick emails, texts, calls.
  • Med-touch — Coffee chats, video calls.
  • High-touch — Happy hours, game nights, lunch with the team, coffee with another founder/engineer.

Nurture cadence

As a best practice, try to have a touchpoint every 1-3 months and ramp them up if you get the sense someone is leaning in. If someone is actively interviewing, aim for an active touchpoint with them at least weekly until you can get them excited enough to interview with you. Inversely, if someone becomes less responsive, consider scaling back to every 3-6 months.

High-level best practices

Nurturing best practices are largely a continuation of many of the best practices in

, but spread out over multiple touchpoints:

  • Before the touchpoint. Review your notes from your previous touchpoint and come prepared with a few next steps depending on where the conversation goes.
  • Continue to get to know your candidate. Every conversation is a chance to learn something new about them. This will help you frame your opportunity in a way that makes sense to the candidate.
  • Be excited. Excitement is contagious. Share exciting updates about the business, the product, key hires you’ve made, fundraising, etc.
  • Demonstrate momentum over multiple conversations. Always share a few exciting things you’re working towards that will likely happen in the next few weeks (revenue milestones, marquee customers you’re about to sign, new product launches). I’d recommend sharing things you’re fairly confident you’re going to hit or speak in general terms so you don’t over-promise, under-deliver. Circle back on these things next time you chat to create a sense of momentum over multiple conversations.
  • Get a sense of their timing. I always like to tease out whether they’re starting to think about new opportunities to get a sense of timing. This helps me know whether to make my next touchpoint more direct or indirect. “How are you doing at XYZ company? Any chance you’re starting to think about what’s next?”
  • Always suggest a next step. Consider pulling up your calendars and scheduling it live.
    • If you get a sense that they’re ready to make a move and/or leaning in, consider asking directly “if they’d be interested in exploring working together”. If they’re ready to interview, great! If not, lunch with the team or coffee with a co-founder might be what tips them over the edge.
    • If you get the sense that it’s going to take some more effort, ask if they’re down to catch up again in a few weeks/months, or suggest an indirect touchpoint to continue to build momentum (e.g. dropping by a happy hour).
  • After the touchpoint. Write your takeaways down while it’s fresh and schedule a followup task to circle back with your next touchpoint. Consider sending a quick email/text after-the-fact. Perhaps, share an interesting takeaway or let them know that you’re looking forward to spending time soon.

Tracking nurture touchpoints

If you’re doing your job right, your passive talent will be having lots of touchpoints with several people across your team. It’s important to track all of these relationships and touchpoints in one place to make sure you’re not stepping on each other’s toes or dropping any balls.

A tracking spreadsheet is a fine option and may be easy to get started, but will become unwieldy quickly as you add team members. Spreadsheets also grow stale as they’re a lot of manual work to keep up-to-date. Instead, consider applying to Gem’s free for startups program to track your passive talent relationships & touchpoints. Gem is free for 2 years and includes unlimited seats for you, your co-founders, and your founding team, so you can have a single source of truth for your passive talent.

Use Gem Projects to organize everyone you’re recruiting. Gem Projects are like spreadsheets, but designed specifically for nurturing passive talent relationships:

  • 1-click import candidates from LinkedIn to a Gem project to populate all their info (name, company, title, school). Gem will even enrich their personal email address if you don’t have it.
  • Gem automatically syncs any email touchpoints with candidates across your entire team to the last activity column.
  • Log texts, calls, coffee chats, happy hour attendance in one click to have a complete history of every touchpoint.
  • Write notes to track context from your nurture touchpoints.
  • Set due dates and @mention / assign teammates to collaborate on next steps. Gem will notify you when it’s time to take action.
  • Sort by the last touchpoint to bubble up folks that you haven’t talked to in a while.

Review your important projects every week to make sure no candidate is slipping through the cracks. Consider checking in on your team’s Projects to make sure every candidate is getting a consistent touchpoint.

How Gem nurtured its own founding team

At Gem, 25% of our hires were already looking, and we were able to very quickly convert them into candidates. 75% of our founding team was passive, meaning we had to nurture them using multiple touchpoints over the course of 3+ months. For some of them, it took 9+ months before they finally converted into candidates!

Nurturing passive talent is hard work and can take time to see results. It is important to remain persistent and have a system to ensure follow-ups. At Gem, we nurtured over 100 candidates from our network, with a consistent touchpoint every 1-3 months, over the course of 3-6 months, to hire our first 4 founding engineers. This was a combination of indirect (coffee chats / happy hours) and direct touchpoints (lunch with the team/coffee with a different co-founder or engineer). All in, it took ~500 touchpoints!

But nurturing talent from your network is definitely worth it. Once they do convert into candidates, they’ll perform better in your interview process and have a much higher chance of accepting your offer because they’re in-network. And even if the timing isn’t right in the short-term, many of the people you’re nurturing in the first 3-9 months will continue to convert into candidates over the medium-long term, which makes hiring the rest of your founding team progressively easier.

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Feedback? Suggestions? Ideas? Comment directly or email steve@gem.com