3 Questions That Can Make or Break Negotiations with a Potential Superstar

The email lands in your inbox and your heart starts racing. “Hey, are you still looking for a marketing lead? I know a great woman over at Facebook who is thinking of leaving. Do you want an intro?” As a startup CEO, one of your greatest responsibilities is to hire the best talent. So the opportunity to bring on a superstar… wow, this could change everything. You start imagining how you can get your investors to help close her once the offer is made and the first project she’ll….

Stop it! During my more than nine years as a Google product lead and now as a partner at Homebrew, I’ve seen many discussions between a rock star at a big company and a startup founder go awry. Most often the startup has failed to proactively address three essential questions that can make the difference between success and failure, or even prevent you from hiring someone you regret.

What Was His or Her Role at BigCo?

Put in the time to understand the employee’s actual contributions and role by checking references (and not just those provided to you.) Use LinkedIn and your network to find people who worked with him or her.  Be wary of those who were just along for the ride or who aggrandize their contributions. One way to suss this out – ask the co-workers about the metrics or key performance indicators they owned. Who did they report to? There’s a big difference between “being in someone’s organization” and being part of their core team.

Trying to evaluate whether he or she’s suited to the rhythms of a startup? Evaluate whether he or she was the type of person asked to lead new initiatives or the person better suited to running a mature business. Look for hires who ran towards high-priority, new projects.

Why Do They Want To Leave?

This employee supposedly has a great job, so why do they want to leave? I’ve found many don’t! The candidate wants to feel loved, and being chased by a startup will help his or her self-worth but waste your time. Or even worse, the employee is going to use your offer just to get a raise (see more about this below).

Here’s one way to find out: after your first conversation, give a homework assignment relevant to your company and the job. You want to see someone who has hustle in them, and can develop a point of view in advance of an employment offer. There’s mutual benefit as you each get to “try before you buy.” Those who never follow-up? Well, you just avoided a bad hire.

What are some ‘right’ reasons for a candidate to leave their old job? Passion for the prospective startup and a chance to build something new; career advancement and opportunity after wrapping up a successful project; a desire to learn new skills to maintain relevance in the marketplace. You want to see a candidate running toward you, not away from the old job.

How Do We Compete With a Counter Offer?

So you’ve made an offer to hire your superstar and after telling you they needed a few days to think about it, the bomb gets dropped: BigCo made an offer he or she just couldn’t refuse, and they’re really sorry, but they can’t join your startup. Unless you’re in the blessed class of ventures on track to be the next billion dollar IPO, you just don’t have the resources to outbid the Googles of the world. Know that all is not lost, you just need to anticipate the counter and account for it in your discussions with the target hire.

The most extreme version is to tell the candidate the basics of your offer verbally and not even make a formal offer until he or she agrees in principle. The candidate can still back out, but they’re putting a professional reputation at stake by breaking their word. Another successful approach is to reinforce the idea that compensation is just part of their decision process. You don’t need to be the highest bidder, but explicitly get the candidate to say that the compensation part of the offer is within an acceptable range. Then emphasize the aspects that his or her current employer can’t match – the speed and nimbleness of a startup, the upside of fast growth and so on. And once they’ve agreed, send a welcome gift, get their family wearing your startup’s t-shirts and it’s harder to walk away.

No doubt there’s amazing talent housed within the largest technology companies but you need to look beyond the resume when recruiting in order to spend your time on the highest value candidates and not lookie-loos or losers.

This post originally appeared on WSJ Accelerators

2 thoughts on “3 Questions That Can Make or Break Negotiations with a Potential Superstar

  1. Pingback: Startup Hiring Negotiations: 3 Keys to Land Top Talent | OpenView Labs

  2. Pingback: Startup Hiring Negotiations: 3 Keys to Land Top Talent | OpenView Labs

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