In This Market, It’s a Great Time for a Mutual “Try Before You Buy”

Why Some Smart Startups Are Putting (Paid) Projects Ahead of Employment Offers

80–90% of startups shouldn’t follow the advice I’m about to give. Instead these companies are better off just investing resources in improving their hiring via candidate flow/sourcing, interview process, offer communication/negotiation and closing experience. Being at least A- in those areas will put you way ahead of most of your competition.

But for the rest of you I’m going to suggest it’s a great time to put ‘try before you buy’ experiments into place to help potential candidates learn about you, and you about them, not through an interview slate but through actual work together. Yes, I’m talking about short-term paid projects ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Especially at early stage startups I’m convinced that while this is higher risk, it also sharpens the construction of the founding team, especially when you’re hiring people you haven’t worked with before.

Looking back I wrote something in 2012 about generally getting beyond the interview. In similarly titled, Try Before You Buy: Why Smart People & Smart Companies Are Ditching the Interview:

Once is a coincidence, twice is a trend? Increasingly I’m hearing about talented folks and sought after startups ditching the interview process as final arbiter of employment and instead opting for some sort of ‘try before you buy’ arrangement. If structured in a clear and respectful way, it makes perfect sense and can also serve to activate more passive candidates.

Some recent examples:

Startup pursuing executive from larger tech company. Mutual interest but exec just. can’t. make. that final decision to leave comfy environment. Company offers to bring him on as an advisor so they can get to know each other first.

Marketing manager tells startup that instead of discussing fulltime gig, she wants to pick a specific project she can work on for them over next few weeks and if it goes well, start the broader conversation about a job.

Product manager knows founders of a later-stage startup pretty well. He has an idea for a way to expand their product line and would join company if he can lead this particular effort. An engineer and designer from the company work with him to build a demo. Once done, the exec team and board will take a look and make a decision.

Some downsides to this sort of process:

It’s half-pregnant. No one is really committed but they’re trying to make themselves fall in love.

Candidate can be poached by another offer, or similarly the company can decide to hire someone else or go in a different direction.

Candidate needs job security if they’re going to give up current employment.

I know contractors get asked frequently to go full-time with clients. Are there other examples you’re seeing of “try before you buy?” As a founder or employee, would you be comfortable with these arrangements?

Looking back after a decade of startups I’m still a fan of these sorts of approaches. I’d emphasize that project work should be paid — don’t ask candidates to do free labor on your behalf. And how it’s structured should absolutely evolve based on company size, nature of role, and so on. But in the right situations it’s not just a way for the company to make sure it’s a good fit for them, but absolutely the opportunity to tap a type of candidate who isn’t going to jump to your startup without a higher degree of conviction.

I feel like some folks are going to TOTALLY DISAGREE WITH ME on this one ¯\_(ツ)_/¯