The Recruiter Honeypot

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“External recruiters are an inevitable necessity for startups. But after seeing all of the emails that those external recruiters generated in subsequent years, I wish Meebo had switched to in-house recruiting sooner.”

By Elaine Wherry (Co-Founder, Meebo)

In late 2009, I created an online persona named Pete London – a self-described JavaScript ninja – to help attract and hire the best JavaScript recruiters.

While I never hired a recruiter from the experiment, I learned a ton about how to compete in today’s Silicon Valley talent war.

Based upon two years of non-scientific research, here’s what you should know…

The Recruiting Crisis

In late 2009, my desk was piled with JavaScript resumes. Our homegrown JavaScript framework edged us over competitors but maintaining our technical advantage meant carefully crafting a lean, delta-force Web team. Though I averaged two interviews a day, we had only grown the team by three or four engineers each year.

However, in 2010, that had to change. It was our first year with a real revenue target and also the first time we planned to pivot from our original IM product. We charted our end-of-year goals, quarterly milestones, and eventually backtracked to our team and hiring priorities. To meet our 2010 goals, I needed to double the JavaScript team in just one quarter. If I didn’t, innovation would stall and without revenue, our business would be in serious jeopardy.

I had very little more to give. Over the previous four years, I had already spent my personal networks, seeded every nook of the Web with job descriptions, and experimented with guerilla recruiting tactics like hosting JavaScript meetups across the country, planting hand-written congratulatory notes on the seats of CS Stanford students who’d just finished their finals, coding a spidering engine to find online JavaScript resumes, and even buying Google AdWords for relevant terms like xmlhttp, opendatabase, and localstorage.

But then my recruiting problem went from serious to heart-stopping dire. In the final months of 2009, every female on Meebo’s recruiting team became pregnant within a month of each other. Our expectant mothers were searching for contract replacements but as winter crept closer, finding someone who could temporarily step up to our extraordinary JavaScript challenges during our most critical hiring quarter looked unlikely. I was truly on my own.

Pete London Is Born

I needed amazing recruiters desperately. After the third expectant mother relayed her good news, I sunk into to my chair overwhelmed with urgency and stared blankly at my monitor thinking over and over, “Oh my god, what do I do now?” My first impulse was to look at the recruiters in my Inbox – specifically those who had pinged me for a Javascript role and presumably had prior Javascript recruiting experience. However, I also needed a recruiter who was smart enough not to poach a founder.

The honeypot idea emerged slowly, “If only I weren’t a founder! Which recruiters would have contacted me as an engineer?”

I stewed on the idea of posting my resume online with a fictitious name for days and then one sleepless night, without telling anyone, I woke up and posted a small three-page website with an about page, resume, and blog for a supposed Pete London whose interests and engineering persona mirrored my own except he wasn’t a founder. I swapped out my post-graduate experience with my husband so it wouldn’t be too easy to trace back to me. I returned to bed with a small glimmer of hope – I had been hunting for recruiters for months but now the recruiters would come to me!

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Last Resort – LinkedIn

My hopes sank pretty quickly. PeteLondon.com sat alone in Internet ether for weeks with absolutely nada activity. I was about to pull down the entire site when I thought – I’ll just post the resume on LinkedIn as a last resort.

Bam. It was as if I’d finally stumbled upon the door to the party.

On December 10, 2009, the first LinkedIn message arrived from Google. Mozilla followed on December 15. Ning and Facebook followed in January. Since then, Pete averaged a recruiter ping every 40 hours and saw 530 emails from 382 recruiters across 172 organizations.

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* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

What I Learned After 2.5 Years

I learned less about recruiting recruiters and more about recruiting engineers.

Here are my eight biggest take-aways to finding the best talent online…

Lesson #1 – Recruiters Rely Exclusively Upon LinkedIn

You might be thinking, “Really? This is obvious!” But understand the context. I was interviewing tech recruiters who said they had “moved beyond LinkedIn.” LinkedIn was a “crutch for everyone else” but them. When I asked what techniques they used to fulfill JavaScript roles, they’d describe complex Boolean queries, highway 101 billboards, and obscure search engines. I ate it up! But at the same time, I wondered, “Wait, if this is all true, why hasn’t anyone found Pete London yet?”

To further my confusion, LinkedIn wasn’t how Meebo found its initial superstar JavaScript team. From 2005-20011, only one JavaScript team member was hired via LinkedIn – the rest came from personal networking, meetups, blog scouting, and other guerilla recruiting approaches.

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I also assumed that a professional who made their living from recruiting, would want to optimize their response rate and would seek out ways to contact Pete London beyond LinkedIn. Though Pete London’s website and personal email address were just one click from his LinkedIn profile page, the majority of emails still arrived via LinkedIn – especially from larger companies.

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Surprisingly, very few recruiters tried more than one communication channel.

TIP #1: If you’re a startup who always feels like you’re scraping the bottom of the LinkedIn barrel, you’re probably right – LinkedIn is incredibly competitive. Recruit latent talent off the grid.

TIP #2: Recruiters flock to LinkedIn first, if not always. To increase your personal opportunities, join LinkedIn.

Lesson #2 – Fear The Silicon Valley Long Tail

When I wrote to potential engineers, I always imagined my email landing next to recruiting giants like Google or Facebook. As a result, I was careful to emphasize Meebo’s unique startup learning opportunities, amazing culture, and the opportunity to make impact.

However, my strategy was misguided. The Silicon Valley companies that drew TechCrunch headlines from 2010-2012 (i.e. Adobe, Amazon, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Microsoft, Mozilla, Skype, Twitter, Yahoo, Zynga) only represented 15% of the landscape.

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But I should have been more scared than I was – the emails from startups and mid-sized companies sounded nearly identical (my own included), “We’re a fast-growing startup disrupting a lucrative space where your talents will shine and your efforts will be amply rewarded.” By emphasizing the classic startup experience, everyone sounded exactly the same:

Startup in Mountain View: “We’ve assembled a world class team. Our monthly uniques have already exceeded [###] million and continue to trend higher at a rapid pace. We’ve reached an inflection point where we’re looking to scale, and with your background I wanted to speak with you about our engineering hiring.”

Startup in San Francisco: “There are a variety of interesting technical challenges in front of us including scaling for millions of users, developing applications, building a sophisticated data platform, securing user data and, most importantly, ensuring an incredible experience for our users. Aside from our plethora of awesome technical projects, this is also a great place to work. Everyone on the team benefits from free meals and tremendous organizational transparency (weekly all hands, daily stand ups, etc.)”

Larger companies employed an entirely different strategy and anecdotally, I saw more terse, canned emails from larger companies than startups. To quantitatively compare strategies, I went through all emails and noted whether the recruiter included role details, company information, or if the email was personalized specifically to Pete. I was incredibly lenient and gave points whenever I could.

By almost every metric, the larger companies performed weakest: smallest word count (114 vs. 148 words per email), least likely to describe the company mission or personalize email, and least likely to use a personal email address. However, large companies hired triple the number of recruiters and made up for their shortcomings in volume. Pete heard from an average of 1.4 recruiters at each startup and 4.6 recruiters at each large company.

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You might assume that with more internal recruiters, big companies would do better better than startups who depend more upon external recruiters. After all, big companies have had more time, resources, infrastructure to make this a key strategic asset. But it turns out you don’t want to emulate the big guys and you also don’t want to assume they are your stiffest competition.

TIP #3: Your real recruiting nemesis is the startup down the street. Pitch your job opportunities with more specificity than “fast-paced, innovative startup.”

Lesson #3 – The Recruiting Landscape Isn’t Just Filled With Recruiters

Only 97% of the recruiting emails can be attributed to traditional recruiting. So who represents the remaining 3%? Surprise! VCs – specifically early-stage angel investors.

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* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

Though they are a small lot, they are a super lethal bunch with an eye on your jugular artery – your revered first engineers who built your system from scratch. The charming VCs know that your prized engineers could fulfill a similar role at their future portfolio companies and set their hooks early. In most cases they don’t have a specific company or role in mind but are just proactively networking and hoping to be top-of-mind in the future. Given how interconnected and fast-moving the startup world is, this might be inevitable but woah! good to know.

“I’m with [a VC firm] and my charter is to build out their talent services capabilities. What that means is we are looking for high caliber individuals that would be interested in potentially exploring opportunities with our portfolio companies. Your experience is exceptional and you have the type of background that should be apart of the network. If you are interested in learning more I would love the opportunity to speak with you in more detail. What we are looking to establish is a “go to” network of top notch individuals that would be a value add to our portfolio of companies. I hope to hear from you soon.”

TIP #4: Keep your engineers happy (i.e. free food, great people, & amazing challenges). When the VCs come knocking, make sure your MVP’s are glued in.

Lesson #4 – Can A Startup Rely Upon External Recruiting?

As a startup, you are inevitably resource-starved. When you have the good fortune to gain traction, you have the setback of suffering infrastructure growing pains while realizing the only way to get ahead is to find time to recruit, interview, and close candidates. In the early days, external recruiters appeared on Meebo’s doorstep and promised to screen and pass along qualified candidates so I could turn my attention back to Friday’s release – it seemed like a dream come true!

However, the first people you hire set your engineering and cultural DNA for the lifetime of the organization and while you desperately need to hire well, can you depend upon external recruiters to step up to the task? Once the scaling challenges strike, does it make more sense to proactively hire a superstar in-house recruiter or to rely upon external recruiters to scale the engineering team?

The answer is surprising – external and internal recruiters perform similarly in startup environments. Internal recruiters are 14% more likely to describe the position but 14% less likely to personalize the email.

However, larger companies don’t have a viable external recruiting option. External recruiters at the top companies were much weaker overall – 340% less likely to include a description of the role, 140% less likely to personalize their email, and 88% less likely to include detailed company information. Though larger company recruiters were relatively weak overall, in-house recruiters are their only viable option.

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Given this significant performance difference, it’s no surprise that larger companies also employ far more internal recruiters than startups.

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TIP #5: As a startup, you can sleep easier knowing that external recruiters are a fantastic resource. Find your superstar engineers first and your superstar in-house recruiters second.

TIP #6: Contingency recruiting farms are financially incentivized to hire for less selective companies. For difficult roles, a dedicated contract recruiter may be your only realistic option.

However, before you get too excited about external recruiters, read further…

Lesson #5 – Be Careful Whom You Invite Into Your House

Unfortunately, it’s not all about the numbers. Though external recruiters perform well for startups, there’s another side to this story. It pains me to write this but I think it’s important to share…

Meebo employed lots of external recruiters when we were getting off the ground. We had standard 18-month no-poach restrictions with all of our contractors that specified that those recruiters were not allowed to contact Meebo employees within 18 months of our contract expiring. Most of those contracts expired in 2008-2009.

However, every recruiter and firm we’d worked with who was still in the recruiting business tried to poach Pete London.

Every single one!

It’s impossible to know whether our former recruiters were pinging employees during the no-poach period prior to 2009 but I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I doubt they were being malicious – it’s more likely they were just disorganized and didn’t communicate an off-limits list to their staff.

In addition to pings from too-familiar recruiters, there were two cases that left me especially uneasy. In the first case, a former recruiting agency tried to poach Pete London and then 15 minutes later, wrote to me offering recruiting services! I was being pulled on both ends! When I didn’t respond, they repeated the stunt again six weeks later. I got wind that they’d sent recruiting emails to everyone on our Engineering teams and I called them on it (without referencing Pete London). I never heard from them again.

May 13, 2:20pm

“Hi Peter,

I am a recruiter who works with high-growth, top-tier start ups and industry leaders. I came across your information and was impressed with your background. I’m guessing you may not be actively looking for a new job right now, but I’m sure you plan on continuing to advance your career in the long term, and would be open to hear about opportunities that may accelerate that advancement.

I’d like to get a better idea of your interests and goals, so that I can identify and present to you a few of the most attractive opportunities in the market both now and in the future. You may be pleasantly surprised at what is out there for you. Let me know a good time and number to call you…”

May 13, 2:35pm (15 minutes later)

“Hi Elaine,

I’m a recruiter… We specialize in the placement of technology professionals. I’ve been working with many excellent candidates from the space and researching companies for them. meebo came up in my search as a good company to consider, so I’d like to present some of these candidates to you for interviews.

Please call me or email me a good time and # to reach you…

Thanks and I look forward to working with you!”

The second case that made me uneasy involved a contractor recruiter who worked from Meebo’s office for nearly a year. During this time, the recruiter went to lunch with the team, participated in hackdays, and became close with many folks. Two years later, that recruiter poached Pete London and a few hours later, showed up at Meebo’s informal Friday happy hour! I was definitely in a queasy gray zone where there wasn’t a strong divide between our personal and professional relationship. Technically, it was hard to nail down any real grievances, but I was certainly aware that our teams were constantly under former recruiter attack.

External recruiters are an inevitable necessity for startups. But after seeing all of the emails that those external recruiters generated in subsequent years, I wish Meebo had switched to in-house recruiting sooner.

The external recruiters you work with today are good but they will learn your strengths, your team, and you’ll probably be uncomfortably top of mind later on.

TIP #7: External recruiters are a mixed blessing – be selective and switch to internal recruiters as soon as you can.

TIP #8: Push for at least 18-month no-poach policies with external recruiters.

Lesson #6 – The Most Common Little White Lie Is…

With very few exceptions, recruiter emails were well-written, smarmy-free, and didn’t smell of phishing. I expected far worse. However, if a little white lie is going to sneak into an email, it’s going to look like this…

“I was referred to you as a possible source for a position I am working on here.” – Large company

“I previously worked with [Bob] & [Andrew] and have heard great things about you and feel you’d be a great fit…” – Startup

“I understand that you may not be actively looking at this point, but we have heard that you are very good and wanted to see if you might consider looking into a position with [us].” – Startup

“I’m reaching out to you because I’ve been an admirer of your work at Meebo and believe you could be the perfect founding engineer to lead front-end engineering for our product.” – Startup

Little white lies appeared across all recruiting groups and generally took the form, “I was referred to you” or “I’ve heard very good things.” While even unfounded flattery feels good, I learned to be suspicious of vague recruiter compliments.

TIP #9: Flattery will get you everywhere! Take recruiter praises with a healthy pinch of salt.

Lesson #7 – It’s Time To Buy More Hoodies

If you are a JavaScript engineer, you know that the talent market is increasingly competitive and you are inevitably feeling the pull of San Francisco. The demand for engineers has intensified over the last two years and recruiting activity has exploded in the foggy north.

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* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10, 2009 and stopped on June 1, 2012

It’s impossible to ignore the momentum that is growing in San Francisco.

If I were a startup getting off the ground today, I would start in San Francisco. In 2011, Meebo saw more of its JavaScript engineers hailing from SF than from Mountain View for the first time. While it’s exciting that there are more geographic options to start a tech company, it’s also time to recognize that companies need strategies for geographically dispersed teams and for recruiting from different areas of the Peninsula.

TIP #10: As the city of Palo Alto or Mountain View, I would make sure that resident tech companies are happy and that public transportation is a top priority.

TIP #11: When writing to candidates, specify where your office is located – it’s no longer assumed that an opportunity is south of San Mateo unless otherwise specified.

TIP #12: The entrepreneurial epicenter is no longer Palo Alto. If you’re south of San Mateo, figure out your SF strategy now.

Lesson #8 – Who’s The Best In The Valley?

You are.

There were 19 emails from managers, execs, founders, and board members who presumably had no professional background in recruiting. However, those non-recruiters collectively outperformed every other professional recruiting segment – scoring just as high or higher by every metric: email quality, outreach technique, and word count. No matter how many recruiters you hire, there is no substitute for a heart-felt note from a future manager.

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However, managers have responsibilities beyond recruiting and it’s not realistic to spend eight hours a day reading resumes and penning candidate emails – professional recruiters are a necessity. However, most managers probably hope to hire a recruiter who does the job better than themselves. Of all of the emails Pete received, only 40% of the recruiter emails scored better than the average manager who actively sought out Pete London. And within this top 40%, there were proportionately more startup recruiters than any other segment.

TIP #13: Look for recruiters with startup backgrounds rather than large companies.

TIP #14: Hire the best recruiters and treat them like gold. If a product is only as good as its team, then the product is only as good as its recruiting team.

Summary

Of the 382 recruiters, there was only one recruiter who actually figured it out. To do so, he did one thing that no other recruiter did – picked up the phone and called someone who should have been connected to Pete to ask for an introduction. And that’s where the ruse unraveled. If there were one recruiter I would have partnered with during my toughest hiring crunch ever, it would have been him.

However, that recruiter had also recruited for Meebo the prior year and he shouldn’t have been poaching Pete London from our team. He apologized. In the end, the honeypot ended up identifying the one amazing recruiter I already knew about but couldn’t justify working with again.

Ultimately, our recruiting challenge was solved by hiring more JavaScript managers who could help recruit too. In the next blog post, I’ll examine the “best recruiters of silicon valley” more. With their permission, I’ll list the top five recruiters and a few email snippets. Stay tuned!

This post was originally posted at Elaine Wherry’s blog.

About the guest blogger: Elaine Wherry is Co-Founder of Meebo. She founded Meebo in 2005 with Seth Sternberg and Sandy Jen and served as Meebo’s Chief Experience Officer and VP of Product. Prior to Meebo, Elaine served as Manager of Usability & Design at Synaptics. At Stanford, she majored in Symbolic Systems with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction. Today she enjoys advising other entrepreneurs and is taking a quick breath before diving into something new. Follow her on Twitter at @elainewherry.