Your founding team, your first hires, and your first rounds of funding. These are just a few of the things that can greatly impact the trajectory of your startup. Something else that influences the direction of your startup? Your branding, and brand recognition (or lack thereof).
Brand recognition is a tricky thing. It can be difficult to build from nothing as a new startup and without it, it’s hard to actually build your company. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, if you will. Namely, a lack of brand recognition can impact things like startup hiring, because it can be an Achilles' heel for attracting top talent. This matters, because who you hire as a new startup is crucial to scaling your business, and growing it in the direction you really want.
What exactly is brand recognition, and why can it weigh so heavily on startup hiring? Brand recognition is how well consumers (or potential hires) know your brand and can recognize it. It can be triggered by your logo, colors, and even music. For example, when you see the Starbucks logo, yourecognize that it’s one of their coffee shops, or if you hear the first few notes of a jingle, and know the brand instantly.
When a brand has strong recognition, it can lean on that recognition during the hiring process to attract top talent. But here’s the thing: as a new startup, your brand likely won't have any recognition just yet. So it needs to take a specific approach to hiring new team members, in order to compensate.
While they might seem like similar processes on the surface, startup hiring is quite different than hiring at a more established company. Firstly, because new startups are still growing and who you hire has greater weight – especially in the earliest stages. Each new hire can heavily influence the culture of your startup. Specifically, each new hire brings something to the table, and what they bring to the table will impact the direction of your company, what it’s like to actually work there, and what work you’re able to accoomplish. What else makes startup hiring so unique? Candidates might view your startup as somewhat risky, especially when compared to a traditional, more established company. The startup landscape can feel uncertain, and for new hires, choosing a startup over a well-established company can feel like they’re taking a chance. And it’s not just a feeling: research tells us that about 90% of startups fail, with 10% failing in the first year. In order to attract top talent, startups have to showcase their stability and potential for longevity, so candidates feel secure choosing them.
Budgets for salaries also tend to be different at startups, and compensation can include plenty of interesting options in addition to their pay. Startups typically pay their employees at least a little bit less than a top-dog competitor company would be able to, but they can include different attractive benefits, along with equity and stock options in their compensation package.
Lastly, another element that makes startup hiring unique is the fact that you don’t have a brand to lean on. As we touched on earlier, brand recognition can be crucial to the hiring process. Research reveals that candidates are 40% more likely to apply for jobs at a company where they recognize the brand, when compared to a brand they haven’t heard of. And on the employer side of things, 80% of hiring managers believe that employer branding significantly impacts hiring great talent. When potential new hires are looking for new employers, a company name that has brand recognition might seem like a more attractive candidate. Startups need to overcome this branding obstacle in order to compete with known brands to top-tier talent.
What exactly does the term “employer brand” refer to, and what does it include? You might have a general idea of what employer brand means, but let’s get super specific. Employer brand refers to the look, feel, and messaging of your company. It includes stylistic choices (what colors are used in logos, and what fonts on the website), culture choices (what values your company prioritizes and how they’re demonstrated), and messaging choices (slogans and phrases).
Ultimately, your branding should match your startup’s personality, mission, and goals. For example, a more serious company should most likely have a more serious website and direct messaging, not something with bright colors, a cursive font, and playful words. All in all, employer branding is felt by both your employees and your customers, and it needs to be cohesive and complete, in order for recognition to start building around it. That brand recognition is crucial from a customer’s perspective, but also when it comes to startup hiring.
An employer brand has always been crucial, but it might be more important today than ever before. That’s because of the competitive nature of the startup landscape, combined with the stiff competition from well-established companies for top talent. It’s important to remember that one of the main reasons that startups fail is because they get beat by their competition. But a startup with an incredibly strong employee brand can pull in more top-talent candidates, and can therefore have a stronger team than their competitors.
Employee branding doesn’t only help with startup hiring: it also helps with talent retention. One LinkedIn report revealed that employee turnover can be reduced by 28% by investing in employer branding. Once a startup hires a great candidate, strong branding can help that new hire feel like they made the right choice, and that they’re working at a powerful company that’s on an excellent trajectory. If employer branding is all over the place, a new hire might feel like the company itself is uncertain, and they might be tempted to leave and head to a competitor that feels more defined and stable.
There’s a third big reason why employer branding is more important today than ever before: and that’s the era we’re in when it comes to digital tools and hiring technologies. When candidates are looking for positions, they’re comparing vacancies online against each other, leaning on a company’s branding and digital footprint to do so. Who would choose a company with a question mark for a logo, over a company with excellent brand presence? If you’ve looked at different online vacancies yourself, you know just how varied employer brands can be.
Lastly, an employer brand means much more than the colors and logos you choose, and it really comes down to representing the culture at your organization. An employer’s branding needs to match and represent its culture in order to attract talent that’s in alignment. In some ways, an employer brand says more than the words that are used, and really conveys the true messaging and culture of your startup to your audience.
What exactly is culture when we’re talking about a startup? It’s the culmination of formal and informal actions and expectations, and reflects what it’s like to be part of your company, and to work with it. It can include a startup’s values, beliefs, practices, policies, and goals. It also influences how employees execute their jobs and how they work with customers and each other. Culture is not just created by one aspect of your company, and instead, is the sum of its collective behaviors, actions, and beliefs.
When we’re talking about employees, culture becomes a crucial factor in who a startup hires, and if an employee will be a good fit at a startup. If you have several equally-matched candidates as far as skills go, the deciding factor is cultural alignment.
The bottom line is that a company’s culture drives how it acts, and who it attracts. And because culture is a culmination of tangible and intangible aspects of an organization, employer branding plays a big role in it. As we mentioned before, a company that has a serious mission will likely use branding to match, so candidates who are in alignment with this brand can apply.
In short: culture, words, phrases, designs, and missions of employer branding will determine which types of candidates apply for vacancies, which is why employer branding is so critical for the startup hiring process.
With all of that in mind, here are four ways to build a proper employer brand for your startup.
1. Define you goals and values.
In order to create an excellent employer brand, it’s important that there is a clear understanding of your company’s goals and values. It’s not enough to understand what your main product is, or what service you want to provide for your customers. What values does your organization want to complete its work with? What are your long-term visions and goals? How can you define these objectives in ways that can be shared and understood organization-wide?
2. Identify your company culture.
Company culture impacts your employer brand, and your employer brand needs to represent your company culture. In order to define your company culture, you can determine what your company’s attitudes and beliefs are, and create policies around them. You can come up with words, phrases, or ideas that define your company’s culture, and institute policies that embody them.
3. Come up with an EVP.
An EVP, or employer value proposition, are the benefits and perks a company provides to its employees in exchange for their skills and talents. It’s how startups (and other companies) attract highly-skilled candidates, and stand out from their competition. An employer value proposition is where you get to deliver on the promises and ideals that are shared in your branding and company culture. For example, if your brand is supportive of families, it might offer extended paid maternity and paternity leave, as well as access to reproductive services. The purpose of an EVP is to have a positive influence on candidates, and to answer the candidate’s question of “What’s in it for me?”
4. Establish branding guidelines.
In order for a brand to gain recognition, it needs to be consistent, obvious, and uniform. There can’t be a different version of your logo on Twitter and on your website. Even slight differences should be unacceptable. In order to ensure branding is used properly and consistently, leadership should create brand guidelines, which outline every aspect of your brand. This can include look and feel (colorways and logo usage), along with messaging, phrasing, and even guidance on actions and communications.
While it’s absolutely possible to build a startup team without brand recognition, it can be a little bit trickier than if you have a weighty brand to lean on. Here are some tips you can keep in mind when building a startup without brand recognition.
1. Solidify your employer brand.
A strong employer brand is important for attracting top talent, and even though you might not have the brand recognition just yet, you’ll need to create a brand that is designed to be recognized. When potential candidates check out your company, they should understand your company through your branding, and should feel as though it’s professional and in alignment with its purported values. Ideally, one day your brand will have recognition, so you should act like it does from Day 1.
2. Serve your customers (and excel at it).
When it comes to building a startup without brand recognition, guerilla marketing can be your friend. And who is a bigger proponent of your brand than happy customers? Happy customers are likely to brag about your services to a friend or peer in their field, and word-of-mouth recommendations can be a powerful asset for building your brand.
3. Create an online presence.
We all know the saying “Fake it ‘till you make it,” and this can be said for brand recognition. You should have an online presence that oozes your brand, so when prospective candidates Google you, they see your company all over the place. You can create social media accounts that share updates about your company, have a main website that’s user-friendly, and send out a monthly email, for example. Steps like these can help your startup build the foundation of brand recognition. You might think that having an online presence isn’t all-too-important, but surveys reveal that 79% of candidates use social media in their job search.
4. Have different channels of communication.
When a brand has recognition, people seek out jobs with that company (even vying for positions) and habitually check their hiring pages for vacancies. Without brand recognition, startups need to maximize their communication channels, in order to reach their target audiences. Your own website and social media channels are great places to start, but you can also branch off into guest posts and different online communities.
5. Be intentional with your hires.
As we mentioned previously, who you bring on board your startup really matters, especially in the earliest stages of your company. These new hires will influence your company trajectory and culture, and will impact how other new hires feel about your organization. Make sure you’re choosing team members who are aligned with your brand and mission, and who ultimately help to further it.
6. Bring on a Head of Talent.
When you’re trying to build out your team, you should eventually aim to have a designated expert on your team, who is focused on recruiting, such as a Head of Talent. Hiring someone to build your team might seem like a big investment, but remember, this is a designated team member who is completely focused on bringing on additional talent through recruitment. They can build a recruiting network, work with other talent professionals, and identify potential candidates who are an excellent fit for your company and match your startup’s culture.
7. Tap into startup hiring resources
There are plenty of startup hiring resources that can help you source, recruit, and attract top-tier candidates. These include recruiting resources, which might help you set up hiring infrastructure, have deep talent networks to tap into, and know how to focus on company culture. You can also utilize job fairs, hiring platforms, and alumni networks at universities.
Your employer brand can be a powerful tool for many things, such as attracting customers and securing funding. It can also be valuable in your hiring process in many different ways. Firstly, you can lean into your employer brand when writing job descriptions to make sure you're attracting candidates who are in alignment with your vision and goals. You can also use employer branding to direct what qualifications you’re looking for and what skills you’d like candidates to bring to the table (hard skills and soft skills).
Startups that are hiring should aim to strengthen their employee branding to the point that it helps them compete against larger, more established companies for talent. By communicating your brand’s vision, goals, and methodologies, you can show talent exactly why they should want to work at your organization.
If it sounds like startup hiring takes a lot of work, that’s because it does. It’s tough enough building a startup from the ground up. But hiring when you don’t have brand recognition? That’s a set of obstacles all in itself, and can be especially challenging when hiring executives.
If that’s where you’re at, don’t worry – we’ll take things from here. We’re Will Reed, and we’re the only go-to-market executive search firm built exclusively for early-stage founders. Our executive search team knows startups inside out, and we know exactly what it takes to bring in top talent, even if you can’t lean on brand recognition just yet.