The good the bad and the employee

CampaignsThe good the bad and the employee

The good the bad and the employee


In the manic first year of a startup you quickly realise you need help to move forward. Being equipped with a balanced team is great but if you want to keep on iterating after your first round of designing and testing you need more hands to get the site built. We came to this epiphany in the fourth month of our business. So starts the journey of finding: ‘The first employee’.

There are some telling articles out there on hiring an employee and keeping them motivated, but where are the practical tips on actually finding that special type of person that just fits with your team, is highly experienced and super motivated. The chances you find them are quite low. But maybe with more of a level headed approach a compromise can be met, right?

We as started optimistically and joyfully, thinking that this ‘tech unicorn’ would swarm to us, hammering down the door trying to work for us. Yeah, that didn’t happen. So we dedicated more time on our own networks and social media channels looking for a frontend developer or later as we retitled to be more open, ‘developer’.

When first approaching the problem you have to work out the motivation of why would someone come to work for a startup business with a small team working long hours, stressing, iterating and pouring their souls into their idea working?

We hope the answer is passion. Being a startup is a mindset. It’s something you are drawn to because you can’t imagine being just another cog in a large scale machine. We need someone that wants to help us break technological and interaction boundaries and we hope that this challenge is our beacon. Of course we are willing to compensate our employee and build more of a culture within the company and if the fit is right eventually look at shares in the company. The team is everything.

Now what devices can a startup use to find a bright eyed employee you ask? Here is what we are doing:

1/ Talking to our networks:

Targeting a ‘frontend developer’ we had put together pdfs for sending to friends, contacts and investors who might have some leads for us. At all the social evenings we slipped in the key that we were looking for our first employee to anyone that hadn’t heard our song before. People are always willing to help, which is great, but alas nothing came to pass from it. I personally tried my network of companies in Amsterdam and the startup community in which I take an active role. Wouter utilised his connective people in Utrecht and Amsterdam getting us some suggestions and that did translate into interviews.

We immediately heard from developer friends that we were in for a tough time since good developers are grabbed up by large companies with high promises and alot more resources than a startup has. This didn’t deter us.

2/ Talk to Groups/communities:

We sent our CTO Niels to meetups of different developer communities. Communities like the startup weekends in amsterdam, lean startup machine weekends, Node Js meetups, Fronteer meetups and also Hackers & Founders, anything where we could start talking to people and come across recommendations for someone that could be interested in joining us. To this day we continue with this strategy from Amsterdam to Rotterdam wherever the winds guide us.

3/ Talking with Students:

Another approach was to look for students coming to the last year of their education and would be looking for some experience in the ‘real world’. Even though they might lack the experience we need they should compensate with strong problem solving skills where they could learn on the job also. This seemed like a promising way to move, so we started by putting posters (Wouter spent quite some time doing this) up on as many campuses as possible around the Netherlands. We talked to departments on how we might be of use for some work placement or with specific lecturers on what would be a good approach to take. The initial posters didn’t pay off in the short term and the other connections are indeed taking their sweet time.

This brought us to the topic of an internship and maybe bringing in someone that could spend a few days week with us and see if they could be someone that would be a nice fit for the future. We used the universities for this and also another startup called Social Intern based in Amsterdam. We wait for this to pay off.

4/ Recruitment agencies:

When we started to look for our employee we immediately started getting emails and calls from recruiters who had promises of big databases of perfect employees for us to use. We were greeted with various kinds of packages from charging us crazy sums of money to see potential employees CVs to remunerations packages of 25-35% of the new employees annual wage (including all benefits) when we start their contract. We kindly told them that this was really not in the best interest of our business to start with this arrangement.

5/ Working at distance?

Another style of Recruitment agencies came to us with employee bases in Macedonia and the Ukraine. They laid out a plan to have developers in those countries, who we would look on as our employees in every aspect. They would sit in an office in the respective countries and do the work we laid out for them within the working week and we’d communicate using Skype. With the promise of great quality and a very competitive salaries we explored this possibility. Because working at distance demands that the experience level needs to be quite good we have yet to receive a CV that tells the story we need. Obviously the word ‘senior’ means anything over two years experience in Eastern Europe. Who knew?

Obviously we want short lines of communication and at distance tends to be most successful when you have isolated jobs that you give to the employees located at distance. Iterating as fast as we do and making ‘off the cuff’ changes to strategy can be complicated with employees in other lands. But we aren’t ready to give up on this just yet.

We also thought maybe appealing to expats coming to the Netherlands was a good tact to take. This was a longshot. We knew that. But we got the most entertaining emails from applicants on Craigslist advocating their abilities as “we do computers” and another entry stating that they were anxious to move to Germany even though we are based in the Netherlands.

On our journey we have had interviews with Dutch developers to expat female developers, who on paper seem like an attractive proposition. We sit them down, introduce the team and try and show the dynamic we have as a team and see how they react to it. Our CTO Niels then takes them into a separate meeting room and talks over 5-6 questions on a white board based on the programming language they are most familiar with. We are assured that the questions are very basic to anyone with fair skills. But we have not had much success with the people that have been tested to date.

6/ Push online possibilities:

We put information up on our website for that one special potential employee who wakes up one morning and thinks “Yes today is that day that I want to begin my new startup life with a young fresh company”. We kept putting the basic requirements out through’s social media such as Twitter and Facebook, through articles and asking people to retweet/share this for us. We pushed it to other suitable platforms like Linkedin also…

Our thinking was that Linkedin should be a good place to find CV’s of employees working in big systems who would be eager to break some digital boundaries and work with a thriving startup right? This tactic we were very careful with and paid attention not to be seen to be poaching employees. We had some interviews with people who wanted to expand their network and weren’t interested in a new job, which I personally found a bit bewildering and a slight waste of time for us.

We paid for a Linkedin job post to which we predominately received replies from Northern Africa, India and Eastern Europe. This was unexpected since we tried to target specifically our region in the Netherlands. We still receive emails from at distance applicants, who really want to work with us, but are not interested in moving here. Not really what we are aiming for with this campaign.

There aren’t really alot of conclusions to be made from such a fluid process like this apart from Europe has a shortage of talent. Finding more innovative ways of attracting the hot resources that are developers and making the company somewhere you love to work at is definitely a must, this is a startup, so culture is everything!

While we haven’t found the right ‘first employee’ fit yet we do recognise that as long as we continue the drive for another member of our team, it will happen when it needs to happen. Things happen not when you want them but when you need them. So our journey continues. Wish us luck.

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Studio Nephronim,
Dublin, Ireland