How to Win at Hiring Against Big Companies ⚔️

A few strategies you can apply based on your strengths as a startup.

As a former founder I often speak with other founders to discuss our respective experiences. One of the most common topics is hiring — especially engineering hiring.

A popular complaint is that it's hard for startups to compete against big companies, who have deep pockets and enticing career paths.

I believe this is not necessarily true.

When it comes to hiring, both types of companies have their strengths and weaknesses. As a startup, you can win by playing to your strengths.

There are at least three major strengths you can leverage:

  1. 🃏 You can look outside the box

  2. 📣 You can do incredible selling

  3. ⚡ You can be really fast

Let's see them one by one 👇

1) Look outside the box

Large companies have to setup large scale, predictable processes to bring in engineering skills. These processes have biases and blind spots — there is plenty of amazing talent that falls through the cracks.

As a startup, you have the flexibility to be creative and tap into talent pools where the competition is lower. Here are a few examples 👇

🎨 Unorthodox backgrounds

If you are a small team, you likely need generalists and people who are flexible to do different kinds of work.

When hiring, consider self-taught engineers, folks with uncommon backgrounds, people who had a major career shift.

These people might not be big on credentials, but are often brilliant, motivated and eager to learn. They are also undervalued by traditional hiring standards, and that's where you can jump in.

🎓 Plug into universities and coding schools

Invest in your relationship with local universities: make your startup available for internships and theses and focus on doing a great job on these. After a while, talent will come naturally to you as you get sponsored by professors and students.

I am a former PhD student and I kept a good relationship with my university — with my startup we often proposed thesis projects, and ended up hiring all students who graduated with us.

You can do the same with online schools such as Strive or Lambda.

This is an area where you can beat large companies because either 1) they don't go for it, or 2) you can do a better job at pitching projects and internships.

Finally, hiring junior devs and mixing seniority in your team is a great way to make everyone grow and to make hiring itself easier and cheaper.

❤️ Hire for diversity

This is a real opportunity to do good both for the community and for your company.

In U.S., women hold 14% of software engineering jobs, while black and hispanic workers sit between 6 and 8%.

Bringing women and underrepresented minorities in your team from very early on will 1) make your team better, 2) create a virtuous cycle where you become a magnet for that kind of talent.

Doing this early is critical as it becomes way harder to bring in diverse talent after you have already grown your large, all-white-males engineering team.

2) Do incredible selling

As a startup, you are always pitching and selling. You are pitching to customers, pitching to investors, and you should pitch to candidates as well.

This is one of those things were being small and focused can really shine, and people will feel it. Focus on two areas:

🔮 Vision & Mission

What is your vision about the future? And how does your product and company fit into it?

People, especially great ones, are driven by a sense of purpose. This is a key advantage you have over larger companies. Your energy, your drive and passion are contagious — they win people!

So bring your best self to interviews, prepare thoroughly, and pitch hard like you do when you have to raise money.

🔍 Personalize your message

When interviewing a candidate, consider how this person would fit into your team.

Why are you excited to work precisely with her? Make her feel part of something great, create anticipation towards the work you can do together.

Don't just focus on the job — tell the story of how this particular person, with her personal story, background and skills, will fit your team and thrive into it, as opposed to being just a number in a large, faceless organization.

This is a perfect example where you can be creative and do things that don't scale, because they are worth it.

3) Be really fast

The whole hiring process at a big firm like Google or Facebook easily lasts 2+ months and requires between 4 and 10 interviews.

Can you be faster? Can you hire a person in one week?

Speed always wins deals, and this is true in hiring too. It signals conviction, makes candidates feel valuable, and prevents them from getting in touch with other opportunities.

📚 Resources

  • 🌀 The Three Hiring Channels — this is a former article I wrote about hiring, focused on the three main channels you can leverage, with upsides and downsides.

  • 📑 Google interview process — what does the (latest) Google hiring process look like? Here is a fairly detailed description, verified by several ex-googlers.

  • 📑 Careers at Notion — this is one of the best careers page I have ever seen. It conveys so much about the culture, the mission, and the team itself. A well-made page like this does wonders to your hiring funnel.

  • 🐦 Hiring Thread by LennyLenny asked on Twitter which early-stage startups are amazing at hiring and why. Great responses follow.

⭐ Weekly Featured Jobs

Here are the remote engineering jobs featured this week! They are all from great companies and I personally review them one by one.

  1. 🆕 PagerSenior Software Engineerthe best way to capture and share your digital life.

  2. Journey — Founding Frontend Engineer — a storytelling tool designed for the internet age.

  3. A Team — Independent Software Developer ($130-190/hr) — professional network for A-Talent to connect and form full-stack teams.

  4. Sermo — Senior Backend Engineer / Senior Frontend Engineer— the social network for doctors.

  5. Companion — Senior Backend Generalist — transformative learning experiences for your dog.

  6. Tidelift — Senior Software Engineer — a managed open source subscription, backed by creators and maintainers.

  7. Everli — Backend Engineer (PHP, Laravel) — get groceries delivered to your home, from all supermarkets.

  8. River — iOS Engineer — a primary and behavioral health plan to deliver real peace of mind.

  9. Candor — Software Engineer, Infra / Backend / Fullstack — the way top tech employees manage their RSUs.

  10. Catawiki — Senior Back-end Developer — the online marketplace with weekly auctions.

Browse many more open roles (or add your own) on the full board 👇

Check out all Refactoring Jobs


Hey, I am Luca 👋 thank you for reading this far!

Every week I read tens of articles and draw from my own experience to create a 10-minutes advice about some engineering leadership topic.

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