Employer Branding

Why Start-Ups Need to Have a Talent Community

Let’s face it, start-ups have 99 problems and surely employer branding ain’t one of them?

I’ve spoken to Erin Wilson of, who says au contraire; start-ups have to double down on employer brand, or talent community as he prefers to call it.

Have a listen below or keep reading for a summary of our chat. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Do start-ups really need a talent community?

It’s no doubt they absolutely need it. They need to start early and they need to talk about it often. I think that the technology, as they say, is a blessing and a curse, and one of the by-products there is that we all live online. It’s a digital world, it’s an extremely noisy world that we live in. So if you’re building a company today, if you’re part of a start-up and you want to see that company succeed, you essentially need to grow continuously. And in order to do that you’re going to need to attract talent. In order to do that you’re going to need to tell an authentic story that people can relate to and find. It’s really hard to do that if you’re not putting effort into it. Meanwhile, companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Salesforce, Amazon, they will gladly do it and continue to hire the best of the best if you do not.

Is employer brand more a corporate concept?

Yeah, absolutely. And I’d add that while they may not be start-ups, you’re competing with them for real-estate online, so as a start-up it’s something you have to think about. And I think employer branding can be associated with a corporate in a simple sense – the idea that this employer brand it’s something you can do after the fact. It almost feels transactional. But from a start-up perspective, I tend not to use the term “employer branding”, I tend to lean more heavily on the concept of talent community. And the reason although branding has tremendous value, this resonates with me as more of a transactional initiative, as transactional as a job or in many cases a company, they will come, they will go. But the idea of talent community is much deeper, it’s the authentic storytelling, it’s the share of your cultural values, and it’s continuous. You’re building these communities altruistically, and you’re doing it with people in relationships that will persist far beyond any one company.

How do you extract and define values?

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with quite a few start-ups at this point, and the good news is many more are thinking about values earlier in their life-cycle today. A couple of thoughts I’ll probably throw out there is, one, keep it simple, really focus around three or four key values that you have, they typically come from the top but ideally you have buy-in from your early teams to help clump those values. You know any more than that it becomes really hard to turn those values into actionable assets which they become in time.

So starting with the three or four values, important buying from the team. And then the piece that I would throw out is just it’s really important to continuously calibrate around those values, so as you grow in scale your company, your community… It is not safe to assume that the word “used for your value” means the same to all people as you continue to grow. So we’ve got the values which allows us to begin developing a narrative, and we are giving first in this scenario to the external community. We are a group of people who value acts, who operate in a specific way and who interact with each other based on this set of values. And you really have to understand how that narrative plays out in your environment, and be willing to share that, and be willing to receive feedback as well on those values. But I really view that narrative as just the true story that you tell the rest of the community around what it’s like and what’s happening inside of your company.

What are some of the mistakes that start-ups can learn from?

I think the two biggest mistakes that I see are:

  1. The brand just is not authentic. And I don’t think that’s intentional or malicious. It’s a decision to jump into the employee branding game, and then you try to do it through a collective or divide and conquer. And Matt Charney and I were talking over Twitter recently about whether or not you need a dedicated person or a function to do this type of work, I would argue, absolutely do. It’s a deep, three dimensional job, it takes time, effort, and focus. So I think one is just if you’re going to be serious about it, you have to invest in it, build a team.
  2. The second mistake that I see most often is, it’s good in theory, it begins, but there is a ton of long-term thought behind it. And so what you end up seeing is this reactionary employer branding. And I think Glassdoor is a good example of that, someone posts a review, let’s address it. Someone just quit because of that, let’s change it. And that’s certainly a good start. But pushing yourself to get to a place where you have a framework in place where you really facilitate that feedback and integrate that feedback into your future actions rather than just react to it.

How can we measure ROI from talent community at a start-up?

I think that this is a phased approach, and part of the challenge right now is we’re still in the early days of employer branding and talent community. And so there aren’t as many folks out there who have had the experience to forecast this to your CFO, but more will come. Then certainly being able to explain what it will look like over time, and so I would say that in your first year it’s very likely that you will have almost no ROI to prove. Certainly some anecdotal feedback, you may be able to point to the progress or the consistency of your impact, but in terms of a bottom-line ROI it’s tough, nearly impossible.

That being said, I’ll make you stick with it, you get into year 2, year 3, you will have the ability to do a few things. One, you can always measure it from an advertising standpoint. So you can run through concepts like outreach, page views, clicks, and then push the conversion. How many applicants is that turning into? How many referrals does it generate? And of course in the end I think people are looking for, “How many hires do I generate from these efforts?” So I wouldn’t necessarily put that as the most important metric, but it is certainly a way to measure ROI over time.

What start-ups are doing it right?

So recently I’ve been spending time with a start-up out here in San Francisco called HoneyBook, and I’ve been spending time with their founders. They’ve already done a phenomenal job at building a community around their product and their vendors which they call the “Rising Tide Society.” And they really sit out to me because even the t-shirts they built for the community suggest community over competition, which I really appreciate. But they’re beginning to channel all those efforts into their talent branding, and you’ll see them continue to share the stories of creative entrepreneurs and women leaders in tech, and things that are very important to their core values. And so very quickly you’ll see if HoneyBook is the place for you where you want to work. So I’m really excited to see what they do in the upcoming months.

Follow Erin on Twitter @techmatchmaker and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

By Jörgen Sundberg

Founder of Undercover Recruiter & CEO of Link Humans, home of The Employer Brand Index.