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Beating big tech to the best remote talent

A team is the lifeblood of any company. A skilled CEO will not be successful if they can’t assemble a high-value group of people aiming for the same goal. At least not for long. This fundamental is surprisingly easy to neglect in the early days of a company when the founders are focused primarily on developing a product that people love. Unfortunately, this stage of singular focus doesn’t last long. I say it’s unfortunate because building a team and company to continue the life of the product and company is arguably much harder.
“As a Phase 2 CEO, you need to transition from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Company-Builder-in-Chief.” This is how you scale as a CEO, and CEO scaling is the first step in company-building.” Ali Rowghani, managing partner at Y Combinator.
Recruiting is difficult. Some roles and areas are harder than others, and this will fluctuate depending on trends (anecdotally, there appears to be a current shortage in growth marketers). Evidence of just how difficult it is to consistently find and hire incredible people as you scale can be seen in the amount of money thrown at the problem. In 2019, recruiting was a $151.8 billion industry. There’s actually a whole sub-industry of recruiters who recruit other recruiters. Yikes. 
In the last decade, products have also burst into the industry, attempting to solve the hiring dilemma. The two largest career staples, LinkedIn and Facebook, both of which have specific product teams devoted to hiring, have a combined 20 million active job listings. Online job boards have taken notice of the remote shift as well. Flexjobs, which started by advertising roles that would let you have a flexible schedule or work from home a few days a week, now seem antiquated. AngelList was early to add fully remote functionality to their startup recruitment platform. Soon others followed suit. New platforms like RemoteOK, Workew and WeWorkRemotely started to pop up. There are more and more companies like LetsDeel, Gusto and 1Office taking care of technicalities around managing a remote company and team, so that you can truly focus on your core business and goals.
On one hand, this is good news for remote startups who are recruiting. Much like in the digital advertising transformation, companies can now find people highly motivated by remote work as an incentive. The problem, naturally, is that the proliferation of remote work has made it a less unique offering. Remote work is now a required qualifier, not a cushy bonus. Some 60% of workers are willing to take a pay cut for remote work, meaning you now need to literally pay a majority of workers more money just to come into an office. 
That’s made the FAANG era of epic office headquarters with foosball machines, video game consoles and overhyped snack bars, largely irrelevant. These well-funded companies can always afford higher salaries, of course. But oftentimes the best of the best want to devote their precious time and skills to something more than a high paycheck (you’ll notice a large number of startup founders are FANGG defectors). While you’ll be starting at a disadvantage if you underpay your team, we want to focus on more credible ways to attract the team of your dreams. 

Figure out who you want to attract 

In dating, there’s not much value in spending time trying to attract the kind of person you aren’t interested in. If you enjoy peace and quiet in nature most of the time, you might not want to look for the perfect match in a crowded nightclub. Surprisingly, this is the equivalent of what many companies do when trying to scale their teams. 
They go with the ‘obvious’ choices that look good externally. These are the people who have quickly risen through the ranks at a large company, or been with a startup through to an exit event or growth hurdle. While excellent candidates can come from these backgrounds, it’s not a great qualifier. Hire based on this standard alone too many times, and you’ll end up with a team that has created an excellent bio page on the company website, but not much else.  Think critically about the kind of team you want. What’s important to you? What’s important to your culture? What kind of person do you need to match your values? Answering these three questions will do the vast majority of vetting for you. It doesn’t just help in discovering candidates either. The most capable and fitting team members don’t want to feel like a really great tool to get the job done. They want to feel like they are THE tool to get it done.

Create an inspiring opportunity

Make your mission resonate  If you don’t have a well-defined company mission you are proud of, there is quite a lot of work that needs to be done before you hire anyone else. A mission has to be unique, and the center point of your hiring. You want the right person to read your job ad and think, “wow, that’s the team I want to be on.” Naturally, this will vary from company to company. Remember, you also want the wrong candidates to be turned off by your mission focus. 
The greatest mission in the world is meaningless if it’s just a statement. It needs to be embodied. Don’t have a moralistic mission if your true goal is to just make as much money as possible. The entire point of having a mission is to have a guiding principle that acts as a north star for what you are building. Incredible people aren’t just looking for employment. They’re searching for progress in a passion (and pursuing that venture with a team who shares these desires and motivations). 
Build a team people dream of working with There is somewhat of a network effect involved in building a great team. It works almost like a social media platform, in that there is value created by having other valuable people on board. Put another way, if you have a talented and skilled team already on hand, that becomes a pull factor for new team members to join. Talented people want to work with other talented people. 
Joining a startup is often a risk. The rewards are huge, but this doesn’t diminish the risk factor. Working with a top tier team lowers this risk. It makes the chances of success higher, but also is assuring for new hires. Another comparison can be drawn to investing. Once a well known VC with an excellent track record invests in a startup, others are more eager to jump on board. 
More important than this is the simple fact that people want to be inspired. There are a number of ways you should inspire your team as a leader, but it can’t all be on the founders. Build a team that inspires each other every day.
 The chance to achieve something unusually big A great company (and employee) should be mission-driven. Meeting that end goal should be a wild adventure with immense rewards. Joining a startup (when equity is involved), is essentially using your time instead of your money to invest in a company. Succeeding in a startup endeavor often means a life-changing sum of money in the end. The beauty of this system is the sense of ownership instilled in each team member. When done correctly, it makes everyone think like a founder.  In order to make this incentive work, you need to do two things: 
  1. Setup equity/stock options appropriately. 
  2. Make a solid case for why you think the company will succeed. 
The first is easy, the second is very hard. Pitching your company to potential team members is different than investors. This person will (potentially) be living within your company every day. Don’t become a used car salesman by promising things you don’t believe in. The ultimate goal is to find a genuinely great fit for the team and role you are hiring for. You are looking for a perfect match, not a sale.  

Have your existing team be the recruiters 

Hiring “in-network” is almost always preferred. This lowers the risk of a culture mismatch, and also allows you to have an instant internal reference from someone you already trust (and likely knows what the job will take). Think of it as growing your user base. Oftentimes the best salespeople for your product are your already happy customers. 
“99% of the time your best hires will come from your staff's combined network.” Peter Kazanjy, co-founder of TalentBin
There is, of course, a fundamental thing you must first accomplish: make your company a genuinely If your current team is miserable, then chances are high that anyone new you bring on will also be miserable. They certainly won’t recommend the people they love and respect to join. Workplace satisfaction usually comes from a combination of resonating with the mission, and having a pleasant day to day life. 
Build a genuinely great work environment A strange yet common mistake that many remote companies make is neglecting their virtual office environment. It’s strange because creating a truly wonderful work environment is both a great benefit of remote work, and one that requires a great deal of intentionality. When company leaders don’t put in the leg work to make their company a pleasure to work in day to day, it will slowly start to weigh on the team. You run a large risk of losing your existing team, and they certainly aren’t going to recommend the people they respect highly within their own network to join. 
When you are hiring at a relatively frequent rate, this is itself a fairly good litmus test for if your company is a great place to work. Is your team recommending people when open roles are available? Great sign! If you are unsure whether your company is a great place to work, just ask. You can use tools like officevibe to generate an anonymous ‘internal NPS’ score. This is a great practice that every team leader should implement.  
How to make your company a better place to work If your internal NPS, whether an actual score or anecdotal feeling, isn’t quite as high as it could be for team satisfaction, here are some ways to get pointed in the right direction: 
  1. Focus on culture- think about the personality elements of the workplace. Do you want it to be relaxed and collected or have a freight train style of energy? Would you rather prioritize authenticity or professionalism? The first step is defining what makes a fun culture. Note: We’ll soon have an entire book chapter devoted to this
  2. Meet with the whole team - most of the time, your team will tell you how to improve the culture and workplace if you just ask them. Schedule 1-1 meetings with each person to ask how things could be better. If you don’t get honest answers, try releasing an anonymous survey form.
  3. Make work more flexible - there are very few people who become less happy with more flexibility. Create policies that allow your team to spend time doing what they love outside of work. Giving your team the ability to spend more time with their family, or take a midday bike ride, will make a world of difference. 
  4. Give confidence and security - if your team is skittish, they probably won’t recommend their friends to join. Your team should be confident that the company is on the right track, and their jobs are safe. Give positive feedback frequently, and constructive feedback in a way that’s inspiring.
Incentivizing your team to refer their network Recently at SafetyWing, we began a new experiment where the existing team members get $4,000 when someone they refer for a role is successfully hired and onboarding ($2k when brought on initially, another $2k if they make it past the onboarding stage). There are a bunch of ways you can incentivize this, but offering a reward of some sort will at the very least make sure your entire existing team thinks critically about their network when a new role is up for grabs within the company. 

Add benefits many remote companies still lack

Health insurance Sadly, many remote companies offer rudimentary insurance policies at best. It’s not their fault. These systems weren’t built for companies that have a team distributed across multiple countries. To cover employees’ insurance, you’d have to provide a different plan in each country. It’s best to avoid this living administrative nightmare.
A common solution is to offer a monthly stipend to spend on insurance. While certainly better than providing nothing, this still isn’t great. For one, it makes team members deal with the stress of selecting their own insurance, which takes away part of the benefit. The coverage also likely won’t be as good. Obviously, it will only work in only one country (in a time when more and more workers spend at least part of their time working elsewhere), but also the coverage isn’t likely to be that great. When you sign up as an individual, there are often complications with waiting periods and pre-existing conditions not being covered. This is the purpose behind Remote Health - the first global health insurance for remote teams. Think of it like your home country insurance coverage, except that it works in any country. That means you can hire anyone you want from anywhere in the world, and put them on the same insurance plan. Plans are customizable, flexible, and scale with your team (so it gets cheaper per employee as your team grows). You can add or remove employees at any time on the dashboard, and get access to things like virtual healthcare. For teams of 10+ people, all pre-existing conditions are covered for your plan members with no questions asked.
Retirement plans Pension and retirement accounts are something else that global and distributed companies have struggled to provide. Similar to insurance, the network of domestic banking and finance simply isn’t built for globally distributed teams to be on the same plan. Currently, the best option is to set up local ones. Companies like Guideline, which handles 401k plans in the US, are starting to make this easier. 
SafetyWing is also soon tackling this issue on a global front. Later in 2021, we will be releasing a Remote Pensions product. It will allow you to put your whole global team on one retirement contribution plan. It will also have special features new to retirement plans, such as built-in sabbatical periods to enjoy while still young, before the age of retirement kicks in.  Mandatory time off  Seasoned workers (both office and remote) have learned that “unlimited time off’ is a trap. While sometimes well-intentioned, the end result is a burnt-out team that doesn’t feel comfortable taking This is a dangerous cultural pit to fall into. The easiest way to stay out of it is to mandate a minimum # of days off a year. You can pair this with unlimited PTO, but if there isn’t an enforced minimum, it’s likely no one will take the benefit seriously. Setting the minimum number of days says that your company not only pays attention to the wellbeing of the team, but actively ensures it. 

Go above and beyond

If you really want to be the top of the top in terms of remote benefits to attract a dream team, some creativity helps you stand out. There is an infinite number of things you could provide, but here are some of my favorite ideas I’ve seen from around the startup world. 
Food delivery budget - give your team members a $ amount each month to spend on food delivery services. Many food delivery services have a company/business offering service. Uber Eats is international and in many countries, but you still might have to fill in some gaps at team member countries where they aren’t available. 
Provide mental health support - as with many things now, mental health support is headed in a virtual direction. Companies like Betterhelp are leading the way, and offer their services across many countries. Providing this support allows team members to pick their own therapist. You can also go the more comprehensive route and offer a therapist on retainer for your team to speak to at any time. Our team has access to an external culture consultant available if we need to discuss interpersonal matters. His goals are to ensure that everyone’s needs are listened to. Access to health and wellness tools - you don’t always have to actually talk to someone to get mental health benefits. Apps like Calm and Headspace have company plans that you could offer your whole team. Similarly, you might consider giving a monthly budget to spend on things like gym passes or fitness equipment for the home office. 
Remote on implementing a #selfcare day.
Home office budgets - in the physical office days, things like desks, chairs and computers were almost always provided by the company. Now, many of these costs fall on the worker by default. Giving new employees a new computer, or budget to spend on things like a standing desk or external monitors shows that you are willing to actually invest in the team.  Make new hires feel wanted - once you’ve decided on a candidate you want, go through the effort to make them know they are the fit you were looking for. Some companies have gone as far as to send personalized Cameo recordings to a professional ‘hero’ of the new hire. Regardless, joining a new company is always a nervous process. Put in some time to thinking about how you can make new hires feel welcome and comfortable from day one.

Conclusion

Offering benefits to your remote team can (and will) go a long way in attracting the best talent possible. Ultimately, however, even the best benefits (or salary) will retain a great employee for only so long. The best and brightest want to work on something they care about with people they enjoy. If your company is lacking a meaningful mission or pleasant environment, start working here first. Make your existing team the envy of all their friends, and their professional network will naturally follow them. 
If a lot of this feels overwhelming, particularly as you are scaling, get some help. Recruiters will help with the actual outreach, but to boost your overall remote appeal, consider hiring a Head of Remote, or a Head of Culture. Many companies are starting to make this a full-time internal hire. You can also hire remote consultants that will help you build up your systems, satisfaction and benefits on a part-time basis. 
Have you learned something about attracting top talent that we’ve missed? Let us know! Email sam@safetywing.com 

Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a remote work consultant. You can follow him on Twitter.

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
SafetyWing
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create BuildingRemotely.com – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.