3 keys to recruiting from your network without feeling awkward about it

Gillian O'Brien

As a founder, your network is the most valuable asset you have for early-stage startup recruiting. It’s also an asset too many founders are reluctant to leverage.

The biggest worry seems to be that it will come off as too transactional. “Look at me! I’m an awesome founder, here to tell you why you should work for my company.”

But recruiting from your network shouldn’t feel like a sales pitch. Done right, it should feel like having a ton of interesting conversations with smart, talented people—people who could eventually end up working with you.Here are three keys to getting the most out of your networking conversations—and eliminating the awkwardness.

Here are three keys to getting the most out of your networking conversations—and eliminating the awkwardness.

Choose the right communication channel

Most of your recruiting outreach will likely be digital—at least at the beginning—which makes choosing the right channel a crucial decision. Different communication platforms have different contexts; some tend to be better for kicking off recruiting conversations than others.

For example, LinkedIn is the wrong place to start a conversation if you want to keep it casual. The context is already business, and most people associate it with recruiting anyway—especially if they work in tech. For close friends and acquaintances, email tends to be a bad place to start: People’s inboxes are crowded, and some barely check their email, to begin with.

Chat platforms (like SMS, Signal, or Messenger) are a great place to start reaching out to your network. If you already have the person’s phone number or are friends on Facebook, you probably know each other well enough that reaching out won’t seem entirely random, even if you’ve fallen out of touch.

Messenger is also built for back-and-forth exchanges, which means conversations develop organically. You can start off by asking the person how things are going and what they’ve been working on lately, and take it from there.

Lead with what they need, not what you want

One of the first rules most new graduates learn about networking is to “give value before you take value.” Even though they’re usually farther along in their career, it’s a lesson that startup founders should keep in mind.

Don’t launch straight into pitching your company and talking about what you’re working on. Instead, make early conversations about the other person’s career goals and how you can help.

As a founder, there’s a good chance you are farther along in your career than the people you’re looking to recruit. Think of it like mentorship—look for opportunities to give them a leg up on their career path, whether that involves coming to work for your company or not.

In particular, a lot of people who would consider working for a startup are thinking about eventually starting one themselves. Giving them a window into what that process looks like is hugely valuable insight you can provide.

Avoid getting too outcome-driven too quickly

As a founder with a startup to build, it’s tempting to drive toward your desired outcome—in this case, a job offer—as quickly as possible. But in the early stages of a conversation with an acquaintance, pushing too hard can come off as desperate.

Instead, it’s helpful to think of the early conversations you have with acquaintances less as recruiting opportunities, and more as personal conversations that might evolve into recruiting opportunities.

You likely have a lot of smart friends and know a lot of people who are doing interesting work. Think of tapping your network as a chance to revisit those connections and catch up with what they’re working on now.

Framing your conversations in terms of connecting instead of networking makes tapping your network a no-lose situation. The worst that will happen is that you’ll wind up not having recruited someone, but you will have caught up with an old acquaintance.

There’s a time to get more aggressive with your pitch: when you’re confident that the person is interested, or you know they have precisely the skill set you need on your team. But in the early days, it pays to keep your conversations light. Focus on discovery and enjoy the chance to reconnect.  

So you’ve exhausted your personal network. Now what?

Your network and your team’s networks will play a crucial role in building out the core of your founding team. But at a certain point, those personal connections will run out, and it will be time to cast a wider net.

At Dover, we partner with founders to help navigate that transition and tackle the broader recruiting ecosystem in a streamlined, systematic way. Interested in learning more? Check out some of our case studies, or try Dover for free.