Toward the end of her interview process with NerdWallet, Flo Thinh politely accepted a dinner invitation from its CEO, Tim Chen. But instead of getting Korean food with him, Chen said another person, Dan Yoo, would be joining her. The three-hour feast of Thinh’s favorite food was as top-notch as the company. Yoo asked about her career and interests, all the while promoting NerdWallet. At one point, Thinh was sold and said she could see herself working at NerdWallet and with Yoo, to which he replied: “Oh, yeah, but I haven’t signed yet.”
The lightbulb went off. Yoo was not NerdWallet’s COO (as she had first thought), but its final candidate — and Chen had paired the two so they’d bond and hopefully sign together. They did. At the time, Thinh had interest from many of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. The Zynga alum had expertly guided the gaming company through hypergrowth, as it scaled from 40 to over 3,000 people over four years. So how did NerdWallet, the only bootstrapped startup (at the time) on her list, nab this star Silicon Valley people ops leader?
At First Round’s CEO Summit, Thinh, now NerdWallet’s VP of People Operations, answered that question by outlining what distinguishes an exceptional Head of Recruiting as well as how to design and refine a magical candidate experience. Any startup that is seeking to dazzle and close the best talent will benefit from Thinh’s hard-won recruiting lessons culled from nearly two decades of experience.
Of course, it wasn’t just a dinner that closed Thinh. Chen, who at the time was also wearing the hat of head recruiter, guided her through a phenomenal candidate journey. “If I could sum up my hiring experience, I would say it was extremely authentic,” says Thinh. “Tim shepherded me the entire way. If he was trying to close me, he did a hell of a job.”
For startups seeking the same recruiting results, Thinh offers four qualities recruiters must not only exhibit, but embody: hustle, heart, tenacity and passion. Here, she’ll deconstruct those intangible qualities, so you can spot them in candidates:
Distinguish the detectives. Founders constantly ask Thinh how their recruiters can grow the top of the funnel. “Your Head of Recruiting’s ability to source world class candidates should be akin to a detective,” she says. “Identifying, researching, and sleuthing is a big part of the job. Recruiters generally harness three main channels to discover and connect with candidates: Applications, referrals and sourcing. During your early conversations, seasoned candidates should highlight using technology tools like A-List, Gild, Connectifier, Rapportive, Hired and others to demonstrate an active following of new products that can improve their process.”
“If you really want to turbocharge your recruiting, it’s important to place a lot of bets on different tools and technology to amplify your efforts. The candidate you’re speaking with should have a point of view on the tools that can save you time and money,” says Thinh. “Interviewing, assessment, and evaluation require a significant commitment from your entire team. Just as your Head of Recruiting is responsible for qualifying candidates, they’re also disqualifying individuals you shouldn’t be spending time with. The skills to discover and distinguish enough people to bring into the pipeline to find the right ones are essential.”
Look for storytelling, not selling. Especially when you’re building a new brand, your Head of Recruiting has to be your proxy when they’re meeting potential hires. “They’re constantly engaging, selling and pitching. They have to understand how a specific role fits into your objectives and then build a unique narrative around it for each candidate,” says Thinh. “That means asking questions like: ‘If this person exceeds expectations over the next year, what’s next?’ or ‘What could their career path be like at our company?’ These questions are designed to unveil a recruiter’s ability to hustle, be scrappy and forward-looking.”
Story is the driving reason Thinh joined NerdWallet and is an element her talented team of recruiters have built into their hiring process. “For many startups, the person you’re sitting down with may be your company’s fourth team member or the only hire you’ll have for the entire quarter. The last thing you want is for your recruiter to answer a question by saying: ‘I’m not sure. Let me go see what I can find,’” she says. “Knowing that high performers seek to learn and be challenged, the best recruiters relay an aspirational vision and illustrate tangible growth opportunities for candidates within it.”
Think of it as a movie. Sell candidates on their contribution to a grand story, not their lines in the script.
Ask candidates to pitch their last company. During her time as a talent partner in venture, Thinh worked with companies where every team member had a different version of their pitch. When you’re building a new brand, your pitch has to be consistent and tight. Rather than having recruiter candidates pitch NerdWallet, she asks them to pitch the company they are currently representing so they can have the right context. Here’s what she listens for:
Compelling delivery: Did they recite a checklist of what the company does or did they get you excited about the problem they are solving?
Authentic human connection: Do you feel emotionally engaged and invited to play a role in their story?
Hunger to win: How do they approach their competition? What is their plan to own the market?
“If they can tie that all in, your recruiter’s pitch should — and will — elicit an emotional response in you,” Thinh says. “It should inspire you to say yes. We hear the words ‘rapport, credibility, and trust,’ all the time. They aren’t buzzwords. They actually really matter.”
Ask them to take your hiring pulse. Your Head of Recruiting is the right hand of everyone on your team. Thinh advises founders to ask these four questions to assess a candidate’s ability to understand and respond to your hiring climate:
How is this person going to help me navigate growing the team?
Do we have hiring blind spots as a company? How are they going to help us uncover and address them?
How are we affected by departments rounding out their teams?
How should we be structuring our hiring process to remain competitive?
“When testing for this, don’t just ask: ‘How can you help me navigate and anticipate our hiring responsibilities?’” Thinh says. “Ask them to describe these real challenges — and to ask you questions to get to the bottom of your specific hiring roadblocks. Your recruiter’s influence is a force multiplier for your hiring managers that will trickle down throughout your entire company. Everyone should be thinking about the collective impact of growing your organization.”
Generating real, human connections is a recruiter’s first and last job.
For any company — especially for startups — hiring is long and strenuous. Your head recruiter’s ability to structure an interconnected sourcing, interviewing, and closing process is critical. This is how Thinh and her team do it at NerdWallet and what she recommends to those in her profession.
Signal dedication through details. Precision in human connection should begin the moment you reach out to a candidate. At NerdWallet, the team seeks to discover small nuances in candidates’ Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, such as their favorite food or sports team, to weave into their outbound messages and future communication. “Our work establishing a common ground with candidates is very deliberate. We try to find as many touch points as we can to connect on a personal level,” Thinh says. “Investing in this early, makes closing conversations drastically easier because you’re acknowledging someone as a person — not just a name on a hiring list — from the start.”
Paying attention to the details also applies to the logistical side of the candidate journey. Little gestures can make a big impact. For example, NerdWallet gives candidates the following materials to make their experience before and after company onsites better:
An interview day outline. NerdWallet sends every candidate an outline detailing their day at the office 48-hours before they arrive. It includes: the names and roles of the team members with whom they'll meet, interview times and duration, and any activities they will be participating in throughout the day. The goal is to provide them with all of the information they'll need to be excited to come in and have a great experience.
Transportation tips. To help people avoid feeling frazzled walking into their interview, NerdWallet provides transportation tips, such as the nearest bus stops and parking spots, so candidates can start their day on a positive note.
Literature for loved ones. Before a candidate receives an offer, NerdWallet shares their Benefits Summary: A helpful guide for people to take home to their families, and say, “Hey, I’m considering this offer. Let’s look through this together.”
Being trusted by and transparent with candidates means giving context before it’s requested.
Paying mind to details leads to a personalized experience, which NerdWallet achieves not only in what it tests, but how it tests. “Some candidates do an onsite case study where they present their findings to the team and others do whiteboarding. For others, we send a case study home with them and review it one-on-one,” says Thinh. “The key is to deliberately structure the process in a way that increases your ability to understand where a candidate excels. That’ll depend on the role, function and candidate pool, but the key is to pinpoint the skills you’re trying to tease out and be flexible in your interview design to surface them.”
Design the candidate journey as a dual audition. The urgency to fill a role and determine whether a candidate is the right fit often overshadows the hiring process as a two-way assessment. “So much of the time it’s about checking the boxes on the hiring steps, questions to be asked and information to be gathered on candidates that we fail to think about what our candidates want and need to get out of the process,” says Thinh. “My team and I try to approach every candidate relationship as a bi-directional vetting process. Many recruiters put that on the candidate to be proactive, but we know it’s in our best interest to act as if candidates are similarly seeking context to inform their decision. We try to make candidates comfortable asking questions of us by asking questions grounded in our shared experience — such as feedback on the visit or interviewers that day.”
If every interaction is a dual audition, all employees — not just recruiters — need to be prepared to speak with candidates. A big part of that is helping them become authentic. “Authenticity is a defining value at NerdWallet and every team member is encouraged to be their true self when interacting with potential hires,” says Thinh. “It’s not about creating an alter-ego or persona for your company. Really be who you are as a team and own it.”
That’s not to say that NerdWallet’s team members fly by the seats of their pants. “We coach our team to answer the hard questions. If someone has a tough question, answer it. If they ask you about an obstacle you’re facing, tell them about it. Be completely transparent,” says Thinh. “We want our candidates to see us as ourselves. Once you successfully recruit someone, they don’t want to be sold. They can see through that right away.”
Thinh and NerdWallet’s recruiting team also gives each team member extensive intel on each candidate. “Interviews account for a bulk of time your team spends with candidates. You need to have really strong alignment to make a cohesive and meaningful impact. You have to take advantage of that time. Every interview is an opportunity to tell the NerdWallet story,” she says. “We equip every interviewer with candidate bios, how they were brought into the process — whether reach-out or referral, the role and required skills for the open position as well as how the candidate is currently evaluating the position at that juncture — essentially if they’re excited or passive. This gives team members the context to assess candidates well. NerdWallet also relies on the company’s career development matrix to understand where a candidate fits into the team’s current structure. Each learning is shared with the hiring team.”
Respect your candidates by acknowledging all of their needs. Be relentless about eliminating friction.
Always go out of your way. This is the guidance that Thinh would impart if she could only give one piece of advice about recruiting. Thinh estimates that 40% of the candidates who they meet with aren’t actively looking for a new role. They start as casual conversations until the team of Nerds goes out of their way to further engage passive candidates.
Once, Thinh was on a search. She was the third recruiter brought in to try to tackle a challenging open role. “It wasn’t going well, and the hiring manager was getting really impatient. I found a candidate, reviewed his resume and felt like everything was in sync. I gave him a call in the morning and, as he spoke, I kept thinking, ‘This is him. This is the candidate,’” she says. “We knew the next step and timeline, but I felt it wasn’t enough. So I asked him: ‘What are you doing in a couple of hours? Can I come down your way and meet you for lunch?’ It was bold but it’s an example of the ripple effects of going out of your way. The guy ended up getting a job there and staying a couple of years at the company.”
Over her 17 years in recruiting, Thinh believes what’s changed most about the recruiting landscape is increasing importance of getting out in front of candidates to successfully court talent. “We spend an incredible amount of time tailoring every part of the process exclusively for candidates, whether that’s taking people out to lunch or hosting onsite informationals. In fact, in one quarter recently, NerdWallet hosted over 200 onsites,” says Thinh. “It’s just a different market. You can’t win unless you invest in candidates’ experiences. It has to become second nature.”
At NerdWallet, every candidate is given a tour within the first 15 minutes. Team members with a variety of tenure, from two weeks to three years, participate in the process. “We want it to be a very immersive experience. Every candidate should feel be able to get a sense of what it’s like to work here, even if it’s just by walking the halls and seeing teams at work,” says Thinh. “During the tour, candidates are given a guide to decipher the meaning of the names behind all of the conference rooms. It lets them in on our culture and it’s an easy conversation starter for NerdWallet team members who lead tours. The team gives the candidates a note that thanks them for coming in to meet with them. If a candidate joins, they sign a handwritten welcome postcard.”
Find your threshold between speed and haste. At NerdWallet, the team has a SLA to respond to referral candidates within 48 hours — throughout every part of the process. Always keep your candidates moving through as frictionless of a cycle as possible, whether it’s scheduling a phone screen or getting in touch with a referral.
However when it’s time to close, pump the brakes at least once. The most common mistake Thinh sees recruiters make while closing new candidates is sprinting through the decision. It’s normal to be excited about making things official, however, she recommends pausing to ask: “Is this candidate ready for the offer?” Make one final assessment on how the candidate is making the decision. Make sure you ask — and have answers to — these questions:
What is your framework for evaluating this decision?
Who are you making the decision with at home?
How would you rank the different elements of your decision?
On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate your ability to say yes right now, with 10 being a resounding yes?
If you aren’t at a 10 yet, what is holding you back? What can we do to get you to the finish line?
Timing is particularly telling if a candidate is interviewing with other companies. “Never give a stale offer,” Thinh says. “When you make an offer too early it’s just going to sit there. The candidate is going to shop around and compare it. Don’t pretend they aren’t in process with other companies. Ask what stage they are at and how they’re feeling about them so you can determine when and where you fit in.”
Frontload your compensation conversation. Compensation can be an uncomfortable conversation if you fail to surface it early in the process. “Your recruiter needs to have already built that rapport and directly connect with the candidate about the terms. If you wait until everyone agrees that you have a great candidate, you onsite them, and then you start discussing an offer it’s going to be a challenge.”
“At NerdWallet, our recruiters have a really strong understanding of the compensation philosophy that we created, it helps in making the process as straightforward as possible. As soon as we sense mutual interest, we share it with a candidate. It not only enables us to make the first move, without requesting they disclose any information, it also distinguishes us as a company. When it’s time to make the close, both parties are aware of the deal and are respectful of each other's needs.”
The litmus test for your hiring experience is your final conversation on compensation — it can reflect just how meaningful the candidate journey has been. Remember, you’re selling an opportunity to play a part in a world-changing story, not a rigid, bulleted job description. “There’s something very distinct about your company, culture, the opportunity and your technology,” Thinh says. “Leverage it. It should help your candidate answer questions like: ‘How does this map to my career aspirations? What am I going to learn that is new and exciting? How will I make a meaningful impact on the world?’ If you start addressing those questions from the start, compensation doesn’t become an obstacle.”
Treat your candidate journey like a product — refine it relentlessly. In the same way you measure usage metrics for a new release, every hire you make is an opportunity to study and improve your process. One NerdWallet employee was new to hiring and Thinh noticed an unusual drop-off at the phone interview stage. “After looking at the drop-off week over week, we went back and talked to the candidates who didn’t proceed in the process. They gave us two pieces of feedback: We needed to tighten our pitch and one of our Nerds needed more experience interviewing,” she says. “Actively capturing this saved us a lot of potentially lost time. You don’t have to wait until you’ve made 10 hires to start measuring and refining. You can gather valuable information from a single hiring process.”
Your recruiting process is your sword and shield. Sharpen it regularly. Wield it wisely.
The month Thinh spoke at First Round’s CEO Summit, she noted that there were 12,700 software engineer positions open in the Bay Area, plus 7,400 product manager positions, with an average of 1,500 being added every day. How can early-stage, cash-strapped startups stand out among giants like Apple or Facebook when trying to fill these roles? First, follow Thinh’s tips to help find and hire a capable Head of Recruiting. Look for the storytelling detective who can as easily pitch her last company with nuance and ask the right questions to equip her to pitch your startup. Then find and pull the levers to create a magical candidate experience: Always go out of your way and sweat the details. Frontload the conversation about compensation. Conduct dual auditions. Find your balance between speed and haste. Always look to refine your process.
“As with any business, the people part is both one of the most difficult and transformative components of growing a company. The wins happen in the margins. How will you activate the little hacks and tweaks that enable you to bring candidates into the fold? It’s not just up to your recruiting manager. It’s up to your entire team,” says Thinh. “You need someone for the job, but, of course, the hiring process doesn’t just revolve around your needs. Similar to getting married or buying a house, finding a new job is really stressful. So, whenever you think you’re done honing your hiring process, return to it and ask yourself: how can I alleviate stress for the candidate and make the process more frictionless? The future of your team depends on it.”