This article was published on March 11, 2016

The unconventional hiring strategy your tech startup should adopt

The unconventional hiring strategy your tech startup should adopt
Jane Oxley
Story by

Jane Oxley

Jane is President of Smokeball, a productivity and case management software provider that increases efficiency and profitability for solo at Jane is President of Smokeball, a productivity and case management software provider that increases efficiency and profitability for solo attorneys and small law firms. Jane's worked in the legal field for her entire career, spending over 20 years engaged with small law firms. She has a strong affinity with small law firms and the crucial role they play in the communities they serve and is passionate about helping them work towards more productive and less stressful practices.

It’s no secret that the tech space is becoming increasingly competitive. Even if your company is truly innovative, your product’s benefits and features might not be enough to set you apart.

Your employees, on the other hand, are a different story.

Your team can make or break your success, and it’s imperative for technology companies to craft their hiring strategies with a clear emphasis on finding the perfect people to drive their growth and differentiate their brands.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that dream teams don’t happen by accident.

Companies that are serious about filling their rosters with A-players need to commit to building a standout company culture and a strong employment brand. They need to recruit and vet candidates with a deep understanding of the traits and qualities that make someone uniquely suited for their organization. And once they secure those candidates, they need to work tirelessly to engage and retain the top performers.

We’ve been hiring at a rapid pace at Smokeball, and in the process, we’ve gotten crystal clear about the traits that a candidate absolutely must possess to get an offer. Here are the four things we look for above all else that your tech startup should pay attention to, as well:

An understanding of your end user

The better your employees understand the unique needs, pain points and interests of your end users, the more likely they are to succeed.

At Smokeball, our end users are paralegals and lawyers, and we prioritize legal experience over tech experience when vetting candidates. Whether you’re a “recovering” attorney or paralegal, did a summer internship with a pro-bono law firm, or simply have a friend or family member in the legal industry, coming into our company with an understanding of our clients and a passion for helping them work smarter positions you to grow faster and perform better.

The same is likely true for your tech company.

If your company sells to hospital administrators, your standout employees are going to be the ones with healthcare backgrounds. If your end users are teachers, you’ll benefit from having former education professionals on staff.

Today’s top tech companies aren’t made up solely of serial tech leaders who are hired based on the number of companies they’ve helped grow from Series A to sale or IPO. While tech experience is important, it will never be as important as having an intimate understanding of the everyday pain your end users experience and a burning desire to solve their problems.


Innovative, high growth companies need employees who regularly demonstrate entrepreneurial traits and patterns of thinking. Professionals who crave rigid systems and processes and hierarchical management structures won’t thrive at most budding tech companies.

Look for employees who get excited by opportunity, ambiguity, experimentation and fast iteration. Your best employees will be those who are willing to try, fail, improve and try again. Self-direction, boundless energy and a certain level of comfort with constant change are also must-haves.

Caring is not optional

Our number one core value is “Caring is not optional.” It is a belief we hire and fire by, and one every company – regardless of size or industry – should abide by.

Employees, no matter the status, rank or tenure, must genuinely care about each other, their clients, and their product. This value should be clearly seen in each interaction, exchange or project. In order to remain competitive in your industry, you should make every effort to wow your clients and stay ahead of the competition. By aiding a teammate, making a product suggestion, setting up free accounts for volunteer organizations, or calling out an issue, commit to care, with no exceptions.

The “unicorn factor”

While end user expertise, entrepreneurialism and possessing a commitment to caring are important, these traits alone are not enough. At our company, a candidate could have an extensive legal background, a deep-seated passion for helping lawyers, and a mindset like Mark Zuckerberg, but if they don’t have the “Unicorn Factor,” they won’t get a job offer.

So what is the “unicorn factor”?

It’s a term we use to describe cultural alignment. Core to our company culture is a certain amount of quirkiness and goofiness.

Particularly in the tech startup space, your environment should be focused and hardworking, and at the same time feature a lighthearted and fun vibe.

Periods of intense focus should regularly be punctuated by office shenanigans, offbeat jokes and spontaneous laughter. Though it may sound extreme, traits such as being a little unconventional or idiosyncratic are just as important as anything you could put on a job application.

In tech, as in most industries, hiring is part art and part science.

Sure, you need to staff your teams with subject matter experts and innovative thinkers. But it’s equally crucial to find candidates with that extra special something that makes them a perfect fit for your company culture and mindset.

Finding the unicorns in a pile of resumés and applications isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.

Read next: What Hubspot learned from hiring (and not hiring) engineers

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.