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Outbound Sourcing

The great software developers, indeed, the best people in every field, are quite simply never on the market.Joel Spolsky, chairman and co-founder, Trello, Glitch, Stack Overflow*

Sourcing is a great way to find candidates who might not be actively looking for a job—many of the most talented engineers are rarely on the market. It can also be a good way to uncover candidates who may be overlooked by more brand-recognizable companies. But this channel does come with challenges. Many candidates may not be open to new opportunities, and so getting your timing right can be difficult. Additionally, so many companies have abused this method by spamming people that many have just learned to tune out the noise. At this point, most people you reach out to will never respond to your message, if they read it at all. And of course, the most sought-after candidates receive the most messages, and so are less likely to respond—that is, unless your message resonates and the timing works out.

Because of these significant challenges, outbound sourcing may seem like a numbers game: the more messages you send, the more likely you are to hit the right candidate with the right message at the right time… right? Perhaps, but getting them to then join your company is going to be an even more significant challenge—becoming a company or individual known for spamming the engineering community is not good for you. Every time you reach out to a candidate you are consuming some of your company’s brand equity. Unsolicited messaging is always a potential unwarranted interruption. But if your outbound sourcing is targeted and thoughtful, the less cost there will be to the brand, and the more likely the person will be to respond.

Tips and Strategies

  • Personalize your message. When reaching out to a candidate, it’s worth telling them why you found their background interesting and why you think they might be a good fit for your company. You-centric language (such as “your profile really stood out because X” is often more effective than we-centric language (“this is how cool our team and CEO are”). If you can’t do this authentically, you probably shouldn’t reach out to them at all. To stay efficient, you might still have templates that you use to form your messages, but any template you use should be customized for each candidate.

  • Keep it short. Your messages should be concise and to the point. Your message should contain enough information to help the recipient decide whether to respond, but most people process messages really quickly and will outright ignore messages that are too long or dense.

  • Tell them what they need to know. Say hello, say thank you, and cover the following:

    1. If you have a good understanding of what the candidate you’re reaching out to cares about, focus your pitch on those pieces. For instance, do they seem very mission-aligned? Have they expressed interest in this kind of role in the past, like on social media? Does it seem like they would fine the company’s business potential intriguing?

    2. If you don’t have concrete areas you can focus your pitch on, let them know the nature of the problems they would solve in the role, the potential financial upside of joining, and any proof that there are credible people on or behind the team.

    3. Include a call-to-action at the end, such as inviting to read more about your company or welcoming them to have a call to talk more, but without pressuring them.

  • dangerDon’t be too pushy or salesy. Most people have really good “bullshit detectors.” Most people don’t like to feel prematurely pressured to take action or invest their time, so don’t do things like withhold information from them until they agree to get on a call.

  • dangerDon’t use gimmicks. Jokes and “catchy” subjects are not a safe way to get people’s attention—you don’t yet know the person’s sense of humor. For some recipients, a little color can help you stand out, but to others it will come across as spammy or even offensive.

  • Follow up, politely. Do send follow-ups, but again, don’t spam people. A polite follow-up could solicit a reply from a candidate who missed your first message or saw it and forgot to respond. Keep follow-ups as short as possible, but use them as a way to check in and trickle some more information to the candidate (for instance, tell them about progress the team has made like a product launch or fundraising round). A good cadence might be a follow-up a week after the first outreach (to make sure they saw your original message), and another one a couple months later to check in (by giving an update and seeing if timing looks better on their side).

  • Timing matters. A candidate’s “recruitability” can vary over time. For instance, this study was able to predict recruitability based on an individual’s past job tenure and their current company and role’s average tenure: “If a UX worker has been at their job at Microsoft for 2.5 years, and they’ve never stayed at any job for longer than three years, and the average UX job at Microsoft is two years, then that worker is probably highly recruitable.” Of course, there are other factors that influence recruitability that may not be evident from a candidate’s profile. Maybe they haven’t found a way to move up at their company and are looking for more responsibility. Maybe they want to start working remotely, or they need a better benefits package because they’ve started a family, and can’t get these things at their current job. You can’t know this person’s circumstances until you reach out; sometimes it can be just what they were waiting for.

  • Play a long game. Do build relationships when you can. Some candidates might express some initial interest, but the timing might not work out. Keep track of those candidates and check back in with them regularly. You can use a spreadsheet, or relationship management software like an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) or Talent Relationship Management (TRM) to help manage all your follow-ups.* One idea is to add candidates on LinkedIn so they can see the updates you post about your company.

  • Block off time. If you don’t have a recruiter, sourcer, or agency in charge of outbound sourcing, and sourcing candidates isn’t your main job responsibility, it might be worth blocking off time on your calendar. Otherwise, it’s very easy to put off sourcing in lieu of your day-to-day activities.

  • Improve. Iterate on your targeting and your message as you learn patterns and heuristics for what works and what doesn’t. In fact, what you learn from your outreach can feed back into your job description and candidate personas.

  • Be careful about who’s doing the outreach. At many companies, teams delegate sourcing to specialized in-house sourcers, to recruiters, or to external agencies. After all, someone who is able to spend a lot of time performing outreach will probably learn what works and what doesn’t more quickly than a hiring manager who only spends an hour (or less) on outreach each week.

  • caution That said, there are risks with doing so. Firstly, the more detached the person doing the outreach is from the actual work, the less likely they’ll be able to effectively target or engage the right candidates. Secondly, especially with external agencies, the person doing outreach may not be as protective of your company’s brand as you would be. Candidates have begun to learn this, and many have learned to respond only to hiring managers, and not recruiters. Make sure you take steps to ensure that the person doing outreach understands the role and the team, and that they are being as protective of your reputation and your candidates’ time as you would be.

Over time, you will learn tactical tips and tricks on outbound sourcing. Small things like how you structure your search queries on different sites, what time and day you reach out to candidates, and the ability to find a candidate’s email address can all make a difference in your response rate. We don’t cover these types of tips in this Guide (yet), but there are sites like Boolean Black Belt dedicated to providing them. They are worth visiting if you will be spending time on outbound sourcing.

contribute Some managers and recruiters disagree with a selective strategy and prefer a high-volume blanket approach. Let us know if this is you, and if you’d like to share your perspective.

Further Reading on Outbound Sourcing

Filtering Outbound Candidates

When it comes to outbound sourcing, many hiring managers conduct searches for engineers who went to Stanford or MIT and have worked at a FAANG company, and then blind email every name that comes up. Startups tend to copy the hiring plans and processes of large companies, who favor these filtering mechanisms for candidates.

But traditional markers like where people went to school or where they worked are not nearly as predictive as people tend to think, and there is a whole world of candidates who are just as competent but who are currently being overlooked by other companies. Not copying big, well-branded companies can actually give you a strong competitive edge. You’ll find that the perfect candidate may be someone who’s mission-aligned, driven, self-motivated, and will likely stay longer at your company—which may not be the person with an MIT degree and experience at Google. Don’t optimize for the candidates you’ve been taught are “perfect.” Instead, optimize for candidates who satisfy your deal-breakers and are likely to be interested in you.

Rather than looking only for people with a traditional pedigree, consider reaching out to people who:

  • Are interested in your space because they’ve blogged or tweeted about it or have contributed to or started open source projects related to your work.

  • Are active in a nice language community that your company loves, who are excited to be able to use this language in production.

  • Are existing users of your product who are engineers (here’s some guidance on how to surface them without a lot of manual work)

  • Have previously worked at companies solving similar problems, even if those companies aren’t household names.

It might not be easy when starting out to figure out which candidates are likely to be interested in you, but the more patient you are up front, the more repeatable patterns you’ll surface and the more unexpected pockets of engaged candidates you’ll find. Then, over time, you’ll be able to take what you learned and turn it into a sourcing machine that will put you miles ahead of everyone else who’s sourcing the same old candidates against the tide of market forces. There’s more detail on this topic in Early Signals and How To Read a Resume. And regardless of which type of candidate you’re looking for in your outbound sourcing, Aline Lerner’s Sourcing for Founders deck, originally presented to Y Combinator companies, will help you if you feel like you’re doing fifty things every day besides looking for your next technical hire.

If you decide to reach out to FAANG engineers or other traditionally pedigreed engineers, or well-known people in general, less is typically more. These people are likely fielding all kinds of outreach, so make sure you follow the tips and strategies above closely; one or two really well-written emails will get you better results than hundreds of automated, impersonal spam messages.

Agencies

In theory, you can contract out almost any part of your recruiting process to an external recruiter. This particular section is about working with recruiting agencies on a contingency basis, and less about retained or contracted recruiters, which we discuss in The Hiring Manager-Recruiter Partnership.

Contingency recruiters are recruiters employed by an agency who work to place a pool of candidates in open positions at one or more companies, and they receive payment only for successful placements. Placement fees for contingency recruiters are paid by the company where the recruiter places a candidate and calculated as a percentage of the candidate’s annual salary, with typical fees ranging from 15–25%.

dangerContingency recruiting can be fraught with mismatched incentives:

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