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Hiring a "Unicorn"

If we had a dollar for every time we’ve heard an employer end their requirements call with “ . . . so basically we're looking for a unicorn!" We’d be rich enough to retire.

It's so normal to refer to a candidate as a unicorn that’s become common lingo in the tech community. However, unicorns are mythical creatures; they do not exist. The same goes for unicorn candidates. 

As a leader, you want to find someone with a special set of skills, experiences, personality, and demographics that will create a dramatic aha moment when you meet them. But if you are listing out your search requirements and begin to think this is a unicorn hire, stop! 

Ask yourself, why do you believe that? Does this person most likely not exist? If that’s the case, what does that mean for your hiring strategy? 

If you go into a search believing the person you want to hire does not exist, it’s a very defeating attitude, and generally means an arduous search process lies ahead of you. 

Here is our number one hiring lesson learned during our 20 years of startup tech recruitment; while it's normal to think you need a unicorn, balancing this magical rainbow wish list with a second pragmatic list is the best way to approach to ensure a successful search. 

Here are the 3 steps to ensure you land the right person for the role and avoid setting yourself up for hiring failure:

Focus on the experiences that align with the mandate of the role. 

Experiences are a searchable skill that can help narrow down a group of candidates. But it’s important to separate the nice-to-have experiences from the ones that are essential to the role and lean into those essential experiences. 

When initially screening candidates, only prepare questions focusing on those must-have experiences to quickly assess a candidate’s ability and fit.

For Example: 

  • Do you have experience taking a product idea from ideation to an MVP?
  • Have you ever been the first salesperson in a territory that had no anchor, referenceable account in it?
  • Have you ever implemented Hubspot as a company's marketing tech platform?
  • Do you have experience hiring a large team of BDRs to do top of funnel lead gen?

The experiences you need to hire for can also be applied to similar or different industries.

Determine how important industry experience is to the role you are hiring for. This too will be a searchable fact and help narrow down a group of candidates.

For Example: If you are a B2B SaaS vendor with a solution for the financial services industry, SaaS experience might be essential but how important is it that your hire comes from another Fintech? Is a candidate from a preptech or martech a realistic option for your stakeholders to seriously consider?

Making these decisions early in your search process to help you access a larger and more viable pool of candidates.

Get the fine print figured out.

While we will refrain from calling them unicorn candidates, highly skilled and specialized candidates are always in demand and go quickly. Nail down the fine print to ensure your entire team is ready to move should a highly qualified candidate enter into your search process. 

Location: while Covid has opened up remote options for many employers, other companies are still holding on to the hope that employees will want to return to the office. Which are you? Is there flexibility? When would this flexibility apply?

Compensation: we are in a candidate's market. No matter how much you resist the salaries being talked about, the market is what the market is, and the war for talent is real. Know your salary limits and play within them.

Timing: once you begin a search, execute to get to the outcome, which is a hire. The worst thing an employer can do is to drag out the search looking for the unicorn. It won’t take long for the market to realize the search is stale - this does not attract the A players. 

Instead of focusing on unicorns only, enter into the hiring process excited to meet a cross-section of the market and choose the best person/personality for the opportunity. You don't need a unicorn, you need the best possible hire available to you.