Welcome to Tactical Hiring, a series dedicated to giving founders actionable hiring advise— from the people who've done it before at a high level. Today's guest is Pim de Witte founder of Medal.tv. In this issue we cover the best sources for early hires, how to screen for the best candidates, and some interesting differences between in-person and remote recruitment strategy.
What were your most effective recruitment channels in the earliest days of Medal?
Starting with my cofounders, we met through a modding community, we were all part of a Runescape modding community — we’ve known each other from the time we were thirteen. Outside of that, first thing was Reddit. /r/forhire was quite useful. Also /r/gamedev because we started as a gamedev company. That’s where we found our first employee and our first engineers.
Who did the recruiting, were responsibilities split among cofounders?
I did most of the recruiting myself. I’m an engineer, so I’m not going to outsource team building because I can find good engineers. I pretty much did all of our recruiting up until 40 people. I actually did all the first touch, owned the candidate pipelines, did the cold outreach.
Was cold outreach successful?
Absolutely, thats a hack by the way. If the CEO reaches out directly, you’re very likely to receive a response.
Why not have other people or resources to help you out?
Every time I tried to work with somebody I found that they wouldn’t necessarily have the same effectiveness as if I were to do it because reach outs were coming from a recruiter, who was probably emailing a bunch of other candidates for other businesses as well. Whereas, if you get a personal message form the CEO which goes “Hey, here’s why I’m interested in talking to you specifically”, I got a very very high response rate.
Seems it was also effective to focus on channels that have a mapping to what the business is doing.
For sure, but I would also say that it’s all in the message itself. You can use the best channels and still be a shitty recruiter. And it’s also about knowing what you’re looking for. Going and looking for very specific skills and then working backwards and doing very personalized outreach to the people that you think are very relevant, as opposed to going with a blanket approach. “Hi, first name, I’m looking for X”.
Being confident that the reach out was very intentional, from the candidate side, seems very important.
Exactly, so they knew my messages weren’t written by a bot or automation. It was more like, I saw this project on your Github and we’re doing X,Y,Z interesting things. Because of that, and your skills, we’re interested in talking to you.
How long were these reachouts, typically?
It was always very short. Two, three lines maximum. You just want to gage interest off the bat. I wouldn’t give a ton of context, just basically saying “hey I’m interested in getting to know you”.
What tools outside of Reddit were you using to source candidates?
At the time I used Angelist. And anytime I liked somebody that came through there I’d just move them through the funnel.
So ultimately, what makes a good reach-out message: personalization, keep it short and to the point, and make sure it feels intentional. Does that sound right?
Outside of direct skills, were there past experiences you specifically prioritized in your recruitment process?
It always depends on the type of problems we were trying to solve. At some point I was very much looking for certain deep tech, GPU programming, that sort of thing.
Did you find more targeted ways to find those people?
I went into GPU programming communities, found people who liked video games, and messaged them directly.
How does one find a GPU programming community?
Github, discord, reddit, forums, there’s tons of places. You just have to understand what you’re recruiting for. If you just go on LinkedIn and searched up GPU programming, it’s unlikely that you’ll find anyone. And this is where it ties back into the effectiveness of cold outreach, because you have confidence that these people in these communities will understand the problem. And most of the time they’re bored at work anyways, so they’ll be open to talking.
It’s interesting that Medal took such a community oriented strategy early on. Most founders I speak too will go right into the predominant channels with a philosophy that it’s going to be a slog no matter what. So leverage what everybody else is leveraging, take the losses, but if you grind enough you can come out with the right people.
I found those channels to be a waste of time. Nobody reads job posts on LinkedIn anymore. We would put applications on Angelist because I think their UX for candidates was quite good. We also posted to Women Who Code. We did put up those listings. But the strategy once candidates applied would be the same. I wouldn’t just message them with a request to interview. I’d still go through the ones I liked and have a personal message prepared for them.
Did anybody respond to those personalized outreaches in ways that turned you off of them?
Sometimes. But mostly, and I guess this was a bit cheeky— I wouldn’t actually interview somebody until they told me why they were excited by the company. There were exceptions to this, like if we had already talked about the problem, why the specific problem is interesting, and I knew they were interested and I knew they were a gamer I wouldn’t make them jump through any additional hoops. What I was trying to filter out was blanket job applicants who are just hitting yes on everything because you end up wasting a ton of your time.
What percentage of candidates would give a good answer?
Probably around 60-70% of people would get to the interview stage after I’d ask. I’m already asking them the additional question because their profile is interesting.
Whats a hypothetical example of a good answer?
Well one, you have to actually indicate that you’re interested in games, and why games matter, connecting people for example. Two, you have to have some interest in the technical stack you’re going to be working in. If you come in with preconceived ideas of how things should work, if you want to bring a lot of your current notions of how to build with you, I usually find there’s some red flags there. The best is if you’ve been using the product.
Did you get a lot of candidates who were already using the product?
Yes, putting a banner inside the app was a great channel for us. The best candidates were always people who used the product.
That creates a really interesting inbound channel.
Yeah, well we had that luxury because of who was using our product and how it worked. And most companies don’t.
I’d like to go back to the origin of Medal. In those first days when you and your cofounders were assembled. How clear of a picture did you guys have on what you needed to hire for? How did you know where to start?
We didn’t have a clear picture at all. We were just trying to figure stuff out. Three of my cofounders are engineers. Which means we had basically a full team within our cofounder team. By the time we decided we wanted to work on this it wasn’t like “we should be hiring”, it was more like “lets just get stuff done”.
When did it become clear that you guys needed to make a first hire?
It was at the point that we needed to hire for very specific skillsets, like web, GPU, video transcoding.
At what point did you hire outside of the engineering scope? And were you still responsible?
Probably product managers. Is that engineering scope to you?
It’s in between probably. Depends on the PM.
And then support and community. Our community manager, Brendan, was the #1 player on our mobile game before we built Medal. And he was just kind of like the guy that would do whatever wasn’t engineering. And that worked.
At what point did you bring him on?
He was the community manager of our game pre Medal, and then we pivoted to Medal. So he’d been around since the beginning basically. Also the founding team wasn’t strictly engineering had one co-founder also in charge of finance, HR, and operations.
It’s amazing that you were able to get an early adopter to step into that role. Feels seamless.
And that’s the common theme, honestly. Getting people bought-in who are familiar with us, our product, and excited to participate.
On the flip-side, have you ever had to let anybody go?
Yeah, most commonly someone will claim that they were more senior than they really were. And they’d struggle. These people are generally really good interviewers but then once it actually comes to work it falls off. Sometimes you take a bet on somebody.
I was just gonna ask, if you’ve ever hired someone you thought could grow into a role, or you saw something that wasn’t presently there, but could be in the future?
For sure. For example, a situation like this will occur: somebody comes from a slightly different role, or a different company, like a hardware company say, — that candidate says, I use the product, I really want to work here, but I haven’t done software yet. I’ve done x,y,z on the hardware side. You take a bet on the person. Conversely, you might see that someone has all the hard skills, but you’re somewhat suspicious that they’re not motivated for the right reasons. They care more about the appeal than the work.
What about bets that have worked out? People who weren’t necessarily exposed to the gaming space for example pre Medal?
Absolutely. There have been a couple of those.
I’ve found in my chatting with founders that there is a hard-line split between people who believe in taking bets and people who very much believe that what you see is what you get. Where do you fall?
I’d definitely disagree with that people don’t change. But I think from the founder’s perspective, it depends if you’re remote or in-person. I’m actually gonna give you a paint drawing to explain. Talent isn’t 1,2,3,4, it’s a curve. It looks like this:
When you have remote employees, they’ll come in somewhere along this curve, and most likely they’ll just stay there.
Why is that?
Teaching is very hard in a remote environment. People tend to find their boxes and live in them. Whereas an in person team, teaching is like half the job. So it looks more like this:
People at higher levels on the curve in terms of experience will be responsible for pulling people on the lower ends of the curve up. And this type of improvement will generally happen within months. So ideally, the structure is based on a few people who are extremely good, and taking bets on people who are motivated about the product. It’s like that YC article: Hire for Slope, not Y Intercept. Remote work sort of breaks this concept. Because in remote work the Y intercept is actually quite important.
Interesting, so it seems like remote hiring should have less implied mobility. What you are hired for is what you should do. Is Medal remote?
We started off about 70% in person, then the pandemic came and we went fully remote. Now in 2023 we’re going back to in person. We’re not forcing employees, but slowly transitioning. New hires will be in person.
Where is the Medal office? This could be a good opportunity to show possible candidates reading where they'd work.
Upper west side of New York. It looks like this:
What are you hiring for today?
At a high level, we are looking for a VP ENG and a COO. Generally though, were also hiring for engineers and designers, you can find those listings here: https://jobs.lever.co/Medal
Finally, does everyone at Medal need to love gaming?
I wouldn’t say its a prerequisite. A lot of people used to be deeply into gaming. We do ask that people make it a part of their life again. If you don’t understand the dynamics of gaming communities, it’ll be tough. If you do get it, but haven’t picked up a game in awhile that’s totally fine.