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August 29, 2019

How to Hire for Your Startup without Copying the 'Unicorn' Next Door — Interview with Sarah Corboliou, Unito

Unito interview

Sarah Corboliou has no idea what the corporate world is like—and she's not the least bit sad about it. 

Since graduating university in 2015, Sarah dove headfirst into the startup world, and never looked back. "I've always been into doing my own thing, building from scratch and making things work the way I think they should," says Sarah of the earliest days of her career. "If it turns out it's not right, you're the one who created it so you're the one who can change it," she laughs.

Working for a kludge multinational was never her cup of tea. 

After cutting her teeth as a screening and selection specialist for a Montreal-based angel fund, Sarah bumped into Marc Boscher, Founder & CEO of Unito, a workflow collab tool with a robustly "startup" ethos. Marc needed some help on the operational side of the business...he just wasn't sure how much help.

As her hiring pilot project, Sarah and Marc worked together to figure out exactly what her job would be. Marc took a look at his tasks and AORs in Asana and added everything he wanted to delegate to a spreadsheet. Sarah filled it out with all the tasks she wanted (and didn't want) to do and what she knew she was good at (or not so good at). "After a whole month, we realized that it was a full time job and I was the person to do it," recalls Sarah .

As head of Employee Success, Sarah has just a few small things to take care of. "Part of my job is recruitment but I also do HR, all the bookkeeping, finance and office management. Basically, I take care of everything that's not related to the product," Sarah laughs.

So yeah, just that. 😅

We sat down with Sarah to get the complete play-by-play on how she managed to more than 2X Unito's headcount, without sacrificing the company's core beliefs...or her sanity.

Hiring at a startup: Millennial myth-busting meets real-deal D&I

"Culture is one of the things that makes people want to work at Unito and stay at Unito," explains Sarah.

The team at Unito uses Areas of Responsibility (a.k.a. AORs) to divide work and decision making. And with such Valley-esque acronym at the core of the business, you might think Unito is all about the younger working generation. But according to Sarah, that's not exactly true. 

"We've been branded the millennial employer and blah, blah, blah. But honestly, I'm not sure I know what 'millennial' means. I'm not sure I love that term in general because it kind of puts people in a box," says Sarah.

With recruitment as one of her AORs, it was up to Sarah to reckon with any branding that didn't completely align with the company's core values. "Diversity is definitely something that every single person at the company sees as being very important," she explains.

Luckily, as a Montreal-based company, Sarah and the Unito team don't have to work too hard to convince people that diversity matters. For them, it's less about positioning themselves as the hip "millennial" startup and more about making sure they're walking the talk to hire people from all types of backgrounds, regardless of what year they were born.

Today, the team at Unito is made up of people from all walks of life and over 10 different countries. But for Sarah, it's not job done. Diversity hiring is a moving target.

"We're super proud of is that our first hire was a woman and a developer. "We really want to emphasize diversity in our hiring... to make it intentional, not coincidental," says Sarah. 

And for her, it's all about having a smart, seamless hiring process.

A "set it and forget it" approach to applicant selection

Like most companies, the very first step to hiring any new employee at Unito is to write up the job profile.

Sarah sees this step as crucial to hitting all the right notes throughout the entire hiring process. "Are they going to have clear cut responsibilities within the company? Or are you just making up a role because you think you need it?" says Sarah.

It's no secret that in a fast-moving, high-risk startup, hiring moves can make or break you. Sarah makes sure that each and every open role has been thought through.

The job profile will include:

  • The AORs the new hire will hold
  • The objectives and key results (OKRs) the new team member will achieve in their first 3 months, 6 months and so on (these also go into their job ads, which candidates love. 😍)
  • The list of criteria they'll be scoring candidates on (for more objectivity and less "because I liked them" statements among the hiring team)

The job profile is usually drafted by the hiring manager and team lead. From there, it's over to Sarah who translates the profile into an inclusive job description that makes all types of job seekers drool. 

"I ensure that they all kind of look the same and have the same structure and that the diversity-friendliness is there, even in the way the job post is written," explains Sarah. But Unito's job ads are anything but cookie-cutter.

"One thing I don't like is that in the startup world, you typically see personality traits everywhere. I don't think it's a good idea to tell people 'that's who you should be'."

For Sarah, it's more about stating straight up what a potential candidate will have to do in a role, then stepping back and letting them figure out if they can do it.

"All these superhero words like 'ninja' and 'rockstar' go against our goal of diversity hiring. If you use these words in your job posts it's going to attract more men than women. And if you have a list of ten requirements, women are more likely to want to meet each and every one specifically, whereas a man is more likely to say, 'OK, I meet most of them, I'm gonna go ahead and apply," explains Sarah. (And it's clear she's done her homework on this topic.)

"The tendency is to always add a ton of bullshit requirements. I really try to resist that. Realistically, if you ask someone if they can work in a team, no one's going to tell you 'no'."

Once Sarah's BS-free job post is ready-to-go, she uses Breezy to automatically post it to all the leading job boards, saving her a ton of time on mindless copy/pasting. After that, it's all about waiting for the applications come in. If they don't, only then will she head over to LinkedIn to do some active recruiting.

"We add in all the applications on Breezy and then we set up a whole pipeline that's as automated as possible," says Sarah.

Kickoff with a customized questionnaire

For Sarah, the process starts with an automated screening questionnaire that's tailored to the role in question.

For example, if she's hiring for the Marketing Department, the first question might be, "Looking at the way we currently market ourselves, what advice would you have for us?"

This is where they also screen for the technical stuff, including your run-of-the-mill pre-screening questions like: 

  • What languages do you speak? 
  • Are you legally allowed to work in Canada? 
  • What tools do you know how to use?

But the last question is the real kicker:

Why do you want to work at Unito?

The questionnaire states outright that they do not want the usual cover letter spiel—they want original answers only.

"There's no cover letter...ever," says Sarah.

Once she's got a deep enough pool of applicants, she starts narrowing it down by looking at the questionnaire answers first. She looks at everything from how the applicants' answers line up with their resumes and of course, how much effort they put into their answers to begin with.

"If anyone answers this question with anything that looks like a cover letter, it's gonna put me off right away," laughs Sarah (only semi-joking). 😬

After an applicant makes it through this part of the process, they're officially considered a candidate. From there, it's on to the phone screen.

Stage 1: The friendly phone screen

According to Sarah, the phone screen is "more of a conversation" than an interview.

She usually handles this part of the hiring process herself, and it's one of the only stages of the process she likes to leave unstructured.

Having said that, Sarah's phone screen process goes something like this:

  • Ask the candidate to share a bit of their life story
  • Go over past experiences in more detail
  • Ask specific questions to screen for red flags and make sure they meet the job criteria
  • Ask the candidate if they have any questions

Sarah knows most candidates are overly-prepared for this part of the process. So instead of asking a generic problem-solving question like, "How do you deal with that kind of situation?", she prompts the candidate to think deeper about their work experience, including statements like: 

"Tell me about that job. What went well? What went bad?"

If the candidate says they had a hard time taking the lead on a project or not having enough direction, that could be a potential red flag in a fast-paced environment like Unito's.

"I don't want to scare them off so I won't ask them stressful questions," says Sarah. But she does want to dodge the kind of textbook questions that yield textbook answers.

Another question she always asks is, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" 

Sure, it's a classic interview question. But Sarah gives it a unique spin by letting the candidate know it's OK if they don't say they want to be heading up the department. "Look at your VPs, how many of them were in the same field five years ago?" she asks (rhetorically, of course). 

In addition to changing her question-asking approach, Sarah's also working to change mindsets internally so that hiring managers don't see certain answers as red flags. After all, just because a marketer wants to one day learn how to code, doesn't mean you can't make magic together in the meantime.

"If the phone screen goes well, they go to the interview stage and that's all automated with links for scheduling, which makes my life so much easier," explains Sarah.

Pro tip: Sarah keeps her phone screen questions intentionally vague in order to give the candidate total liberty to present themselves however they choose. According to her, broad questions help tease out all the important "stuff you won't find out" in a typical interview. And while she recommends broad questions for the phone screen, she also makes sure the team's interviews are designed to go deeper to focus on specific things related to the role in question.

Stage 2: The one (and hopefully, only) interview

By this time, Sarah's got a good feel for her top contenders. 

Now, it's time to double down on candidate experience.

"We try not to do two interviews anymore because we have a pretty heavy process after the interview stage," she explains.

To make every minute count, Sarah usually invites:

  • The hiring manager/team lead
  • The department head
  • A peer team member

Having done the bulk of the screening and selection work already, there's no need for Sarah to attend any of the in-person interviews herself (which works out well given her busy schedule as the unofficial Chief Multiple Hat-wearer).

Depending on the role in question, the rest of the hiring team might do a second interview with a higher-up (usually a C-level), or they might opt to do the first 45 minutes with just the hiring manager and peer, then bring the C-level in for the last 15 minutes or so.

As you might expect from a company that flatly rejects the traditional org chart, hiring is an ongoing experiment. 

"We're still testing it out. We're experimenting and finding the best way to run this part of the process," Sarah explains. She admits that many of the questions in the interview are the same or similar to those asked in the initial phone screen, but the interview enables the hiring team to dive deeper.

And of course, interview questions will vary based on role. For example, role play is par for the course with any sales candidate, but wouldn't take you very far in a developer interview.

Stage 3: The pilot project

Now, for the make-or-break.

If the hiring team feels good about a candidate, they'll be invited to participate in a pilot project.

"It's real work for the company," Sarah explains. "For example, if we're going to be hiring someone who's going to be writing content for the blog, we'll ask them to write a blog post on a particular topic and invite them to reach out to anyone in the company and get all the help they need."

Even if they don't hire the candidate, Unito can still use the work the candidate submitted during their pilot project. And of course, the pilot project is always paid. "We don't like to make people work for free," explains Sarah.

In the ideal scenario, the candidate will even come work with the team in the office during business hours.

"People are like 'That's never gonna work, it's never gonna scale.' But we keep telling people that we've been doing this right from the start. Our CEO even did this with our co-founders. And we do it with suppliers, too. If we wanted to change lawyers, the lawyer would have to go through a pilot project," laughs Sarah.

And when Unito's candidates reach the pilot project stage, they know they're firmly in the running.

"We think the pilot project is a huge improvement both for the candidate and for the company. They get to come and work with us, they get to meet the entire team if they want to. No one changes their behavior in the office, so what they see is real and you get to work on stuff that you will be working on in the future," she explains.

Just your average day at the Unito office. (Source: Unito)

No false promises. No first-day jitters.

It's a real-world glimpse into the employee experience and one that Sarah sees as extra crucial for executive roles. 

When she and the team hired a new Sales Director last year, the candidate got to come in and look at all the sales data at the company level and decide for herself if she thought the company would succeed. And of course, it's a two-way street.

"It's my favorite part of the process. For us, we get to see how the person actually works and the quality of work we can expect from them," says Sarah.

The pilot project also helps navigate the age-old hiring conundrum of greenlighting people who are ace interviewers, but not so great on the job. And vise versa.

"This is especially important with developers who are not always so good at interviewing. We had one dev who, after the interview, everyone thought was super junior. But then they piloted him and we were like, 'Oh shit, he's actually amazing.'"

They've also experienced the reverse. Sarah and the hiring team piloted a candidate who they all thought would be amazing, only to find out the quality of work was anything but. Thanks to the pilot project, they saved Unito a ton of money on what could have been a major hiring mistake.

The final round: reference and background checks

"For a while we were doing background checks after the person was hired which is not what you're supposed to do," Sarah laughs.

For Sarah and the team at Unito, background checks aren't really a priority but an important box they still have to tick.

After the pilot project, they ask for references, check the references and if all looks good—they draft an offer letter.

At that point, they usually ask the candidate for a soft yes or no before running the background check.

"[The formal offer letter is] not super formal but it's not super original either because we just want it to cover the main things—salary, stock options, group insurance and $1,000 in a wellness account," explains Sarah.

(Source: Unito)

But there is one place where they let their personality shine through.

"On the first page of the employment contract we actually have 'your name at Unito' along with a poem written by the new hire's direct manager or colleague that's been personalized just for them. So you get your contract, which is super jargon-packed, but first you get a little poem about you joining the company," says Sarah.

It's the little things. 😊

What's next? 

"Being in the startup world today, I try not to focus too much on what everyone else is doing."

For Sarah, the structure and strategy behind Unito's hiring process will almost certainly change—but not because the startup next door is changing theirs. "We want to be able to rate all the candidates using the same criteria and have a goal for what we want to find out at each interview. It's a work in progress," she says. 

Moving forward, Sarah wants to keep a strong focus on streamlining the hiring process to make Unito's strategy as objective and efficient as possible—while keeping a firm eye on diversity as a way to support a great culture and strong performing team.

Sometimes, that means being the only one in the room willing to lead an uncomfortable conversation. "It's hard to imagine a good salesperson that wouldn't be super extroverted...but you don't necessarily have to have those personality traits," explains Sarah.

It's an ongoing discussion among her and the rest of the team, but Sarah's not fazed.

"Recruitment can bring the checks and balances element to the hiring team, making sure we spot the things that we keep doing that aren't working and do our best to question and change them."