How to Build Your Employer Brand as a Startup

Sometimes as a startup it feels like the only way to accomplish anything is through sheer force of will. You often don’t have the resources you need to behave like a traditional company, so any time there’s a push to hire new employees you’re stuck crossing your fingers and hoping for a referral to come through. After all, when you’re a growing company it’s almost impossible to attract top candidates to your careers page without a personal connection—right? Well, it’s not quite impossible. In fact, it’s exactly what a strong employer brand is designed to help you do.


Today, we’ll sit down with Andrei from SmartDreamers to discuss employer branding for growing startups. We’ll dig into the common pitfalls that startups have to navigate when defining their brands for prospective job applicants, as well as the importance (and composition) of a winning EVP. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!


Q: What particular challenges do startups face right now in crafting and spreading an employer brand?


A: The biggest challenge that I see most frequently is a lack of consistency. An employer brand isn’t just a set of keywords or slogans that reflect your ideal company—it’s an active, ongoing activity that involves getting your brand in front of a large number of targeted candidates so that they get interested in and excited about your business. Most of the time, startups fail at employer branding because they simply aren’t posting enough content or participating in enough conversations to gain traction.


Of course, you also see inconsistency in the employer brands and EVPs themselves. Businesses really need to make a point of ensuring that their message is in accordance with their company’s mission, culture, and values and that it reflects the company as their current employees understand it. I can’t tell you how often I see established companies trying to sell themselves as scrappy, mom’s-garage startups, with the effect that they confuse their staff and their candidates alike.


Q: How should startups go about building their employer brand identities?


A: For this one, I can actually give a pretty straightforward checklist:


1. Define your startup’s vision and purpose

2. Define your core values

3. Define your startup’s culture

4. Build your EVP on your vision, values, culture

5. Ask your employees if your EVP reflects their team spirit

6. Promote your employer brand online


Once you have all the elements of a strong employer brand in place, you should be able to build up brand gravity by posting employer-branded content on social media sites and other niche platforms across the web.

Q: What particular employer brand elements most appeal to startup candidates?


A: Vision and purpose. One of the big attractions for most job seekers in the startup world is the chance to work on something new and groundbreaking that will drive real change in the field or in the world. These candidates want to feel like they can have a real impact working towards a goal that they believe in, and your employer brand can help establish your business as a place where that can happen. You can almost think of this in sales terms: “don’t sell what you do, sell why you do it.”


Obviously, the question of vision and purpose relates quite closely to your corporate values. Are you a “move fast and break things” kind of operation, or do you take a more measured approach? How do you understand your responsibilities to your clients, customers, and team members? By outlining these things clearly in your EVP, you can help potential candidates self-select for a strong culture fit. Most of the time, top startup candidates will want to hear that your company is committed to growing quickly, to supporting their people in their own learning and growth, and to maintaining agility even as the company gains new employees.


Q: What tactics should startups use for making sure their employer brands reach the right audience?


A: This is often the toughest step in the employer branding process for startups because the act of spreading an employer brand actually reaches into the territory of recruitment marketing—i.e. the use of marketing tactics for the purpose of talent acquisition. Essentially, you’ll want to identify your different candidate personas (fictionalized versions of your ideal applicants), and figure out where they spend their time online. For technical roles, this might be large platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but it might also include more niche channels like Reddit or Stack Overflow.


For each distinct channel, you’ll need to tailor your message to both the types of candidates you expect to reach there and the way those candidates expect to be engaged. A flashy carousel ad highlighting your benefits might work as first touch content on Facebook, but on more niche channels you might seek to post content that’s a little more focused on the technical side of your business. This way, you reduce the risk that candidates will feel like they’re being spammed. If you’re able to fit in with their expectations for a given platform, some of them will reward you with genuine interest.


Q: Do you have any other advice for startups building employer brand identity?


A: Stay consistent. It can seem daunting to keep putting out a steady stream of targeted content, but it’s really the only surefire way to get your brand out there among passive job seekers. Beyond that, it’s never too early to make sure you’re putting your values front and center in your business practices. Make sure that early in your development you put programs in place for diversity and inclusion in hiring. Do the same for corporate and social responsibility programs—this way, you can show people the positive impact you’re having beyond your company’s bottom line. Those same candidates who were in search of a mission to get excited about will often be just as excited about a company that’s serious about making the world a better place.