How To

June 23, 2022

How to poach talent

What do you do if you’ve found the perfect person but they currently work elsewhere?

Lightyear Co Founders Photographer: Tom Harrison COPYRIGHT: Tom Harrison

Everyone wants the best talent working for them, but what if they’re already working for someone else? Martin Sokk is the founder of the London-based investment platform Lightyear, which raised $10m last year and has been steadily growing the team since. He’s hired talent from payment transfer platform Wise (where both founders previously worked) digital bank Revolut and investment platform Robinhood’s UK team — so he knows a thing or two about poaching great people. Here’s how to do the same:

Don’t be afraid to poach talent

When Skype started, it poached talent from local Estonian banks. Later, when Wise began to grow, it drove a massive tractor in front of the Skype offices to grab the attention of talent it wanted to poach. We may not have a tractor but we do target talent from successful companies — including Wise. I used to work there and I still have shares in the company, so I want it to do well, of course… but I also want the best talent working for us.

People join startups because they enjoy the early stages of company building. Once a company experiences growth, many will want to get back to the fun and risk of something new. This is why poaching works and why it’s a strategy you can employ too.


Don’t rely on applications

If you're hiring for a particular role — especially one that is niche or quite senior — don’t expect the right candidate to apply directly to you. The person you need is most likely working elsewhere with a million other offers on the table and is not actively looking for new work. If you want them, you have to make the first move. Also, it’s easier for you to find them than for them to find you in the early days. You know the stage of experience, skill set and culture you’re trying to find a match for — when you’re early, your reputation is unlikely to precede you.

Ask for introductions

Say to everyone you know, ‘Hey, we need marketing people in these particular roles; who do you think are the four best people in the world I should be speaking to? It doesn’t matter if they’re in a job or not at the moment’ — and then get an introduction to them. Every time I interview someone, I ask ‘Who are the three next best people in the world in this particular role/industry?’ Again, get an introduction — don’t be worried about being transparent about going after talent. Cold calls or emails might work but an introduction almost always opens up a real conversation.

Don’t just look for superstar names

Look at what you are trying to achieve and then identify who has already done it. For example, if you’re looking for an early marketeer, you may be looking for someone who has scaled a company from zero to 1k users. At Lightyear, we look at teams building within our industry or closely related, and then figure out who the superstar is within that team or who will be a superstar in the near future. To find them, look for the people in the team who show passion for the project or niche they’re working on — maybe they’re publicly writing or talking about it, and contributing to projects outside of work. You want people who will find the challenge exciting.You also want numbers — what quantifiable success do they have from previous roles? Did they increase customer satisfaction or user numbers? Often, at the early stage, a superstar wears many hats to solve problems across the company, not only in their domain. Finally, look for people who can energise those around them. That’s who we go after.

Excitement, vision and purpose is a two way street

People want to work for places that have purpose. So to convince someone to leave a role for yours, you have to communicate your ‘why’ strongly from the get go. You need people who light up when they talk about what you’re building. Candidates need to know they can provide value and affect change, maybe more than they can in their current role.

If you’re not seeing this in potential candidates, maybe you haven’t effectively communicated your offering and potential. Ask them what they’re missing for this to be a sell — maybe you need someone else in the team to communicate your value proposition.

Maybe though, the candidate is already in the best place for them. It’s important to accept that your company isn’t the right one for everyone.

Make sure compensation works for the individual

Yes, offering a higher salary is one way to convince someone to join. However, it’s not the only way to compensate talent. In VC funded startups, having shares is important — the potential upside can help tip the scales in your favour.

If your company is growing and making money, then your team should make money too. Two things to note:

Although compensation is a bargaining chip, it’s important to try and be fair across roles. Someone shouldn’t get an incredibly large offer just because they are a better negotiator.

Some people want more salary, others want more shares. One employee may have been at a company that exited before and be more interested in having more ownership rather than a bigger monthly salary. Another employee may be trying to buy a house and need a more comprehensive monthly salary. Negotiate within the parameters that make sense to them. This understanding will make you an attractive employer.


Anisah Osman Britton

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn