4 tips to help startups land top candidates at a career fair

September 16, 2015

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School has only been in session for a couple of weeks, but tech companies have already begun poaching top candidates on college campuses nationwide. Though the familiar tune of Pomp and Circumstance won’t play for another eight months, the race is on to nab the best interns and entry-level players before they end up working for one of your competitors.

But how can startups, in a development stage marked by both youth and obscurity, paint a competitive enough picture to attract the talent they need to power their growth?

The answer is simple, but its execution doesn’t always earn a passing grade. According to Jason Weingarten, co-founder and CEO of Yello, startups need to step up their game at campus career fairs.

“If you are a growing company, college recruiting should absolutely be part of the mix of your overall recruitment strategy,” said Weingarten, whose company provides software and consulting to over a hundred name brand organizations to help with global campus recruitment.

Easier said than done. Locating top tech talent — let alone wooing and winning them over — is a notoriously arduous initiative, and not just in the Midwest. As campus recruiting season revs into full gear, we sat down with Weingarten to get his take on the top four tips to help startups get the biggest ROI on their next trip to the campus career fair.

1. Build relationships before you go

Career fairs involve much more work than just showing up to an event. Weingarten said one of the easiest ways to get the most bang for your buck is to start building relationships well before you ever show up on campus.

“It’s similar to how some companies just post a job on a job board and pray that they’ll get applicants,” he said. “The really good companies work to recruit them and engage them beforehand. Just like with Built In Chicago — I might engage people through their network or provide great content to build interest in my company, so that when they see a job posting, they’re more likely to apply.”

And it’s not just potential applicants you should engage. Weingarten said you should also try building relationships with career centers, faculty members, and student-run organizations, because they want to get their best students in front of you.

“The event is not where you’re establishing relationships, but continuing them. As a startup that doesn’t have a big brand, you'll have to do that more than everyone else,” he said.

2. Emphasize what the candidate can get out of your company

Especially for candidates who are also considering enterprise opportunities, Weingarten said a good strategy for capturing the ears of potential candidates is to advertise the much more personalized, hands-on experience that most startups have to offer.

At Yello, for example, all of Weingarten's interns have had a feature they’ve worked on end up in the finished product — an achievement, he said, that’s harder to list on a resume if you’re one of 500 interns during a single summer.

“Really let candidates know they're going to make a difference in the company. People will know their name, and they won’t have to wait three years before one line of code makes it into production,” he said.

3. Make sure your messaging is crisp

Most startup employees are totally — sometimes obsessively — immersed in their work. That’s important in building a business, but it can often have a negative effect on your messaging.

“Oftentimes, a startup may think that many more people know who are they are, or will quickly understand what they do, because they’re living and breathing it,” Weingarten said. “It’s really important — just like when you’re pitching to an investor — that students are able to understand exactly who you are and what you do in under 30 seconds.”

To make sure your recruiters are crystal clear, Weingarten said it’s advantageous to polish up your scripting so students can clearly understand why the opportunity with your company is so great.

4. Treat millennials how the want to be treated

In order to impress the so-called me me me generation, Weingarten said you might have to pull out some big guns. To lure graduates away from corporate America and into the glitzy world of tech, consider having your founder or CEO represent your company on campus — whose title and achievements alone are likely to pique some interest.

Or, consider flying a candidate out for an office visit — even if you don’t have a quintessentially sexy tech office. According to Weingarten, that personalized level of attention is worth it in the end.

“Millennials want to be treated very specially — like most people — so if you want to woo an all-star candidate, being able to have them come visit your office can be huge,” he said.

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