9 Killer Strategies for Finding Great Designers and Developers

9 killer

Struggling to find a great designer or developer for your digital agency or startup? Given the small number of really great people out there, the chances are that you are. But in our industry that is currently booming and with talent in high demand, how can you get the best of the best on board your happy ship?

This post looks at what to look for when hiring designers and developers and most importantly some great ways to go about finding them.

The importance of identifying the best talent

“A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.” – Fred Wilson, VC and Principal of Union Square Ventures

This is one of my favourite business quotes of all time.

It really distills down the essence of what a CEO needs to do, I mean really needs to do. If you are doing something that doesn’t contribute directly to one of these 3 things then you should really ask yourself if you should be doing it at all.

It shows that ‘recruiting, hiring and retaining’ staff is one of the most important things that you should be doing, but are you focusing on it as much as you are on other things? Perhaps not.

Try this quick test;

Think of the best member of your team. Who is it?

Let’s say it’s John or Carla.

Now imagine that you had a team of 10 John or Carlas working in your digital agency or startup.

How does it feel?

Think how much easier your life would be and how much more work you could take on – and therefore profit you could make?

Having the right plan to build an amazing team now, can help you massively grow your business in the future. Tweet this.

So… here are 9 killer strategies to help you do it. I really hope they help you.

1. Consider freelancers first

Probably not what you were expecting but great people don’t have to be full time employees.

Ask yourself this, do you really need to hire someone full time?

On the surface freelancers might seem like an expensive option, but they can often be really excellent and end up being cheaper than full time employees – especially if you don’t actually need them round the clock. You only pay when you need some work done.

There is a trick to using freelancers - find and vet them before you need them.

That way when a new project that needs extra resource comes in, you can call them up and get them working ASAP – rather than panicking and messing up the schedules of all your other projects.

Here’s a way to make it easy and avoid cutting into your work day – meet them after work for a coffee or a beer to avoid wasting time on the “interview process”.

Once you’ve met with several freelancers, get references from their previous projects and if they are great, you can start to build a Preferred Supplier List (PSL) of pre-vetted freelancers.

When using a freelance designer or developer, the key is good communication. You need to be very clear on what exactly it is you want (and don’t want) so you need to make sure you have a strong brief for any project you outsource.

The other important thing to consider when using freelancers for a project is cost. How do they bill? By project or by hour? What happens if it goes over target? Set yourself a budget and be upfront with the freelancer about what you have to spend and find out exactly what it’ll get you.

Where to find them?

  • There are loads of places where you can find great quality freelancers these days.

  • Start locally using sites like Wired Sussex and LinkedIn

  • Ask fellow digital startups for recommendations. Chances are they already know (and have used) some great freelancers.

  • Get networking – find local networking events and ask the organizers to introduce you to people who freelance in design or web development

  • Put out the word on Facebook or Twitter

  • Use freelance websites such as Odesk, Elance, Guru, or Freelancer.com

Rich Pearson, CMO of Elance, is of course a huge advocate of hiring freelancers. Many of the companies that use their platform are small businesses but Elance themselves still claim to hire over 180 freelancers at any given time alongside their 90 full time salaried employees.

“For entrepreneurs with so much on their plate at any given time—and not necessarily all things they’re good at—bringing on a project-based employee is a great way to knock tasks off one at a time.” Rich Pearson, CMO – Elance

Action step:

Open up Google Docs and create a Preferred Supplier List (PSL) of great freelancers (with their contact details) that you have worked with in the past. Over the next 3 months make an effort to complete the list with 3 of each type of freelancer you might need eg. (Designer, Front end dev, Back end dev, tester).

This means at least one of them should be free if you need someone in a hurry!

2. ‘ABR’ – Always Be Recruiting

ALWAYS? Yes always. Refer back to Fred Wilson’s quote at the top of this post. It is one of the 3 most important (or only) things that a CEO of a small business should be doing.

What if a key team member gets signed off sick for six months? What if those three new recruits turn out   not to be as great as they said they were? You may believe your team is looking good but there is always risk and to mitigate that risk you need to continuously be thinking about your next hire.

To be clear – ‘Always be Recruiting’ doesn’t mean, ‘continually take on full time staff’. It means ‘always be looking for great people’, and then keeping in touch with them until the right role is available.

Think about it, if you landed a huge new project and didn’t have the resource to take it on what are you going to do? You are going to scurry about in a panic trying to find someone, anyone, to fill that role. It’s likely that you won’t find a great person. It takes time to recruit – not only to find the right person but for that person to be available (in the UK a junior designer or developer has to give at least one month’s notice period, this can be even more for senior people). Instead you should already have a bank of potential designers and developers you’ve met with prior to this project so you are already ahead of the game.

Action step:

Create a ‘People I would hire’ list using people you have met before. Commit to a target of adding at least 2 people to this list every month. After 12 months you will have 24 people to choose from on that list so your next hire will be MUCH easier.

3. Get creative with your Job ads


Generally most job ads are boring and uninspiring. To attract the best you need to think like the best.

Here are some great examples of creative job ads.

1. From the amazing team at Brighton’s own Ribot, (note their awesome recent re-branding) here’s a fantastically creative job ad for one of their previous designers vacancies. (Disclosure – I’m a board advisor at ribot)

2. Grouperis a startup which puts the personality of their business into their jobs page.

3. AirBnbalso have an inspiring jobs page with loads of info on what it would be like to work there.

Basics to include in a job ad.

Pull out four or five skills that are essential for the job but avoid listing out requirements other than educational and experience related ones. As much as you want to try and get the right type of person through the interview door, avoid requesting ideal personality-traits you are looking for. You’ll just find people turn up to the interview trying to act in a certain way. It’s much better to find people that match the skills you require at CV level and use the interview phase to actually get to meet the real person. You can then decide whether they are the right fit for your business.

What not to do

  • Avoid being too specific – You don’t want to scare off potential candidates that might be perfect but not have exactly the criteria you are after.

  • Avoid being too vague – Conversely you don’t want to be too vague or you’ll end up getting applications from every developer or designer within a 50 mile radius

  • Don’t be arrogant – Remember this job ad reflects your company so you really don’t want to turn people off before they’ve even applied. Your ad should be polite and avoid sentences such as “Please don’t bother applying if you haven’t got all the necessary experience, it’s a waste of everyone’s time” or “Don’t be lazy – please ensure you’ve read the full details before applying”. Yes you might want to say it but it’s just plain rude! Sure you’ll get some people doing this but the majority of people (who you actually might want to hire) won’t and it could put off great candidates thinking your company has a bad attitude.

Action step:

Next time you are putting together job ad – get your most creative people involved. Create a job ad that stands out and inspires the very best people to apply for your role.

4. Partner with Universities

There is so much fresh talent about, going straight to the source is a fantastic idea for hiring new designers and developers. One of the biggest concerns of graduates is will they be able to find a decent job, so it’s worth getting in them early. These days internships are a great way of road testing graduates and many universities and colleges offer schemes to help you find the right person. They screen all of the candidates doing all of the hard work for you. Some of the internship schemes also offer grants to help you out financially so it’s worth shopping around to find the right scheme for your business.

Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software, thinks it’s a must to hire people fresh from college or university.Why? Because great talent is never on the market. A great graduate will go straight from university into an internship, then get snapped up by said company, work hard and go on to achieve great things. He sees internships as a trial run to see if he wants to employ them full time. To do this Fog Creek makes sure to set their interns real work and give them a taste of what it’s really like to work for their company. At the end of the internship they’ll know whether they want to offer them a permanent role or not.

Action step:

Get in touch with the Careers department at your local University to find out what services they can offer to your business.

5. Use recruitment agencies

Yes, that does read ‘use recruitment agencies’ and I know what you’re thinking.

Despite their reputation, the great thing about recruitment agencies is that you only have to pay them if they find you someone exceptional. The trick is to find the good agents out there and I promise, they do exist if you look hard enough.

Here’s how to make agencies work for you

Choose a shortlist of three agencies to work with that specialize in your industry. (Then politely ignore any other agencies that call up). It’s better to use small agencies if possible as they have lower overheads and less vacancies to fill. Don’t try to knock them down on commission, it’s just not worth it. They’ll give all of their best candidates to another company that are willing to pay full whack.

In order to get the most out of the agency, invite them into your office so they can see the space and get a feeling for your culture. This will help them identify the right candidates. Give them as much information as possible about your company, your values and your goals as well as sending them a very clear job description.

Want results? Then be blunt. Tell your agent that if they send you a CV that doesn’t meet the outlined criteria then make it clear that you won’t speak to them again. This should make sure they don’t try to fob you off with people that aren’t suitable. If not, add another agency to your shortlist.

Play your part by giving the agent as much feedback as possible after interviewing candidates. Be specific; why weren’t they right for the role? What areas were missing? The better feedback you can give will mean the recruitment agency will be able to make sure the next candidate is spot on.

Action step:

Create a shortlist of 3 good recruitment agencies to work with and then give them a clear job description for the type of role you are trying to fill.

6. Have a great interview process


Interviewing isn’t just about you finding a great person, it’s also about that person finding a great company. This means you need to sell yourself just as much as your potential candidate needs to sell themselves. Mark Suster, General Partner at GRP Partners, for example likes to flip things on their head.”I like to ask in reverse in interviews, “If we did get aligned to offer you this role, do you plan on accepting? What other offers do you have? What do we need to do to win? What steps do you still need before you decide to go with us?”

One of the mistakes most companies make is to make the interview process too formal. This just won’t work for a digital start up so try instead to have a conversation. Of course by all means use your questions as prompts but feel free to go off piste if the conversation is flowing. It gives your potential candidate the room to relax and talk at ease about what they love, their experience and why they want to work for you. It will also allow you much more scope to get to know the person better and find out whether they’ll be a good fit for your company.

However, do make sure that you have a document listing well defined set of criteria that you are looking for and use this same document to evaluate every candidate for the same role.

This will mean that you ask each candidate the same questions in the interview (but not necessarily in the same order) and evaluate each candidate against the same criteria, which is essential.

Action step:

For your next round of interviews – remember that you are selling your digital agency or startup as much as each candidate is selling themselves. (For more about sales – see my free ebook)

7. Speak at Industry Conferences

Tech conferences can be a great way of finding possible new hires. Already you are at an advantage because the type of designers and developers who attend conferences are already showing some of the skills you need: initiative, passion for their job and a willingness to learn. It also gives you a chance to informally meet lots of different types of designers and developers – which will give you a better idea of what you are looking for without their CV getting in the way. For example you might end up meeting a developer whose experience and enthusiasm wows you but if you’d simply been greeted with his (terrible) CV first you wouldn’t have even given him the time of day.

Speaking at industry events can also be a way of giving your business more exposure and getting designers and developers to come to you. Perhaps before the conference they hadn’t heard of your company but on hearing you speak they realize they share many of the same values and feel enthusiastic about your product offering?

Don’t forget – mention that you are ‘always hiring’ in your talk.

You’ll find at conferences that you are much more likely to engage in inspiring conversations with people; something you’ll often struggle to get out of a potential candidate at interview stage. At a conference, people will be buzzing from talks and excited to discuss their ideas. This is a great platform for you to seek out highly innovative people.

Many entrepreneurs find conferences an incredibly successful way of building relationships with other people in the industry. Tugdal Grall for example, leveraged attending tech conferences to not only learn new skills and improve his current products but  also to meet lots of other like-minded developers.

8. For developers – Sponsor a Hackathon

A really good technique for finding new developers is to sponsor a hackathon. As we discussed earlier in this post, the best talent will inevitably already have a job – so how can you get access to them? Sponsor a hackthon. By sponsoring a hackathon you gain access to some of the most brilliant and dynamic minds in the business. Not only that, you get to see them in action and find out what they can really do in a competitive environment. The types of developers that attend hackathons are those that are incredibly driven, want to improve on what they already know and test their own knowledge. In other words – it’s a hot bed for awesome developers. Sponsoring a hackathon gives you great insights into the people involved. You’ll be able to see what type of work they produce (rather than simply relying on their word and a few references to back it up) and how they respond to working with your product.

Hackathons really bring out the best talent and a great example of that is 17 year old Jennie Lamere. Back in April 2013 Jennie won the grand prize at hackathon TVnext Hack event for her innovative hack called Twivo. The hack ensures you don’t succumb to TV spoilers on Twitter by enabling you to filter out any mentions of your favourite TV show. Want to meet more Jennies in the world? Then get out and sponsor a hackathon.

9. Offer a finder’s fee

And finally…..

Just in case you’re still not convinced that there is a worldwide war on talent – then take a look at what Hubspot are doing in the US. They are offering $30,000 to anyone that refers an ‘awesome’ developer that they go on to hire.

Yes you read that correctly, $30,000.

Certainly puts into perspective the value they put on one good developer. (As an aside – I also like that fact that they have to state in the rules that you can’t refer yourself!)

Lesser known companies such as Amicus are also doing the same thing but at a lower level.

I would recommend that all digital agencies and startups put in place a similar scheme to encourage referrals. It is easy to set up, and there is little risk providing you only pay for exceptional people that stay for at least 3 months.

Action step:

Create a ‘Refer a friend’ page on your web site using two examples above for inspiration.


Attracting great people to your digital agency or startup should be thought of one of your main jobs on a day to day basis, rather than just when you need someone urgently.

I hope some (or all) of the 9 strategies in this post help you on the way to creating the world-class team you’ve been dreaming of!

In the meantime – good luck and ‘Always Be Hiring’!

Are you looking to recruit a designer or developer? What avenue will you take? Or perhaps you have recently recruited for your startup? Which ways did you find effective? Let me know in the comment below!

Photo Credit: http://www.topdesignmag.com/45-awesome-job-recruitment-ads/ , http://www.smartrecruiters.com/, http://jobmob.co.il/blog/funny-ikea-job-interview-cartoon/


  1. Great article Steve – you have perhaps overlooked one key strategy;

    ‘Have a load of cash in the bank to pay them or failing that, cope with what’s on offer’

    • Really appreciate the feedback Nick – thank you. You’re right that you need to allocate some budget to building a team but great people don’t also need to be expensive. Some of my clients have had great success with recent graduates who have out to be superstars – so if budget is limited perhaps you could go the grad route? Also have you considered giving equity (on a vested basis) to any superstars?

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