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By Olga Levitsky

why telling your startup story is important to hiring top talent

In his autobiography, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple, John Sculley recounts the pitch from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs that convinced him to leave his position as president at PepsiCo for the CEO position at the young company: “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Even a legendary company like Apple starts somewhere, and in 1983, just before the launch of the original Macintosh, Apple was a growing company in need of senior management expertise and marketing talent. Famous for the “Pepsi Challenge” marketing campaign, Sculley was already a legendary executive when Jobs decided he was the one who could take Apple to the next level.

But why would a highly paid, senior leader in Sculley’s position take a job at a comparatively tiny firm? Jobs knew that the most talented workers wanted to be part of a great story, and he knew that Apple had one. He helped Sculley see the potential of leading a massive shift in the technology industry.

Startups are constantly challenged with the need to bring in expertise for roles with unclear paths and questionable potential. Kieran Snyder’s recent article forVentureBeat offers hope with a study on the different motivators that drive people to accept jobs at startups versus established firms.

Snyder notes that startup engineers identified “challenge” as the top factor in selecting a new job, versus engineers at corporations, who called out pay. But what does an engineer consider a challenge? And what about finance professionals, marketers, sales professionals, HR leaders, and the many other experts who can turn a startup into a fully functional enterprise?

Startups tend to make three common mistakes in communicating with potential new hires:

Putting the benefits before the story

Startup founders often like to enumerate the great benefits of working at their company: a great team, flexible hours, stock options, free sodas, and foosball. But founders forget that these benefits (and, often, better ones) are widely available to talented workers. By leading with benefits, founders are answering the question of what perks new hires will get by working at the company, and not why they should join in the first place. A successful business story usually identifies the problem, and how the company intends to (or is uniquely positioned to) solve it. The problem is the hook for the most talented workers, who want to feel that they will be overcoming an important challenge and not just working a job.

Telling a story the company can’t support

There’s a natural tendency to adapt our message to the preferences of our audience, but in recruiting this can go too far. In an effort to attract a very desirable candidate, founders can feel compelled to describe their company in a way they believe will resonate with the potential hire, irrespective of how the company actually functions. Owning up to your limitations and constraints is essential to building the trust to create a great team. As business guru Tom Peters recalls in arecent interview with McKinsey Quarterly, “The first partner I worked for at McKinsey had the self-assurance to look a chief executive officer in the eye and say, ‘We don’t know what the hell’s going on. Can we play with this together?’” Acknowledging where you are honestly and communicating where you want to go will always be more successful than pretending to be something that you are not. Moreover, opening up about gaps in the businesses can help candidates picture themselves filling a specific niche, and gives them a natural part to play in the company’s story.

 Telling a story to the candidate

Founders are excited about their own company, and can often talk at length about it. For potential hires, though, being told a story is much less exciting than hearing about how they can become a part of it. Founders who hire successfully ask more questions than they give answers, letting candidates guide the conversation and make their own connections to the startup’s core message. Allowing new hires to interactively build their own connections to the company’s story makes them characters in it, rather than audience members. Even if they don’t join, their engagement with the company’s message will make them great advocates in the future, and help them spread your message to other potential hires.

While we laud Steve Jobs as a uniquely capable communicator, his ability to recruit impressive talent can be replicated at any firm that gets its story straight. Knowing the essentials of your company’s own story and being able to communicate it in a way that makes potential hires feel like they can be part of its evolution are the keys to convincing great talent to join you in your mission.

This post originally ran in the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.