How to Source Top Designers for your Startup

In this guide, we’re going to outline exactly how you can run a DIY process used by top recruiters to find and source the best design talent for your role. This guide can save you time and money as you navigate the tricky process of finding, vetting and hiring design talent.

A Guaranteed Way to Source Qualified Talent

As startup founders competing for top-tier talent, we often don’t have the luxury to post a new job, sit back, and watch thousands of designers apply to our Founding Designer or Head of Design role. You’ll post on LinkedIn, receive hundreds of applications, out of which maybe 1 or 2 fit even the basic criteria for your ideal hire. You'll scout Dribbble and find that your ideal product hire isn't hanging out there. You'll message friends and investors for intros and hope that they know someone who knows someone. You’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and it’s lot of work.

It doesn't have to be this way.

The best-fit designers for your role aren’t always going to come to you. In order to find them in the shortest time possible, you need to run a proactive search to seek out designers you like and get them interested in your role.

Balancing speed and quality in design hiring

By running an intentional search for designers who fit all the criteria you’re looking for and then reaching out to pitch them your role, you will attract a smaller but higher-quality pool of design candidates. This outbound approach to hiring is one of the highest leverage ways to hire talent, and we're going to break down exactly how you can run this process internally.

Tools needed to execute

You don’t need fancy HR tools to run an outbound recruiting process. Here’s our simple recommendation for a tool stack you can use:

  • LinkedIn Recruiter Lite (~$120/mo) — to source candidates according to your criteria
  • Gem (free for startups) or Betterleap ($100/mo/seat) — to schedule personalized email sequences with follow-ups.
  • Gmail account for outreach ($10/mo) — ideally not your primary domain

The Simple Formula for Founders

  1. Sourcing: Find designers that fit your criteria using Linkedin Recruiter Lite
  2. Vetting: Review and vet profiles for high quality work and experience
  3. Outreach: Craft personalized emails to each designer describing the job opportunity
  4. Interview: Add interested candidates to your hiring funnel
  5. Hire your ideal designer 🎉

The beauty of this process is that it can be tailored to your specific startup, your role, your requirements, and the things you would want in an ideal designer. The process has very clear inputs (consistent outreach) which result in predictable outputs (candidates interested in your role).

Depending on how fast you want to move and close your hire — you can scale this process to email just 5 designers per week, or 50 designers per week. Just like sales, the more qualified leads you reach out to, the more likely you will have qualified candidates in your funnel.

An Example Funnel

Here’s an example funnel from sourcing to a final design hire:

  1. 100 designer profiles sourced
  2. 50 designers vetted and ready for personalized outreach
  3. 9 designers reply to outreach
  4. 4 designers interested in the role
  5. 2 qualify for the next round of interviews
  6. Repeat

In this example, for every 100 designers you source, you can expect to add 2-3 qualified designers to your talent pool. The good news is that every candidate added to your funnel through this process is a highly-vetted, qualified designer that meets your requirements of an ideal hire.

By spending about 10-15 hours per week on this sourcing process, we'd estimate that you can add about 3-4 candidates to your hiring funnel every week. Depending on your familiarity with crafting effective copy, vetting portfolios and interviewing designers — you can expect to tweak Steps 1-3 above in order to get the best results.

Knowing how busy life is as a founder, you can also leverage help from a specialized talent network of designers like DesignBake, which curates and vets talent for you — saving you hundreds of hours and the dozens of hurdles that come with effectively running this process in-house. We aim to close roles within the first 10 design candidates we introduce to a founder – often in as quickly as 30 days, even for senior roles.

Tactical Tips for Effective Sourcing

In our experience, using LinkedIn to source candidates has the best ROI when doing outbound recruiting. Other design communities and networks like Dribbble, Behance, etc, are not as dense as LinkedIn and will not give you the same reach.

  1. Filters: Use LinkedIn filters like “company size”, “years of experience”, “location”, and “keywords” to narrow down designers based on your requirements. Aim to narrow down to about 200-300 profiles based on the boolean search you’re using.
  2. Flags to look for: Look for designers who have stayed in previous roles for 2+ years ideally (being considerate of personal breaks, family leaves, pandemic layoffs, etc). We recommend not selecting for folks who have only done agency work, or only ever worked at FAANG companies. Don’t over-index for big company experience – not every designer from Google and Meta is a good fit for your role.
  3. Portfolios: As you sift through LinkedIn profiles, take a look at a designer’s portfolios to make a decision on whether you should add them to your outreach pool or not. Watch out for portfolios that feel too low quality compared to someone's level of experience — it may likely be an old or outdated portfolio. If you can’t find someone’s portfolio listed on their public LinkedIn profile, do a quick Google search with “{their name} design" to find their portfolio. Don’t rule out people that don’t have an active or public portfolio available.

Tactical Tips for Crafting Outreach Copy

Design is a much smaller talent pool compared to other functions, and hence the competition for top talent can be even more fierce than in other roles like engineering. Your best tool as a founder is to write a compelling pitch that answers questions like:

  1. Why should I consider this job over other offers that I may be getting?
  2. What’s compelling about your startup and founders to make me explore this as a serious opportunity?
  3. What proof points can you share that this is a valuable opportunity for me when I think about the opportunity cost of working at a startup?

Other tips for powerful copywriting:

  1. Keep it short and sweet: Use simple language. Use Hemingway App to make sure it passes as Grade 5 or 6 language. Don’t use decorative words ‘visionary’, ‘innovative’, 'strategic', etc. but instead describe what about your product/company actually makes it so.
  2. Personalize your emails: To maximize reply rates, your best bet is to write an overarching email template and then personalize the first line or two to each designer that you’re reaching out to. This can be a heavy time investment, but it will result in higher reply rates — and, ultimately, more quality candidates in your hiring funnel.
  3. Add 2-3 follow-ups: Always add follow-ups to your main outreach email – there are plenty of reasons why someone may miss your first email. Keep a gap of 3-4 business days between each follow-up so it’s actually a helpful reminder vs. just being spammy.

Real-world Examples

Here are some examples of results from our own outbound sourcing that we’ve seen. Note that the average reply rates to outbound recruiting are 18.8%, according to Gem’s report. For all the outreach we’ve done so far at DesignBake (thousands of emails), we've been able to optimize our reply rates to be 2.8x higher than average (54.4%). This means that we're almost 3x more likely to hear back from candidates through our outreach compared to generalist recruiters.

Series B startup. 69% reply rates and 11 design candidates interested
Pre-seed, funded startup. 75% reply rate and 9 design candidates interested.
Seed-stage funded startup. 72% reply rate and 11 design candidates interested.

Advantages of Outbound Recruiting

  1. Data-driven: Just like sales, it can be operationalized and scaled. The more qualified ‘leads’ you reach out to with personalized messages, the more your chances of hearing back from qualified talent for your role.
  2. Predictable input and output: With each round of outreach, you will be able to better predict how many leads you need to reach out to in order to add X number of people to your hiring funnel
  3. High-quality bar: You can keep as high of a quality bar as you’d like. The higher your quality bar, the more time & effort you will need to invest in the upfront vetting of a designer’s profile and portfolio.
  4. Immediate results: Unlike other hiring channels like ‘building a brand’ or ‘becoming a thought leader in your industry’, outbound recruiting can yield immediate results for your hiring goals.
  5. Reach passive talent: By proactively reaching out to talent you admire or want to work with, you will be able to reach top candidates before they even get on the market and start applying to other roles.

Saving time with Design Hiring

As you can see from the process outlined above, outbound recruiting is a guaranteed way to add high-quality candidate leads to your hiring funnel. However, the biggest investment in this process is the time and dedicated effort required to source designers, vet portfolios, write copy, and manage the outbound campaigns.

For founders focused on building their product, learning from their customers, and scaling their processes, running an effective recruiting effort doesn’t always fit on the plate.
In this case, working with specialized talent partners for design roles can save hundreds of hours and help you navigate the hiring puzzle, landing your ideal hire with minimal time required.

At DesignBake, we’ve helped early-stage founders hire for key roles such as Head of Design, Founding Designer, and Senior Designers, etc. Reach out here to set up some time to chat about your design hiring needs.