Startup Hiring Advice from Lever CEO Sarah Nahm with Holly Liu

by Y Combinator7/10/2019

Sarah Nahm is the CEO and cofounder of Lever. Lever builds modern recruiting software for teams to source, interview, and hire top talent. They were in the Summer 2012 batch of YC. You can try Lever out at

Holly Liu is a Visiting Partner at YC. Before that she cofounded the gaming company Kabam.

You can find Sarah on Twitter @srhnhm and Holly is @hollyhliu.


00:05 – Did Sarah grow up thinking she’d be a founder?

7:25 – Why did she decide to leave Google and start Lever?

13:20 – Thinking about product in the early days of Lever

15:15 – Fundraising and figuring out the team

23:30 – How do you figure out someone’s career motivations?

26:50 – Getting concrete when interviewing

28:45 – Hiring remote employees

31:35 – Writing job descriptions around impact

37:05 – Eva Zhang asks – What’s the biggest roadblock you faced in trying to make hiring more inclusive to diverse candidates?

41:30 – What does thinking about inclusion mean at a small company?

46:45 – Not buying into technical and nontechnical people

49:50 – Setting up a culture that allows for conversations about diversity and inclusion


Google Play


Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Sarah Nahm and Holly Liu. Sarah is the CEO and co-founder of Lever. Lever builds modern recruiting software for teams to source, interview and hire top talent. They were in the Summer 2012 batch of YC. You can try Lever out at Holly is a visiting partner at YC. Before that she co-founded the gaming company Kabam. You can find Sarah on Twitter @srhnhm and Holly is @hollyhlui. All right, here we go. Sarah and Holly, welcome to the podcast.

Holly Liu [00:38] – Thanks for having us.

Sarah Nahm [00:39] – Yeah, I’m pumped.

Craig Cannon [00:40] – Holly you have a question to start it off.

Holly Liu [00:42] – I’m super curious. Did you ever see yourself becoming a founder? A founding CEO?

Sarah Nahm [00:48] – Oh my gosh! I have to honestly say no. Growing up, I could not have grown up further from Silicon Valley. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, so Deep South, and kind of back then I probably wanted to be a different thing when I grew up every three months. I was dabbling in anything, I was dabbling in everything, but probably the one thing I spent a lot of time on was social justice. I volunteered at the Civil Rights Institute, because all the amazing people that were a part of the Civil Rights movement they’re obviously still around and they’re still doing amazing work and that just was something that so defined like my experience of growing up in Alabama. When I came out to Stanford for school, for college, I was the first person from my high school to go west of the Mississippi river for college in years and I had no idea what I wanted to do or who I wanted to become and I think that that period at Stanford was a really interesting one. Pre-med was still the number one major, which has since changed to CS, and it wasn’t super obvious that you as an undergraduate could be a founder and my freshman class at Stanford was the first class to start with Facebook and that really changed so much in Silicon Valley where young people now were seen as people who could innovate and that could bring kind of game changing ideas to market. I can remember so many kind of moments where the people around me were stepping into taking the leap stepping into these kinds of roles and positions

Sarah Nahm [02:39] – where they were just going for it and I think subconsciously that influenced me, but consciously it did not. I studied design and I always thought I was just going to go into design consulting.

Craig Cannon [02:50] – You were going to like take a job at IDEO?

Sarah Nahm [02:52] – 100%.

Craig Cannon [02:52] – And just see what happens, yeah.

Sarah Nahm [02:53] – Exactly, yeah. And I love it, I mean I was like drinking the Kool-Aid, mixing the Kool-Aid, distributing the Kool-Aid to everybody else. Design thinking was–

Craig Cannon [02:59] – Post-its.

Sarah Nahm [03:01] – Oh, yes. Oh my God I love post-its. It’s going to solve everything. I mean, I got to admit it’s still a huge part of how I see the world. It’s still a huge part of how, like what I bring to my company. So I totally thought that’s what I was going to do. And it was a total–

Craig Cannon [03:14] – And you ended up at Google?

Sarah Nahm [03:15] – Yeah, total surprise to me, ending up at Google.

Holly Liu [03:18] – Was that you’re first job of Stanford?

Sarah Nahm [03:20] – Yeah and I was very unfocused in my job search. I think the only way I even ended up, quote unquote, applying to Google, was like I was dropping off some form for a friend at Stanford’s career development center and there was somebody there who worked there that was like, “Oh, are you going to sign up for the Google interviews?” Ooh, that’s a, that’s, really fast, did you sign up? A part of me is sort of like, look, total privilege check, because it’s not like, you know, it’s not normal, so to speak, for there to be a clipboard with a pencil dangling from it for you to sign your name up for like an amazing kind of career opportunity, but that was right in front of me and it was–

Holly Liu [04:03] – Did you know what you were signing up for? Like will you do design or you it was just–

Sarah Nahm [04:08] – Oh, not at all. I just kind of went in to it and was curious and was engaged and I think I was one of those annoying ones who couldn’t make up my mind and I just like had this outstanding offer for like months. Literally nine months before I officially kind of made the decision and I think even then I didn’t know what I would do until my first day of work. That’s the whole story.

Craig Cannon [04:34] – Because you were in that program where you transfer around, right?

Sarah Nahm [04:35] – Exactly.

Holly Liu [04:35] – Ah.

Sarah Nahm [04:37] – The associates program. But it’s super funny because I showed up to the new hire orientation and you get your laptop and all the things and then they have this moment where you’re all sitting around in the main cafeteria, Charlie’s, and you’re supposed to get picked up by your manager. I’m waiting to find out like what I’m doing and I’m still sitting there kind of at the end when everybody’s all like set, because my first job out of college was total kind of like, came out of left field thing. I ended being a speech writer, which I never saw coming, and it was a job that nobody had had before, for specifically supporting Marisa Meyer so you know, she was a little tied up, so she couldn’t come get me at Charlie’s, But I think in a weird way that was probably my crash course in a lot of what it is to be a founder, because I had to kind of create something out of nothing and figure out what I was doing and be really bad at it for a while and I think also in hindsight, so many lessons learned about leadership and strategy and just getting to be a fly on the wall to conversations way, way, way above my pay-grade and out of my element. Really amazing experience and I think like to stay super grateful for it.

Sarah Nahm [06:05] – I obviously, I spent time on other things at Google too. Notably I spent a lot of time on the Chrome team, which was just incredible, incredible people. Sindar was like leading that initiative at the time, that was amazing. My direct boss is like this amazing, kind of growth guy, marketing guy, creative guy, who would go on to be the Head of Marketing at Instagram. So yeah, just some amazing people around me.

Holly Liu [06:29] – I got to ask though, when you speech write do you use post-its?

Sarah Nahm [06:33] – Oh, 100%.

Holly Liu [06:34] – Oh, that’s impressive.

Sarah Nahm [06:35] – Yeah, I also take it the other way around, which is when I design mocks, I use Keynote. The prototyping tool. Yeah, so.

Holly Liu [06:42] – Oh, I like that. Yeah, I think there’s so many insights from a design kind of practice that I think are super applicable to being a founder, to being a CEO. You know for a while I was actually really sad, because I was spending less and less time on product and for someone who loves product, that was actually really hard. I felt like this sense of loss, but then I sort of started reframing a lot of the work that I was doing as a founder around, “Hey, you know, I still work on a product, the product is this company and I still have to do user research, it’s just that my users are my employees and my customers.” That same process for you know, generating a clear strategy around user needs was just as needed if not more so and that product–

Sarah Nahm [07:30] – That design thinking coming back.

Holly Liu [07:33] – Yeah, I know, so I really got to to say that to me, I think more designers should be founders. I think that that skill set is so, so relevant to the work it takes to actually get a lot of people together to work in a system and to create value from scratch. Definitely I think there’s some amazing designer founders out there, but a part of me wishes that there were way more.

Craig Cannon [07:57] – Yeah, there could be way more. To me it’s not obvious. Obviously you jumped around at Google, but it’s non-obvious as to how a speech writer goes on to found Lever.

Sarah Nahm [08:08] – Yeah, not really obvious to me either.

Craig Cannon [08:09] – Right, which is probably fair for most people in the world, but like, was three a point when you’re at Google where you thought to yourself, “You know what, I’m going to go be a founder?” How did you decide? Why did you leave? How did you decide to start Lever? How did that go?

Sarah Nahm [08:23] – I think like so many founders, a path is non-linear. You read in mainstream media about these lightning strike moments that suddenly happen. I mean I think that’s all just media, right? The personal experience of founding a company it’s, first of all it’s a period of time, it’s not a strike of lightning. I think that even leaving Google, I didn’t leave to start a company. I think I left to just grow and experience more things and ended up pursuing a lot of different stuff. Things ranging from just personal projects to obviously working with several early stage teams and I think personally a lot of what I was really doing at the time that was on the path to founding a company, was experiencing working with a lot of different types of people. You could say that my co-founders and I were almost trying out working with each other for a while before we like actually, officially went for it. That’s a huge part of it and I credit the fit to my co-founders for a lot of the success that we’ve had as a company. In a weird way, I don’t think I was doing it consciously at the time, but making sure that you’re finding the right people is like probably the hardest to predict, but most important part of that super, super early stage.

Holly Liu [09:48] – Was it very, it seems like you found the people and you were working together, but the idea wasn’t quite there. Google was probably still on this rocket ship when you decided to leave, or doing really well, like what was the most difficult thing to overcome to just say, I’m going to be on this, like what was the thing that A, propelled you forward and then what was the most difficult thing in getting you to leave? It’s cushy there.

Sarah Nahm [10:13] – Oh, sure. First of all I just have to say like huge privilege track, like having been at Stanford, having been at Google. It’s not lost on me that there’s a lot of opportunity open to you and I think at the time I knew that and I knew that, you know, in a way there was no good and bad choice spectrum. It was like all shades of good. Like a lot of people I just knew that I had an opportunity just in my life overall to take risks and try things out and really like grow my sphere of experience and took that which I think people who have it, should embrace it and then people who don’t have it, I mean, I don’t think should beat themselves up about having to think a little bit harder on taking the leap. In terms of leaving Google, that was easy. I think in a way it always kind of like felt like there’s just more to experience. Starting Lever was harder. For one we just didn’t know exactly what we were going to do at first. Very few teams know exactly what they’re going to do and probably the biggest thing to truly getting started was again, people. Believing in the people that you’re working with, believing in the people around you. Secondly, believing in a change that’s happening in the world and I think distant third to that is believing that you have what it takes to like, bring some value that speaks to that change, right? That reacts to that change. The change that we were really believing in,

Sarah Nahm [11:58] – that I think has really played out ever since was the world was, this is like 2012 when the founders of Lever kind of all got together and we just saw that the world was quickly becoming a world where revenue, competitive differentiation, innovation, was all driven by talent. You look at what was limiting the growth of companies. It was that they couldn’t hire enough engineers, they couldn’t hire enough sales people. You think about what was causing some companies to win over others. It was because there was some sort of like 10X talent thing happening that lead to some sort of leap frog in what they’re bringing to market or some sort of like better marketing strategies. Essentially, what was happening is, just like kind of software was eating the world, knowledge work was eating the world. As kind of technology and digital transformation was playing out in every single industry, even the most blue of blue collar work, manufacturing, was transforming into something that looked a lot more like knowledge work. You don’t need just undifferentiated, assembly line workers. You needed people who could program a robotic arm or rethink manufacturing process, right? That was happening in every single industry and it was really transforming how organizations had to think about people and HR and hiring, because kind of gone were the days of, my parents’ generation where you kind of join a company and you work your way up the career ladder,

Sarah Nahm [13:33] – like my dad has had very few employers his whole career. He stays in them for decades, right? Nowadays, like millennials, Gen Z, they’re entering the work force and like people are staying at jobs for like three, four, five years. In Silicon Valley maybe even less.

Craig Cannon [13:51] – I think it’s 18 months or something right now. Did you guys feel, was there a unique insight in the beginning or were you just like, we’re going to go, we see this change happening and we’re just going to build a newer better version? How did you approach product in the beginning?

Sarah Nahm [14:05] – Oh my gosh, well like first of all, the beginning, that blurry period, that probably lasted two and a half years. I would say, you know we were super engaged in making sure we were defining the problem and I think like in a way, probably different from other companies, we didn’t rush too quickly to solutions. Well, I should say we actually did, and then we’ve always been kind of at the end of the day, driven by our users and our customers and making sure that we’re being honest to them and holding ourselves accountable to them. You can think that you’re delivering this game-changing such and such platform, something-something, but what your customers say about you or what they say to their friends when they’re talking about your software, that’s ultimately who you are, right? I would actually say that first we built an entire thing and actually had to kind of come to terms with, what our customer feedback kind of was and we had built just something incremental and we had built something that was just a better version of what was there before. So we threw it out. And I think went back to the core fundamentals so, yeah, you kind of ask like did we know what we were building? I think that while we didn’t know literally what product or what solution we were going to bring to market from the beginning, what we did know was how we were going to hold ourselves accountable and that was through listening to our customers.

Craig Cannon [15:32] – Though you were in the start-up game, which implies VC, which implies pitching VC. So how was that process? Even your industry wasn’t as much of a thing as it is now seven years later. What was that process like in 20, did you fundraise in 2012? You’re in the Winter batch, right?

Sarah Nahm [15:55] – We did our first meaningful round of fundraising series A, in October 2014. I would definitely say 2012 to 2014 was that process of us figuring out what problem we’re solving, how to achieve product market fit, how to build that traction that you want to show and in that period we also discovered a lot about ourselves as a team. In that period just for me personally, I went from being an individually contributing designer to literally kind of on the eve of our Series A, we had signed a term sheet, but hadn’t closed the round. Kind of we as a team collectively agreed I should be CEO. You figure out a lot in that period and if you’re not confronting like those hard things about who are we and what are we here to do? Who am I and what am I doing? I think that you can put it off for just so long before it actually starts to intersect with what you can achieve as a company, as a team. When I think of those early days… All fronts we were figuring out who we were and it’s some of the most fun and terrifying you know, chapters we had at Lever.

Craig Cannon [17:11] – Yeah, those are stressful years. Now we’re way further down the timeline and you do have a kind of unique positions on recruiting, culture, and diversity. Back then I assume you were just, again, figuring stuff out, right? A lot of our listeners are early founders and they are competing against Facebook and Google, Google, I was going to call it the Goog. Facebook and Google and every big tech company, right? How do you differentiate as a small start-up and land the top talent?

Sarah Nahm [17:46] – It’s so true. It’s a global talent market and it’s competitive in so many ways and like every start-up, I think, does have this experience of there’s well resourced recruiting machines that are kind of out there and on the flip side early stage start-ups have such a unique opportunity to offer. Advice for start-ups is to spend actually thinking about what truly is your value prop, actually figuring out how you’re going to approach hiring and what is kind the way that you can almost use your culture in all of it’s unique glory as like go on the offense with it, because that’s like, you can so kind of run circles around a lot of the competition by bringing that experience of what it’s like to work at your company into the candidate experience. That there’s so many kind of like, hand-to-hand combat tactics that start-ups can employ that gives them, frankly a much better shot at recruiting the most talented people, than these sort of large environments.

Holly Liu [18:55] – Can you give us an example that you guys did at Lever?

Sarah Nahm [18:58] – Oh my gosh, yeah, 100%. I think the first thing is proactive recruiting. Any start-up out there that’s just posting a job and waiting for great people to apply. Shame. Shame to all of you. Hiring is like, hiring is the strategy when you’re a start-up. There’s a period at which you can be the best founder on the planet and you will be holding your own company back if you haven’t figured out how to truly prioritize hiring, how to truly invest in it and how to do it damn well. Can we swear on this podcast?

Craig Cannon [19:43] – Hm-mm. you can swear as much as you fucking want, yeah.

Holly Liu [19:47] – How did you guys proactively do it, I mean you’re usually so stretched thin when you’re starting out and–

Sarah Nahm [19:52] – This is actually like a concrete thing. Proactive recruitment, I think it’s like the, it’s going outbound, right? In the same way you wouldn’t just throw up a website and wait for customers to come find you, you’ve got to actually reach out to people and the first thing that everybody tells you is reach out to your network. You’ll tap that out at some point. You should still do it, still do it, but you’ll tap that out at some point and then I think what you have to start doing is getting really confident reaching out to people who you think are going to be strong fits at your company that you’re finding, not just on LinkedIn, though you should and then you’ll tap it out. Get creative, like look at meet-ups, look at Eventbrite, look at GitHub, GitHub’s a great place to meet people if you actually kind of know like what your technology value prop is or you know.

Holly Liu [20:39] – What’s been the most surprising source for you guys. Something you just didn’t expect, you’re like, “Wow, I would not have expected to find a great candidate here or something…”

Sarah Nahm [20:48] – Book clubs.

Holly Liu [20:50] – Oh, that’s cool.

Sarah Nahm [20:51] – Honestly we have so many amazing and unique hiring stories in our company. Our team, so my engineering org has largely been built up by my co-founder, Nate Smith, who, we are a recruiting software company. We think a lot about hiring, 81% of his team was proactively sourced and I would say that you can genuinely find people and connect with people anywhere and I think the other thing that’s been remarkable about hiring strategy has been, so many people that we actually hire, we actually met them and nurtured those relationships.

Holly Liu [21:27] – Ah, so you actually several times enacted–

Sarah Nahm [21:30] – Two, three years ago.

Holly Liu [21:32] – Oh, two to three years, wow.

Sarah Nahm [21:33] – Yeah, it comes back around. You’re investing in, I don’t want to call it a database of talent. It’s like you’re investing in relationships and like, you may not see returns from those immediately, but, those are going to be the people that actually when it is their right time, like when they’re ready to make their next move, their already going to be familiar with your team, with your culture, with your mission. They actually get hired, we have the data to prove this, like 35% faster than people who are meeting you for the first time. People are familiar with the cliche that as a founder you should be spending like 50% of your time on hiring. I’m just like it’s a cliche because it’s true and I think hiring just takes so may forms and I think like one thing is obviously go out and meet people. No expectations, no strings attached, let’s just meet. Second thing you can do is encourage people on your team to do the same and that’s really tough. Actually for whatever reason, people feel awkward pitching their friends about job opportunities. Can’t imagine why. Can’t imagine why that would be awkward.

Holly Liu [22:44] – Do you want to make some money? Great opportunity.

Sarah Nahm [22:45] – Well, you know, I’m being a little facetious, because yeah, it is a little awkward. It’s awkward to sort of like, you know, sell something like that, because it’s so important, but then on the flip side everybody has so much passion about like why they joined. Everybody really does feel really strongly about the start-up they’re working for and I think actually as a founder one of the most impactful things you can do is help your team find it’s authentic voice about why they give so much of a damn about your company’s mission and why they joined and what it’s done for them and what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown and you don’t have to say anything about the other person. Just telling your authentic story is an incredible, incredible thing and so I would say that if any founder out there right now is trying to do a lot of hiring, go book a team off site where you actually help people come up with their authentic story for why they are so committed to this company and just watch it transform, the conversations that they’re having. Build some email campaigns if you will.

Craig Cannon [23:55] – Related to this, you talked about motivation fit at the YC hiring event a couple of weeks ago. Which basically describes like, is this person’s goal in they’re career and in the near term at least, aligned with where your company is at and their impact that they’re going to have. How do you suss out someone’s motivation when you’re…? It’s kind of crude to talk about it, but building this two, three year database of people you meet like having coffees with or whatever. How do you figure out their motivation?

Sarah Nahm [24:24] – Great question. The simple answer is really just ask and the more complex answer is get really good at listening. The simple kind of way, it’s, I think if you ask people where are you taking your career, what have you done in your past career decisions that have been most meaningful to you, what is it that you’re doing at your current job that you’d like to do more of, what are the things you’re not getting to do at your current job that you hope you get to do in your next one? All those are ways to like get some of the facts, but I think fundamentally to me, at Lever our first stage of our hiring process, it’s not phone screen, it’s not something like that’s just it’s motivation filled. Literally that’s what the name of the stage is, because I think it’s, it is kind of at the root of your best hires and it’s also at the root of your worst hires if you don’t get it right, I think that what I’m listening for when I’m asking people these questions, it’s usually to suss out is this the right stage for people? Ambiguity is kind of famously, the huge factor of the experience of being at an early stage start-up and finding people that thrive with ambiguity or finding people that really love the diversity of problems that you’re going to be solving. You got to make sure to have an ear to listen for when people are really actually ready for that. When they’re excited about that. Another thing to listen for is, when people are sort of looking to,

Sarah Nahm [26:10] – say take a big impactful role at a company, because everybody’s going to say they’re looking for impact. When somebody says l they’re looking for impact, really do they know what that means for them? Is it generalities or do they actually have something that’s really like, like revealing that self-awareness of what for them is in it from their personal seat of experience. the more specifics someone’s gotten about their own career, the more maturity they bring to the role, the kind of more they can probably up-level your team. I think like simple answer, ask, just ask and then complex answer is really learn how to listen to how people express their thoughts about themselves at work and what they’re looking to get out of it, what they’re looking to do next and what they’re looking for in a team.

Holly Liu [27:01] – I certainly have a tactical question at this point. They used to train a lot interviewing around, tell me about a time when X, Y, and Z.

Sarah Nahm [27:10] – Oh yeah.

Holly Liu [27:11] – How do you, do you still feel like those can help suss out–

Sarah Nahm [27:13] – Totally.

Holly Liu [27:14] – To test for commitment or something like that.

Sarah Nahm [27:20] – Yeah, so getting concrete, you know, concrete examples, concrete situations as opposed to abstract, like brainteasers. I would summarize that as behavioral interviewing and I’m a big fan of behavioral interviewing especially for early stage start-ups and here’s why. You as a founder are hiring for a lot of roles you have never actually had personal experience doing those jobs. Beyond that nobody else at your company may have ever done that job. You’re operating on a lot of theory at this point and one way you can really de-risk hiring and also not be too clever about how you’re going to interview somebody is by actually just methodically asking them about their own career. What you can get really good at hearing in their story as a founder is what are they’re patterns of success. What are maybe their patterns of failure and just kind of like, you know your company really well, so you know whether your company has the contours for this person to be successful and I therefore am a huge fan of, you know we do a step in our process that we call career trajectory and it’s basically a behavioral interviewing interview where you go in and you just kind of start at college and go step by step by step through people’s career and allow them to tell you about it. It’s kind of basic, but it’s so impactful. If anybody’s really curious about looking into that,

Sarah Nahm [28:54] – we kind of modified a version of top grading, which you can google and find a lot of information about, but, I think it’s actually great to just give people the space to tell you about how they’ve kind of grown in their careers. You learn a lot about someone that way.

Craig Cannon [29:11] – In the context of remote work, do you have specific advice around finding out someone’s kind of working style, their dynamic. A common one I hear is, have they worked remotely before? That’s a good one right there, but are there other pieces of advice you have there?

Sarah Nahm [29:28] – Oh my gosh, I think this is where a lot of innovation is happening right now in hiring. People are sort of putting two and two together. Oh, it’s a global hiring market and then also thinking about, what would it mean if we actually just tapped in really meaningfully to that global hiring market with hiring anywhere. It’s tough, I think that there are clear benefits. I think obviously you get some advantages around you know, beating the market so to speak and tapping into a lot more like rare opportunities and a lot of, immediately upon hiring someone, it’s kind of like beating the, winning the game, you know? But then on the flip side, you’ve got to build a culture that can support remote work as a first class citizen and I think there’s some people that really nail it and they think about the details, they think about how meetings work, they think about how information’s transferred, they think about tribal knowledge and how you’re actually create, systems for information to flow freely, where as if you’re all co-located in the same office you kind of get it for free. Lever actually didn’t really embark on remote work until we were pretty late as a company and that was for people that had already worked in our company for a while and then like for maybe personal reasons or whatever needed to move. I would say that we’re just getting started with a second office where we’re now starting to actually meaningfully do some experimentation with their team composition, but we had kind of the other side of it

Sarah Nahm [31:04] – where we stayed together as long as possible and I think that was pretty intentional and I think it, I will say, connected to us being able to build a really strong culture together. It allowed us to, I think, really quickly, you know, I guess, like spread a lot those practices and it led to us certainly sharing a lot of the load of skilling the team really effortlessly. You know, again, pros, cons, I would also say that we had to get real good at hiring in a tight talent market, here at the Bay area, to be able to do that. I definitely think it’s a really huge talent strategy question that any founder that’s building a team right now has to ask themselves. What trade-offs do we want to make and go eyes wide open into like how if you’re going to accelerate hiring by really casting a wide net, hiring remote, “Okay how are we going to prepare our culture for that?”

Craig Cannon [32:04] – Another thing you mentioned in your talk, was how you write job postings which I really like. I just kind of like wrote down a few of my favorite points. You described it as, basically just describing the impact that you’ll have with that job.

Sarah Nahm [32:18] – Totally.

Craig Cannon [32:19] – Can you elaborate?

Sarah Nahm [32:21] – Absolutely, well I can kind of tell you the story. Just after we raised our Series A, big moment for us, right? We started talking about what we were going to do next, we start really strategizing about it and something that we knew we would be doing that we hadn’t really done up until that point was hiring a lot of people. We had been a really tight small team for a long time and here we were about to, double the team in a matter of months. Being a recruiting software company, we’re like, “Okay, well, we know a lot about recruiting, we know we really want to invest in like building a great recruiting process.” We decided to take an off-site, we all loaded ourselves into a van. Company was small enough that we fit in a van and went to Tahoe or something like that for a few days to actually really design how we were going to hire and what our hiring culture was going to be like and how were we going to design our candidate experience and by the way I’d recommend anybody who’s about to do a huge amount of growth to do some variant of this. One of the things that we kind of asked ourselves was like, “Well, when we start hiring for a role how are we going to know what jobs we need?” We actually developed this little exercise, it’s literally a Google doc that has text boxes and stuff we made that laid out, “Okay, what would someone with this job need to achieve in one, three, six, twelve months, right?” And specifically we tried to make them, not like tasks or like, you know,

Sarah Nahm [34:00] – start doing block, but impact, results, outcomes, right? Like, well ideally they’d improve web conversion from this to this or they, you know, actually nailing the results of success. We pat ourselves on the back. This was a great way to define a lot of jobs to be done. Now we had carved out all these amazing, I think you’re hiring a lot of generalists, you’re hiring a lot of athletes at that time so here we had this great way to define like our work and we thought we were, like really proud of ourselves. We actually were able to go out and start hiring with confidence, interviewing with confidence and we got all these amazing people at the door and they got pretty late stage we’d be like, “Oh yeah, here let’s share this internal doc that we have with you and people would just light up when they saw this.” “Oh my gosh, this is so clarified, so amazing,” and then we, it took us an embarrassingly long time, like probably six months until and be like, “Hey, why do we even write these boring job descriptions? Why don’t we just take these impact descriptions that candidates and people that end up actually joining the company find way more interesting and frankly accurate and you know all sorts of other adjectives. Like find way better, why don’t we just use that as the way that we talk about the jobs,” and ergo.

Craig Cannon [35:17] – Do you still list required skills for instance? Say I’m looking to apply for a job at Lever and it’s like you’re going to increase XY and Z and I’m like, I’m on it, and then you read the application, like this person has none of the required skills to like actually do that.

Sarah Nahm [35:36] – Every once in a while I think for some of our entry level jobs and we do know that there’s like a few things that really do feel like great assets to have coming in we list but actually if you go to like our career site, actually most of our jobs, like the vast, vast, vast majority are actually just written this way and I would attribute this impact descriptions as opposed to job descriptions as not just being one, like a great way to get the most talented people, like the top ten percentile of the talent market interested in your opportunities. It’s also been a huge driver for us of diversifying the people that are self selecting into applying, because by having this lengthy list of skills and requirements, you’re basically broadcasting to the world assumptions about what kind of people should apply and I think the beauty of impact descriptions is you are putting out kind of like a statement of what you are looking for and it welcomes people from non-traditional backgrounds like kind of tech outsiders, so to speak. To throw their hat in the ring and so I would say therefor that it’s not just more effective, you’re actually getting the top talent interested and those are the people that you want to hire, right? It’s also more inclusive and it’s really a thing more clarifying also. Teams do hiring and I think getting everybody aligned on what you’re looking for as founder, huge accelerator to being able to really scale hiring, to do it with confidence, to get lots of people who are all contributing to all be on the same page.

Craig Cannon [37:21] – It’s related, YC has the same thing. A lot of people from non-traditional tech backgrounds who might be into tech, look for reasons to disqualify themselves and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t go to Stanford and drop out, I didn’t go to MIT or whatever,” and like there–

Sarah Nahm [37:36] – They should redo the YC application with some impact descriptions.

Craig Cannon [37:41] – Yeah, it’s not a bad angle. Related to inclusion, Ava Zhang sent you in a question. She writes, “What’s the biggest roadblock you faced in trying to make hiring more inclusive to diverse candidates?”

Sarah Nahm [37:54] – Wow, there’s so many things going through my brain as I’m thinking about this. There’s a few levels. Like for one we as a recruiting software company, we’re trying to actually scale out how all of our customers, how the entire industry can make hiring more inclusive. We’ve got things that we’re doing on a product level that I think answer Ava’s question. Then of course we are a company that’s going through a lot of scale that is trying to like figure out our own culture and how to be more inclusive internally, so there’s also like that side of it. In terms of roadblock of making hiring more inclusive for the world, gosh there’s so much to be done there and there’s so much to be done there completely outside of software. I think the biggest roadblock is sometimes you’re sort of caught up in this tension where people would love for software to solve the problem and you as a software, as a technologist you have an opportunity to move the needle that way, but also I think it’s really important when we’re talking about a more equitable world that people do have to change and so the biggest roadblock probably is when people maybe hope that the problem can be solved easily without confronting kind of like these questions of what are we as people doing? It’s an opportunity for companies like Lever to actually drive a richer conversation around that and to make people maybe more aware that there’s things that they can do and I think in particular with things around diversity and inclusion, there really is that will.

Sarah Nahm [39:35] – I feel that year over year more and more people care. More and more companies from more and more verticals and stages are all coming forward and saying this is something that they want to invest in that they can’t ignore and if anything, you know this isn’t a roadblock, but maybe something that would remove roadblocks, I think people need more success stories out there. Because they’re happening and I think we see a lot of news reported on all the bad. It’d be great for you know, the stories about what is working and what is taking off to be out there. In terms of what we have done to make our hiring more inclusive, oh my gosh, I think we’re constantly running experiments. I am really happy to say that diversity and inclusion has been something that the team at Lever has made a huge part of our culture from day one and it’s not because we were diverse from day one. For two, two and a half years I was the only woman at Lever and it took us a long time also to diversify in other dimensions like race and ethnicity or having parents and people with like different family situations and people with different backgrounds all those different facets also came later. We always cared and I think we always had a vision for like what the culture could be and I would say probably the biggest roadblock people face to making their own teams and hiring more inclusive is thinking that it’s about demographics and thinking that they have to reflect the demographics of diversity before they’re allowed to make their culture more diverse or inclusive

Sarah Nahm [41:12] – and I actually give a lot of people advice like look, before you’re about to do a big investment into diversity in your recruiting and making kind of your hiring more diverse, I actually think it’s really critical to start by making sure your culture is inclusive. Because what’s the piont of hiring all this, quote, diverse talent if when they get there they’re not ready to succeed. Number one roadblock when founders think that because maybe they’re in a majority, they don’t have a credible ability to lead their company to have a strong D&I culture.

Craig Cannon [41:49] – It’s what we were talking about before we started recording. Now founders are not only tasked with leading the company, thinking of a great product, hitting product/market fit, doing all this other stuff, now they’re in charge of like being clued in completely with whatever is going on and whatever social issue. Let’s like spell this out a little bit more. Inclusion, what does that mean at a company that’s five people? What’s an example? How do I do that?

Sarah Nahm [42:17] – I can definitely tell you how conversation got sparked meaningfully at Lever and it was, who does the dishes?

Holly Liu [42:25] – Oh, interesting. Did they all look at you? Hopefully not.

Sarah Nahm [42:29] – Well, I wasn’t the only one, but I was one of them, but like a very obvious kind of group of people did the dishes and a very obvious group of people did not do the dishes. I think it was really, like everybody knew, like it wasn’t a surprise, like everybody knew. It was not something we’d ever entered into the domain of like something that we realized was the surface area of our culture and at some point, I can’t even remember how this came up, but somebody shared an article about how like findings, research shows that disproportionately women do office chores. Basically, when sharing that article like also pointed, “Hey, that was happening here and what did we want to do about it.” Literally, I can’t remember if it was the next day or maybe like two or three days later we just decided to do something about it. We built a Slackbot that assigned a rotational dish duty and it would just tell you in the morning, today’s your dish duty day and then we just made it completely equitable.

Holly Liu [43:28] – And people didn’t shirk their duties?

Sarah Nahm [43:31] – Oh well, that’s a whole other question, but no actually for a long time, even when like, I think it was until we were actually, like significantly, like maybe a 100% company and we actually had maybe somebody who’s facilities team, that was taking care of it. We did this for a long time, rotational dish duty. It became part of the culture, it became something that people would talk about on tours for candidates.

Holly Liu [43:53] – It’s like I’m on dish duty.

Sarah Nahm [43:54] – It was something that actually I think was us doing something about it and a more kind of at scale answer. If that’s like the five percent company version. We one year, launched our vacation calender. Here’s our official Lever office, vacation schedule and holiday schedule and we shipped it, we moved on, blah-blah-blah and then we found out later, like maybe a day or two later that there was a lot of critical feedback from the team about our decisions about which holidays we had chosen to recognize and not recognize and specifically we hadn’t chosen to recognize Martin Luther King day, because we had recognized a President’s Day or something the same month. And from the people team’s perspective, they were just trying to, like they’re heuristic was, let’s just balance out the holidays as evenly as possible throughout the year, but we realized in that moment that our holiday schedule was surface area to our culture. In thinking about making your culture more inclusive, A, it’s really about, what are you choosing to make your cultural surface area? What are you choosing to say, like this is part of it and this is not. That’s like one decision a founder has to make and then secondly it will change over time. Literally there were at one point our holiday schedule was not part of the culture and then it was, right? That’s like the dish duty was not and then it was and that’s just a dynamic part of culture, but I think the important part about being conscious

Sarah Nahm [45:31] – about building inclusion into your culture is that dialogue. What a founder can be responsible for is that any time something comes up, because it will come up, right? It’ll just come out of nowhere, is to make sure you’re the kind of company where people are able to bring it up and where you’re able to sort of like give it back to the team, like, “Okay, what do we want to do about this?” And where people take action. I think that’s actually at the heart of getting this really murky world of how do you be a socially responsible founder? You’re not going to know, but what you have to do is build that, I think capability inside your company to question yourself and to have a dialogue and then to take action and that’s, that’s I think at the heart of like what early stage founders in particular have a real advantage on, versus these companies that are trying to add this on later, you have so much ability to shape how your culture talks about itself and how like employees are shaping that conversation.

Holly Liu [46:38] – Oh, it’s really funny. We actually visited the Lever offices and I noticed in the kitchen they have one, which I’m super appreciative for they have a bunch of cups and then there’s this one lower shelf that says please leave for the vertically challenged. I was like, “Yes! This is so great. I feel so included.”

Sarah Nahm [46:55] – I know.

Holly Liu [46:56] – Thank you.

Sarah Nahm [46:56] – I mean you’d be surprised. Obviously the diversity and inclusion conversations so driven by certain kinds of categorizations, but one of the most profound shifts for us when it comes to diversity, was to talk about how we didn’t want to buy into the idea of technical and non-technical people.

Holly Liu [47:18] – Oh, interesting. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Sarah Nahm [47:22] – Absolutely. Silicon Valley has actually this deeply ingrained stereotyping around technical people and for the most part I think that’s a seat of privilege. If you are in an engineer, if you’ve got like coding chops, if you’re a hacker, like there’s all these kind of attributes about you maybe being like a more worthy or valuable or like higher potential founder, right? Or employee, right? There’s even some companies where like the technical parts of the company gets free lunch and then the non-technical parts of the company do not.

Holly Liu [48:00] – That’s rough.

Sarah Nahm [48:01] – Yeah, and of course with hiring being as tough as it is for software engineering roles, data scientist roles, I think that like there’s this value placed on these people that frankly a lot of people buy into. A lot of the people that are not on that side of the spectrum, like the “non-technical people,” almost internalize to self-handicapping about it. We actually for a while recognized that not only was that kind of against like some of our cultural beliefs, but also it was holding us back. We needed our quote non-technical people to embrace and adopt like designing systems that were as sort of like–

Holly Liu [48:43] – Scaleable.

Sarah Nahm [48:43] – sophisticated, scalable and have that sort of engineering mindset about their work. Then we also needed our technical people to understand our customers, understand the value proposition, to like really embrace some of the qualitative aspects that we as a B2B software company really needed them to, like actually really, really get our customer and why we were doing some things and get our go to market motion, our sales pitch and why we were doing these things on a deeper level. We just realized that that stereotype wasn’t serving us.

Craig Cannon [49:13] – That’s a great insight. Because it was like, yeah I’ve met many technical people with no product sense. The opposite can be true.

Sarah Nahm [49:22] – I’m guilty of it too. I sort of embrace the idea in hindsight in a weird way that I was like proudly our non-technical founder but fuck I have a like BS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. It’s sort of like, what, you know, it just was like confusing and so actually yeah, we ran a training of like I’m technical and so are you that we just like had a few like brown bag lunch kid of seminars. One of our early employees, shout out to Jennifer Kim, she runs a blog, Inclusion at Work, check it out, kind of helped us kind of build and we just like ran a bunch of people through it and like tried to like spread this empowerment. I think again, just like my missive of like there should be more designer founders, I think there’s a lot of people out there that are limiting their own potential by not thinking that they can access any part of what it takes to, to get creative and solve problems.

Craig Cannon [50:20] – I couldn’t agree more. Related to all this is like, as you said before, having the conversation about it. People are often terrified to have a conversation about this at work, because they’re like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, I don’t know what I’m not supposed to say.” I might know what like the prevailing thing to say is, but maybe that’s not how I feel or I’m just curious. How do you set up a culture that like allows those conversations? Is it like with your manager directly, like how does that happen?

Sarah Nahm [50:49] – Oh gosh, it’s like layers of an onion. I wouldn’t even say Lever has solved this problem, but I’ll just enumerate some of the things that we do to help. We do everything from the superstructure to the super… Just human skill. We have a new hire onboarding that we call ramp camp and it’s this week kind of where you get onboarded to the full 360 of the company. It doesn’t matter if your a sales person, engineer, we onboard everybody to every part of what makes the business successful and one of the sessions is on diversity and inclusion. Literally, your first week at Lever you’re hearing us talk about it. You’re hearing us talk about where we’re at with it, you’re receiving an explicit invitation to be a part of it. Other structural things that we do, we have a lot of employee resource groups. These are like, of course, you know a lot of companies have them. We have Leverettes for the women at Lever.

Holly Liu [51:49] – I love that.

Sarah Nahm [51:51] – Yeah so we went to them, 65% of our employees are a member of one of these groups. We actually not only have them and sort of like obviously support them, we actually asked them to help us build policies. The Lever parents ERG was a group that we like my VP of People like went to and asked, like, “Hey, we’re trying to revise and improve our parental leave policy. Can you actually help?” Using these groups to inform real decisions is kind of the next level. We also do kind of programmatically a lot with our management groups or our management layers. We actually are, I’m a big believer in coaching. We do a group coaching program. Twice a year, every six months we do like a six month program that we run all our managers through. Some who were promoted internally, some that we hired. To be intentional about our management culture and I think that they can be such great advocates in terms of like spreading great practices that do make work more inclusive and if you’re not already engaging you management team on D&I like, hello, that’s really impactful. That’s some of the structural stuff and then some of the things that are just more human oh gosh, well, here’s a funny example. We really encourage people to engage with each other, solve problems with each other, but sometimes having difficult conversations like you’re kind of navigating these murky waters of you don’t want to go kind of over the net and like accuse someone of something, but maybe you’re trying to surface or highlight a difference in point of view or assumptions or background

Sarah Nahm [53:31] – and what we didn’t want is for people to resort to stereotypes. Well, you’re like an introvert and I’m an extrovert and so blah-blah-blah. Or you’re a sales person and I’m an engineer so therefor blah-blah-blah. One thing that we also built into ramp camp is we have all the new hires kind of take one of these like assessments and the output of one of these is like a color.

Holly Liu [53:54] – Oh it’s that color one. The number one, the color one. There’s even an animal one.

Sarah Nahm [54:01] – Well we’re also big fans of spirit animals. Now everybody has this shared language about how to talk about difference that isn’t about like how you were born or your socio-economic background or anything like that and I think that that’s really empowering for people. Now even celebrate it and I think it’s become a way we can celebrate difference. At the end of ramp camp, obviously you kind of complete it and then we actually do a happy hour for that months’ ramp camp class and so they come and exit kind of their lost session of the day where they get their colors and enter a commons, our commons area where we have this, the whole company’s like clapping and we kick off this happy hour to celebrate their first week and this sort of like, it’s the colors reveal is at the happy hour and so all the new hires are wearing lei’s that correspond to their colors where everybody’s like, “Oh, you’re green or you’re like,” so you know, I think that you know, whether you’re doing it kind of in the structural ways or you’re just giving people like tools to work on it personally,

Sarah Nahm [55:07] – that’s huge. It’s huge.

Holly Liu [55:10] – I like how you created that common language and then kind of celebrate it and said like it’s okay to kind of talk about it.

Sarah Nahm [55:16] – I know, we’re kind of huge dorks, aren’t we?

Holly Liu [55:19] – I love it.

Sarah Nahm [55:19] – I know like we call ourselves Leveroos.

Holly Liu [55:22] – Oh, Leveroos.

Sarah Nahm [55:24] – Yeah, we are such, I mean I love us obviously. Horribly biased, but yeah, we’re kind of like goobers in that way.

Holly Liu [55:31] – That’s awesome.

Craig Cannon [55:31] – That’s just great, yeah, so much of it is like, I mean comedy even. It’s just intention, right? It’s like coming from a good place and like, “Okay, like we can work with this.”

Sarah Nahm [55:40] – Yeah, yeah, and you know what. Like so many of those ideas I just described bottoms up.

Craig Cannon [55:44] – Yeah, totally.

Sarah Nahm [55:45] – It’s not like I’m some like architect of all things diverse and inclusion at Lever. Quite the opposite actually. I credit the team collectively as really being the drivers to this and I think that’s the opportunity that the early stage founders really have. Is if you do get this into your culture what you get long term is this, you know collective ownership over you know, everything cultural, but certainly diversity and inclusion as part of that. That if you can get that seed planted it just like is a little bit self-reinforcing and so–

Holly Liu [56:25] – Not only that, it sets you up for scale. It pays in dividends later. If anybody new comes in or are like, get ramped up into this color and they would just know, you know.

Sarah Nahm [56:34] – You love the colors thing, Holly.

Holly Liu [56:37] – Oh yeah, I want to get into ramp camp. Sign me up. I want to know my color.

Sarah Nahm [56:41] – Amazing.

Craig Cannon [56:42] – Okay, so just wrapping up. At YC we have a batch going on right now. Most of these companies are quite early. What’s your advice to the companies in the batch to make the most out of it?

Sarah Nahm [56:56] – The number one thing that I would say is, your culture is your people. It’s who you hire, it’s who you fire, it’s also who you’re recognizing, who you’re promoting, who you’re rewarding and how you do all those things and you probably feel like you have a million things going on and everything’s on fire and you have so many things to get done in a given week. The secret to solving all these problems is to really, really getting great at building your team. I found this to be true. I work with thousands of companies at every stage of growth of hiring. You have to get great at talent, you have to get great at hiring and I think that if you can really embrace that as a true part of being an authentic founder I think you will attract the right people that will run with all those things that you’ve got to do in a given week and it is the shortest path to building a strong culture. It’s the shortest path to building your results. Embrace that a founder’s number one job is recruiting.

Craig Cannon [58:18] – That’s excellent advice. All right, thanks for coming in.

Sarah Nahm [58:20] – Thanks.

Holly Liu [58:20] – Thank you.

Craig Cannon [58:22] – All right, thanks for listening. As always you can find the transcript and the video at If you have a second it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon