In 2014, when then-college freshman Jordan DeCicco found only sugar-heavy bottled coffee to sustain him through predawn basketball practice, he got creative. In his dorm room, he concocted a blend of black coffee, protein powder, and MCT oil--a supplement made from medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat--that got his teammates' attention. Soon he was fortifying lots more brew, which he called super coffee, and selling it at cost to his buddies. By summer, DeCicco smelled an opportunity to make Super Coffee a business, especially with older brothers Jim and Jake coming on board as co-founders. They launched as Kitu Life in early 2016; two years later, they had 18 employees in their New York City office--all hired through their network and social media.

But their rapid growth--they project revenue of $30 million this year and, with new retail partners, potentially $100 million in 2020--made it crucial to hire 10 West Coast salespeople fast. A trusted business adviser referred them to a head­hunter. "I would have liked to do the hires personally, but we simply didn't have enough time," says CEO Jim DeCicco. "We realized recruiting, done right, is a full-time endeavor that can bring value and allow companies to take their brand to the next level." Are you ready to make that leap? 

1. You Still Have Control

It's not unusual, says Marc Steren, who teaches entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, for business owners to experience a poor hire before they turn to a recruiter. "Entrepreneurs are extremely self-reliant. They may recognize how critical good hiring is, but control is paramount" to them, he says. That may leave you choosing your own candidates from a pool of poor choices, rather than trusting an outside entity.

The changing talent hunt
One in five jobs, in their current form, will disappear within five years, according to a poll by HR consultancy Mercer. But employers will have to compete for "upskilled" workers.
2 in 5
workers plan to leave their jobs in the next 12 months.
7 million
Number of job openings at the end of September 2019.
Number of unemployed persons per available job. This figure peaked at 6.4 in 2009, immediately after the recession.
Sources: Mercer, Bureau of Labor Statistics

But there's an important distinction to be made about what you're controlling. "I emphasize to first-time users of recruitment agencies that they are paying for recruiting services, not hiring services," says Lisa Barrow, CEO of Kada Recruiting, in Charleston, South Carolina. "These firms provide you with candidates. But it's you who, in the end, choose to hire them or not."

For many business owners, the desire to run the show never truly subsides. "It's difficult for entrepreneurs to let go of their belief that they know their needs better than an experienced agency," says Naeem Bawla, CEO of Bawla Consulting, in Valley Stream, New York, which works with financial institutions. Also, it's important to recognize, he says, that a recruiter's approach to finding candidates is likely to be different from yours. Focus on results, not the process.

2. Share Information

Be very specific. "It's not just about providing lists of skills and what you want, but also about who you want," says Barrow. Adding detail allows a recruiter to offer sample candidate profiles to get your input.

Just ask Emily LaRusch, CEO of Phoenix-based Back Office Betties, which provides virtual receptionists to law firms. "I put zero work into creating a comprehensive candidate profile, thinking a basic description and a fee payment would be enough to ensure a flow of qualified candidates, which didn't happen," she says. When she eventually created her own internal recruiting protocol, she realized how complicated the process is.

It's also important to communicate your culture, notes Steren, the author of The Student's Guide to Entrepreneurship. "The candidates who are the best hires are those who align with a company's shared values," he says. So Garrett Leight, CEO of Garrett Leight California Optical, did just that. "We described our casual, laid-back, California vibe, and the firm visited our stores and offices to get a first-hand, authentic feel for our culture," says Leight. After several great hires, the company made the recruiter its go-to agency.

3. Outside the Box

You may know your industry well, and the people within it. But your ideal hire may not be working within your network or even in your industry. One value in headhunters is that they have extended connections. Paul Charney, CEO of Funworks, a small advertising and marketing agency in Oakland, California, sees using a recruiter as an investment. "Several years after launching our company, I became acutely aware of the type of intellectually curious person we couldn't find through our network but that we very much wanted," says Charney. "My CFO's reminder--that the best hires help you grow your business--validated the decision to work with a good headhunter, who can push you to describe your values to help realize a good candidate match."


Get Your Money's Worth

Demand deep references. Job candidates are, of course, selective when they provide references. Brad Smart, founder of Topgrading, an HR consultancy, in Lake Forest, Illinois, advises demanding that candidates provide references from all the managers they've reported to over the past decade--and calling each one. "If agencies are unwilling to honor your request, which is critical to preventing mis-hires, don't hire them," he says.

Offer an exclusive. Offering exclusivity to a headhunter can be a very attractive carrot and deliver better results. "Being the only recruiter in the mix often frees it up to be more flexible, which may result in a client's ability to negotiate a customized and often more stringent candidate-finding protocol, including interviews and reference checks," says Smart. And get the specifics included in a written contract.

Get recommendations. Your informal network might not generate a new hire, but it could help you find a reliable external hiring agency or professional that has previously provided exceptional headhunting services to someone you trust.

Consider job platforms. Whether it's ZipRecruiter, LinkedIn, or Indeed, the right job board package may fill the bill in providing candidates, at least initially. "Just make sure," says Smart, "that you're willing to put in the time to conduct a thorough interview."