Most startups get off the ground with a few people who know each other really well and can often get a few more recruits from their networks. At some point however, all small companies exhaust their network and are forced into to the difficult task of recruiting for talent. And nowhere is it more difficult than in technology in the Bay Area.
Not only are there a wealth of startups pitching great opportunities, in the past 5 years or so, there’s been a significant new trend that’s making it incredibly difficult to compete for talent.
For decades, technology companies worried about internal equity, the idea that people of a certain grade with the same title should be paid nearly the same. Although no one ever said it, it also often meant that tenure was important, and that young or ‘junior’ employees couldn’t make a significant impact.
That concept blew up as progressive tech companies began to pay people in line with their contribution. Just like in professional sports, great product managers, designers, developers are not just a little bit better than others, they can be incredibly better. Like the NFL where the lowest paid players earn $400K a year and the top couple hundred make more than $5M a year, contemporary tech companies have increased the salary spread.
Armed with a lot of equity and cash, companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google can afford to pay top talent in ways that just makes it impossible for others to compete directly. Not to mention perks galore.
So what do you do if you can’t afford a seven figure stock program or a six figure sign on?
You have to play on another level and work with what you can control:
Culture: Whether it’s ‘elitist’, ‘we’re so fun’, ‘change the world’ or ‘do good’, having a defined culture is key to building an employment brand and creating an emotional connection for candidates.
Mystique: Black Pearl is doing a great job in this area–I have no idea what they are up to but with shades of the Macintosh pirate flag, whatever it is, I want in on it!
The Love: Made famous by Zuck’s walks around the Dish, big companies cannot compete effectively with the ‘show of love’ tactic that small companies can pour on. Bring candidates into the inner circle, take time to lay out the vision, break bread, meet the board.
Title: While this may backfire down the road, a big title is often ‘free’ to the company; if it doesn’t mess everyone else up, you should consider the request.
Seat at the Table: Creating a culture where people are really listened to, where the CEO pops in and chats with folks on a regular basis is another area of differentiation. When you get to be a few hundred people, other factors weigh in and it’s a lot harder for an employee to feel like they are heard.
Equity: Don’t be stingy with equity—you will need a great team around you to succeed. This is where differentiating the value of the top players comes in, make sure they are appropriately rewarded to stick it out. The people you want will trade cash in hand for the possibility of wealth creation.
Get Great Recruiting Help: From building an employee referral system to periodically hiring outside talent scouts, like many things, you get what you pay for. In house recruiters play a key role in building the rank and file; external resources, though expensive, can be invaluable in hiring rock stars or specific talent.
Talent makes or breaks companies, particularly small ones. You see it all the time, not enough people to go fast, problems out-foxing the competition in innovation, making amateur mistakes in execution, or just not building the momentum investors expect.
All too many startups fail because they just can’t build the right team, and all too many executives are paralyzed thinking they can’t compete with the Titans. Truth is, startups can be more nimble and creative in bringing to the forefront what tends to attract talent more than cash ever will.
It’s the role of the executive team at great companies to build an employment brand and culture that takes building a team seriously, and takes recruiting seriously, not something delegated to HR.