Entrepreneurship · Hiring engineers

How do you convince the right technical talent to join your startup?

Saurabh Saha Co Founder at Talent Pegs

May 6th, 2015

Well back in the 80s Steve Jobs convinced John Sculley to join him by saying "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?" and Sculley joined Apple. Would have bene nice if real life would have been any similar.Unfortunately finding the right technical talent for your startup is as big an issue as convincing then to join you.Joel Spolsky in his epic blog "The Guerilla guide to interviewing" talks about how to identify the rockstars from the crowd.But what is even more critical is how to convince them to join your organization.

We clearly know we are no Steve Jobs and programmers clearly know equity means nothing but white trash which might or might not have a value going ahead and high salaries is something which entrepreneurs can't pay at the bootstrap stage.Under those circumstances how do you build your technology team if you happen to shortlist a bunch of really good coders or designers. Hiring as a function is becoming increasingly difficult firstly because of a dearth of good technical talent and secondly because most good engineers are looking at either fat pay packets or good brand names so startups is not a place they'd typically wanna invest their time in.

Would like to know how other startup founders approach this issue?
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Oleg Sharov

May 8th, 2015

I've been able to bring on great technical talent for 2 startups in the past. There were a couple of hires, and one of them was a technical cofounder. In all cases, you need to sell the sh!t out your company, product and vision. There are currently way too many options for technical folks to choose from and unless you are a great salesmen you will have a hard time bringing on and keeping top talent even for paying positions. If you are passionate about what you are building it comes through in your interviews and people feel it. Technical folks like a good challenge, and if you can clearly present it to them, they will bite.

Of course, none of this applies if you are on the level of Snapchat's growth, or some other rocket ship startup :) 

Peter li.blueoyster~@~gmail.com] Peter Jones creates solutions for product USP, market messaging, team building, venture and other commercial capital

May 6th, 2015

Easy to say this but much harder to do:

1) Have a great product
2) Show you've got traction
3) Show you know how to grow the business
4) Show you know how to buy value for money services to help grow cost-effectively
5) Be considerate to collaborators and suppliers, as well as customers and investors
6) Always trial small scale if possible

Peter li.blueoyster~@~gmail.com] Peter Jones creates solutions for product USP, market messaging, team building, venture and other commercial capital

May 6th, 2015


Maybe it's a cultural thing, maybe I'm more persuasive than I thought.

If people understand first off that working together they are stronger, then it's worth exploring a collaboration.

I have found many generous people willing to sit and listen while I put ideas in front of them. Many have walked away, it's true, but a few had enough time and resource to try and see what they could achieve with mutual commitment.

From that process, over some years, I have gained hugely in knowledge terms.

And I'm now working with two sets of people collaboratively, for mutual gain, and regardless of current skill levels but not of potential, to see if we can produce something of value.

The US and the UK call this collaboration, between potential co-founders.

Finding people who don't always insist on being paid is wonderful, and the quality of person so often spectacular.

But yes, we still need to pay bills, and I've been very lucky in that respect, and indeed owe my partner deeply for the capacity I've been given to learn what I have, and met who I have.

Not everyone has those luxuries I do accept.

Dwayne Johnson Social Alchemist - I build equitable, prosperous, sustainable smart cities and regions.

May 7th, 2015

I think most efforts to recruit top talent start in the wrong place. Rather than think about what you want to hire, find out what you really need, about what top talent needs, and where and if these things intersect. As mentioned above, you'd be surprised at how easy it is to engage people for their opinion/perspective.  Ask them what they think you need, see if there is interest and or if they know someone who does.

 If you want the best, treat them as individuals. Do homework on what they've done and see if you can get a feel for what they like to do. Interact with them yourself. Would Steve Jobs have gotten John Scully if he'd sent an HR person? Would he have left something that important to his company someone else? 

I think you'd be surprised what motivates folks. In many cases it ISN'T the money.  Do they want to be an individual contributor? Team builder? Visionary technologist? Someone who can and wants to manage a team that takes product to market? Someone who loves people and can talk tech to non-techies? A co-founder who who wants to own all things technical? Do they love the idea, market or product area? Do they love you and the energy/perspective you bring? These aren't mutually exclusive. You can get some inkling into what the person might like in their job history. 

Lastly, understand what you actually need. You might be surprised to find that what you really need is access to someone with stellar architect/design/systems/whatever skills who can articulate and visualize a solution coupled with someone great at managing people, products and deliverables. The former you can rent, the latter you should buy. They don't need to be the same person and usually aren't.

Alan Peters VP Product and Technology at BusinessBlocks

May 7th, 2015

Mutual respect and good timing.  Simple as that.  

Andrew Lockley

May 6th, 2015

Simple answer is to treat technical talent as investors, and make a great pitch, biz case and offer. Prove your assumptions before asking others to believe them. A A

Roger Wu co-founder at cooperatize, native advertising platform

May 6th, 2015

Unless you are doing something highly technical and never been done before from a tech perspective, the technical talent knows that they can do it.  The question becomes why work with YOU?  They know they can build it, but they don't know if you can sell it.  So show them that you can.  Show them that you can sell vaporware, show them that you can get a crowd excited, show them that you can get employees excited, show them you can get investors excited, and if you can do that, this question answers itself.

Saurabh Saha Co Founder at Talent Pegs

May 6th, 2015

Mr Mushin 

Thanks a lot for your response.

Don't get me wrong but I really don't have the bandwidth to go through your answer-its huge. Do you mind writing a summary of what you meant if I may ask.

Jerry Mahabub Chairman of the Board and CEO at Astound Holdings, Inc.

May 6th, 2015

This varies by the individual, especially when dealing with highly eccentric technical talent, which in my company, are software engineers, which tend to be the best developers, and the most difficult to manage.  For my company the biggest challenges I have encountered are raising money without giving up too much equity in exchange for capital contributions and finding ways to monetize (or as I call it "signing the backs of checks").  The latter of the two can take a very long time whether you have the most differentiating technology or not, it is inevitable that larger companies will do their best to de-value it for their own benefit, or they will have the not invented here attitude (NIH syndrome as I call it).  So, although it is great to show the talent you are looking to hire how great of a businessman you are through raising money, convincing people of your great technology, and finding ways to monetize, this is not always something that happens overnight, and most likely you need the talent to help get you to a point where monetization can start to become a reality with a commercial product.  Not a great demo, but, an actual commercial product which has undergone serious testing, evaluation by larger companies looking to license or acquire your technology, and it takes a long time to build those relationships - this is not a tenderfoot trail.  So, to answer your question, how did I pull it off, which may or may not work for everyone, but it is worth a shot - Offer strong equity compensation by way of stock options that vest over time, and you will have to be generous with this, but careful too as your ratio of outstanding shares (actual stock that has been sold through an official company offering) to the number of outstanding options and/or warrants can get you into trouble when you do actually have a real product, and are ready to license your technology and are looking for institutional investors.  The key here is to not have a messy cap table, and not have a lot of debt - the curse of many startups, including my own, which was cleaned up by way of shareholder action and re-structuring the company and its cap table.  This is where you need to be extraordinarily cautious of how you raise money or you will find yourself between a rock and a hard place, and no matter how great of a technology you have, investors will leverage this for themselves to get a bigger piece of the pie, often times, this is where you, the visionary founder, gets either wiped out of your position as CEO and they come in with their own people to replace Sr. Management, and you can lose control of your company.  Don't let that happen unless you absolutely have to.  I have been lucky to make it this far with my dev team, barely being able to pay the team, and the only opportunities to do so would of meant substantial dilution to the existing shareholders.  So, what do you do?  Again, strong backside incentive.  Make them feel as if they will retire for life if they put the time and energy into working for you, and they too will believe in the upside potential.  Backside compensation can be stronger than paying an employee, however, the bottom line is we ALL need to put food on our tables, so you cannot just use backside compensation to keep them motivated and working hard (trust me, they will make your life a living hell on a daily basis even though you have paid to the best of your ability everyone that works for your company and paid yourself absolutely nothing and are having your power turned off in the middle of winter). But you stick with it, you find clever ways to keep your neck barely above water, just enough to breathe, while sacrificing your own sanity for the benefit of you team that is working hard under your leadership.  Or, you can find a VC willing to back you and give you money, which will often times have covenants attached to a deal, meaning they will decide how much you and everyone else gets paid, they take the lions share of the equity, they take charge of your destiny, and they determine when the company is acquired or entering the public markets, and you for the most part have lost your company to the clutches of the VC.  I myself chose the other path of shaking bushes and raising money through 506 Reg D offerings, and got very lucky I was able to successfully raise money.  Now, here comes the REAL issue, when a shareholder that is no knowledgeable of your industry gets pissy because they feel you are not monetizing quick enough for their tastes, then they go crying like a baby to the SEC, next thing you know, the SEC is crawling all over you, and as innocent as you have been, working your tail off day and night with no breaks, now you are being scolded for some SEC rule or regulation you violated (they cast a very large net and will undoubtedly find something you did wrong especially when it comes to what you say in your offerings to raise money no matter how much disclaimer language you have).  So, if they feel you have committed information, which at the time would have been impossible for you to determine to add into the business section of your offering, they will act like you are the biggest criminal to walk on the face of this planet.  This is because of all the real criminals that get away with a lot of bull crap, and then the real honest people suffer miserably from how they have stolen money from investors, so we, as honorable businessmen, all of a sudden are facing the almighty SEC.  In a nutshell, its really a double edge sword, you need to raise money and convince investors you have the goods to give them a healthy ROI, and you also need to keep your team members paid and incentivized.  To find the balance, but not the end all solution, setup an equity incentive pool for your team and set aside X number of shares for your team via board resolution such that you recommend to the board who should get what and why.  That way, all of your key team members get options that vest over time until fully vested, and, for exemplary work on certain projects the team completes which helps makes your life easier for raising money or licensing your technology, they get equity bonuses by way of backend compensation.  I hope this helps, and again, although this is how I did it, and I am disclosing to you some of the challenges and hurdles you need to really look out for, there are always other avenues, but this way, keeps you in control, and you are the master of your own destiny.  Not always the best route, however, if you have a vision and you want it to be adhered to, you need to maintain control, or that vision will undoubtedly get altered when there is a change of control, and you watch your life's work get packaged up and sold off for pennies on the dollar for what it really would have been worth, and the investors make their upside, and you end up making not much at all - the one who put all the blood sweat and tears into it!  Thanks for taking time to read my post.

Christopher Pyper Fixing online advertising for everyone

May 6th, 2015

I think everyone has covered the other parts, but I would say one most employers miss is time off.  If you offer 4 weeks vacation, 10 personal days, and working from home a day or two a week, you can lock down pretty much any developer.   Yes, passion, stock, and salary is important, but people are sick of living at work.  The crazy part is this will probably make them more productive.