How Founders Can Fight Through The Great Fragmentation Of Talent

Earlier in 2013, as I’ve been working with a small handful of CEOs to build out their organizations, I grew even concerned about the overall climate for technical recruiting in the Bay Area. As a result, I wrote this post on TC about tactical ideas founders could consider in the face of such competition for talent…

The #1 request I hear when talking to founders in San Francisco is: “We are hiring engineers. Know any?” We all know this is a big issue that’s only getting worse, and so do most of the investors. But, I’m now starting to hear this so often, I’m beginning to worry that all the conventional tactics simply won’t work. Early-stage startups that don’t start experimenting with new ideas to source, recruit, and close engineers and other technical hires may end up running out of money or never achieving the product traction they need to get to the next level. I don’t have data to support this, but my intuition is that technical talent is so fragmented right now, all options need to be reexamined and placed on the table.

In that spirit of investigating all available options, here are 10 tactics your startup may consider given today’s conditions. And, while we often read high-level posts about how to hire people, the on-the-ground reality is that so many early-stage companies are being funded every day that when the founders close that first round, they often turn into (near) full-time recruiters, and many of them don’t succeed at it because they either don’t understand the weight of the issue before them and/or because they aren’t willing to consider these kind of options below, some of which require a serious change in thinking:

  1. Hire Remote Employees: Conventional wisdom says that your team should all be together, in person. Unfortunately, there are many great potential hires who are not located in NYC or SF and, for a host of reasons, cannot move.
  2. Hire Contractors (onsite or remote): Conventional wisdom says that this can backfire and cause more work because of incongruous development, but some great people may not be in the mood to commit to something so early and may want to work on other side projects for a host of reasons.
  3. Hire Qualified Candidates And Help Them Relocate: Early-stage companies don’t like to get into the game of relocation expenses, but if that’s the only thing stopping the close of a great potential hire who doesn’t live around here, it may be worth considering breaking that rule.
  4. Referral Systems: I’m sure most startups do some form of this, whether through gifts or cash incentives. But, maybe they need to be more robust and creative.
  5. Pay More Money and Share More Equity: If it’s that hard to land good technical talent, maybe a startup cannot afford the market price, or maybe the conventional wisdom around 15-20% option pools and current salary bands are not in line with this reality.
  6. Acqui-hire Teams That Can’t Survive: The Series A Crunch is real and might be just beginning. For companies that have raised more growth capital and/or those who are making enough money to warrant reinvestment into their core business, there are lots of teams out there who can be slimmed down and gobbled up, usually for a salaried offer, some equity, and a modest bonus.
  7. Open A Second Office: To get around the fear of remote and/or contract workers, there could be situations where a small group of qualified candidates reside close to each other but far away from your HQ. If this core group is open to setting up a new office and could hire more people through their own networks, it may not be a bad approach for a startup that has enough cash runway to handle it.
  8. Publicize Your Infrastructure And Stack: Talented folks want to see what your company has under the hood, so one approach is to invest the time and resources into a real engineering blog and sharing what goes on behind the scenes. This kind of openness attracts others who may be like-minded and could send a strong signal about how differentiated your approach is.
  9. Hire Less-Developed Candidates And Train Them: What if a founding team found raw talent and made the decision to hire these folks and train them? Without reducing the bar on quality, these teams may be able to hire folks like this and devote time and resources to developing them into full team players.
  10. Everyday Improvements: It’s obvious, but any list like this would have to include options like making your office the best place to work, by spending more time on recruiting, or actually hiring an accomplished recruiter who can demonstrably earn the respect of good candidates, or organize more tech talks, or more hackathons, or more competitions. [And, continually learn from experts like Dan Portillo, who captures all of his knowledge and tricks in this great slide deck.]

Naval Ravikant tweeted a great line last year: “It’s never been easier to start a company, but it’s never been harder to build one.” This fragmentation of talent is the other side of the coin in this bubble we are in — and yes, it is a bubble, but the bubble isn’t where you may think it is. Today, the asset that is overvalued is the amount of funds and shares of equity that founders are in control of and chose to hold on to — to recruit the right people, founders now have to work extra harder or be even more creative and daring to fill in their open slots. Put another way, in order to win in today’s game, many founders are going to have to make uncomfortable decisions, especially with respect to money for salaries and equity as incentives.

I am not an expert on all of this. And, I know it’s not cool to suggest these tactics because everyone says it’s all about “team” and because you want to protect your culture and because you don’t want to manage people remotely or hire contractors or spend time training a diamond in the rough, but for many early-stage companies in a flooded market like San Francisco, the harsh truth of 2013 is that everyone and their mom has a tech startup now, and everyone and their dad has a new seed fund, and you, as a founder, are caught right in the middle, forced to make suboptimal tradeoffs between quality and speed. It’s not a pretty choice, but in order to survive or succeed in this environment, I simply don’t see another way.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus