If you are in the technology industry and haven’t read the recent blog post RECONSIDER, you should. As I’m most interested in hiring-related issues in the industry, I’ll get to my point once we get through a bit of background.
In RECONSIDER, Basecamp founder and Rails creator DHH describes how the term startup is becoming synonymous with the unicorn phenomenon and the potential dangers of this intersection for entrepreneurs and the industry as a whole. He writes “nobody these days is content to merely put their dent in the universe. No, they have to f*&%ing own the universe.” Much of what is written about startups reflects the attitude DHH describes, and he asks readers to reconsider that there may be motivations beyond billion dollar valuations for starting a company.
DHH reports that he co-founded his company over ten years ago and they’ve grown to a modest 50 mostly remote employees without a presence in the Bay Area. Clearly Basecamp never fit the unicorn profile and their maturity may preclude them from being defined as a startup today, but it’s hard to say they haven’t been successful. Few get to commission a special edition race car. The path of Basecamp might not be what the stereotypical startup founder sets out to replicate, and DHH seems to wonder “Why not?“.
What’s a Startup?
One part of the problem is which definition of “startup” is used. Startup is popular shorthand for new and (usually) tech, but some definitions require ambition of fast growth. DHH writes that the term startup has been “narrowed to describe the pursuit of total business domination“. He leads off by identifying Basecamp as a startup upon its founding and later describes it as “a company that doesn’t even have a pretense of an ambition for Eating The World™”. If their intent was never for quick growth or (dare I say) “disruption”, Basecamp may meet DHH’s (and others) definition of startup but doesn’t really meet the definition used most famously by Paul Graham.
Being that there are companies self-identifying as startups of varied age/size/ambition, and some nuance as to how those within the industry define the term, there is opportunity for misinterpretation.
One issue that DHH doesn’t really touch upon is how the somewhat hijacked redefinition of the term startup impacts careers and hiring, or more accurately, how some job seekers may be averse to any company that describes itself as a startup.
Hiring and Stigma
The term startup alone may conjure images of programmers (probably young and male) logging 70 hour weeks for pay well below market salary, poor benefits, and insignificant amounts of equity. These images may be a holdover from the first dotcom boom if you’re over 35.
Startups in many markets across the US today may bear almost no resemblance to that image, and unfortunately thousands of firms need to overcome a stigma with job seekers due to the ubiquity of the meme. It is assumed by some that a startup in Philadelphia or Boulder, solely because of their self-identification as a startup, is likely to expect employees to accept significant cuts in compensation and benefits as well as increased hours. It’s this often false expectation that leads some to stop listening about potential new job opportunities once the word startup is introduced into conversation.
What if I told you there were many fairly new and relatively small software firms solving complex problems that pay engineers at or above market rates, offer work/life balance, provide comprehensive benefits, grant options, promote diverse work environments, and never describe themselves as “we’re like $UNICORN for $PROBLEM“? Because of the popular startup stereotypes, I often feel obligated to lead off conversations by defensively telling candidates about a company’s highly-realistic hours expectations and competitive salaries before describing the interesting technical challenges that should be the focus of the conversation.
RECONSIDER hopefully has shined a light on the fact that there may be thousands of startups like Basecamp that never get huge (perhaps never sought to get huge), yet still created great products that impacted users’ lives while providing opportunities and financial stability for both employees and founders alike. Maybe these are the real unicorns.
When trying to hire developers, startups and small companies now find themselves in the unfortunate predicament of having to directly compete with the unlimited resources and mass appeal of market heavyweights like Google and Facebook. New grads are laser-focused on getting jobs with what many call The Big Four, and some grads will land. Most founders and hiring managers know they can’t match compensation, name recognition, or facilities that the big players provide, yet they do a poor job marketing themselves to talent to demonstrate where they actually can compete.
A quote on a recent Hacker News thread echoed the frustration that countless others surely feel:
I hire engineers at an academic medical center who work on really tough biomedical problems. Let’s just say that I would have to move heaven and earth to get annual percentage raise amounts that are being thrown around here. I wonder how industries like healthcare can hope to have the best people with this job market. At some point, even if you are doing work that really matters in a big way, you can’t be stupid about your career and leave money on the table. – HN user JunkDNA
The commenter is correct that the medical center’s employees are likely ‘leaving money on the table’, but this does not mean that hiring managers must resign themselves to subpar talent. A defeatist attitude leads to a host of problems down the road, and mediocre teams create mediocre products and a poor company reputation (which then makes competing for talent impossible without massive compensation packages).
My experience has put me in a position to observe candidates with multiple offers many times. Candidates don’t choose the highest bidder as often as one might expect, and once you’ve had enough conversations on the choice between Job A and Job B it becomes clear that there are several situations and characteristics that technologists are willing to take in lieu of dollars and a recognized name on their résumé.
Firms competing for tech talent on a budget should consider how the topics below influence candidates’ decisions when weighing money against intangibles, and how to market themselves to increase appeal to potential hires.
Work visibility – Many developers derive job satisfaction when they can show friends, parents, children, and significant others what they actually do. Whether they coded an e-commerce site, a video game, or even a device driver, many developers relish the ability to say “I built that“. This value gets overlooked, but it can be one competitive advantage in hiring. If a company builds a visible product, that can be a selling point.
Remote work – If you feel demand for remote work is overstated, post a remote job and see for yourself. Some of the applicant pool’s volume and quality is obviously explained by the geography barrier being lifted, but job seekers are specifically including ‘remote‘ or ‘telecommute‘ along with their tech search terms. The groundswell supporting remote work is impossible to ignore, and remote hires are often willing to accept less money (which can create other problems). If 100% remote work isn’t feasible, even implementing “Remote Fridays” may make a difference.
Autonomy – This could be defined as the ability to make decisions on tools and vendors, final say on hires, or being able to choose a machine and operating system. If autonomy is offered, it’s often worth noting.
Languages and tools – The importance of languages and toolsets became apparent to me when several more lucrative offers were rejected by candidates due to concerns over future marketability or distaste for the tools and languages. Hiring managers are beginning to appreciate the weight some job seekers place on being paid to code in a certain language, and those managers may attempt to justify using an emerging language in some production capacity for the purpose of attracting new talent.
Impact on the business – Most candidates that interview at large companies don’t expect that their contributions will significantly impact the firm’s direction or bottom line. Smaller firms offer the potential opportunity to make a measurable impact, and can use that opportunity as a selling point.
Interesting problem domains – All technical problems won’t interest all candidates, but savvy technical interview teams should learn to discover a candidate’s interests and articulate how the job will allow that itch to be scratched. For most industries, it is vital to get the candidate to look past the non-technical business (widget selling) and focus on the technical challenges (supporting 10M widget buyers). Complexities around scalability and concurrency can make a mundane business quite appealing to top talent.
People – I ask all candidates how they choose jobs, and “people” has consistently been a top 3 answer over my career. For some this means the broader company culture, while for others it is the ability to work with experts. Even at a rate above market, hiring a couple high-level talents who can act as magnets for other talent can be a wise investment if it makes future hiring cheaper and less time-consuming. Companies competing on intangibles should always put their best people in front of candidates during the process.
Reasonable hours/flexibility/vacation – It is somewhat rare for companies to advertise the length of their work week, due to inconsistencies related to events or the sobering realization that the hours are undesirable. For most companies, a reference to a week in the 40 – 45 hours may be considered a genuine draw to candidates, while under 40 is notably positive. Flex time is another perk that can make a company’s expectations more reasonable.
Equity/interest – Parting with equity is often not a founder’s first choice, but when up against deep pockets it becomes one potential equalizer.
Those involved in the hiring process should be aware of their company’s potential competitive advantages over the larger employers in their market. This is most important when it is impossible to outbid well-known market leaders. Tech talent does not always go to the highest bidder or the biggest name.