I work with small, early-stage technology companies. Nothing against the big guys, I might work with groups within some of them like Amazon, Google, and the newest kid on the block, SpaceX, but I really like the innovation, spunk, tenacity, and shear brilliance that oozes out of start-ups. Yep, I said ooze. That's why I'm concerned about all the recent growth. There was already demand for talent before the bigger players entered the scene, but now with more contenders and with salaries consistently climbing in to the six figure range I worry about an ever increasing strain on the supply of great talent. I worry about the Seattle start-up culture. Do you?
Let's start with the ability of my clients to attract and then keep top talent. They can offer equity, but that's a roll of the dice as we all know and the big guys are offering it too and in their case it's stock with a real known value. The salaries the big guys are tossing out are mind boggling at times too. So, how do the smaller players grow and continue to iterate and improve their products if they can't find talent? Great talent. And as important, what can they do to keep that talent once they find it?
Some people would say that the right talent for a start-up won't care about compensation, what they will care about is the product, the idea, and the problem it's solving. I agree that you are looking for someone with this mindset, but that doesn't put shoes on the kids and with the cost of everything rising those shoes are getting more and more expensive. Tie those shoes to the increased cost of housing in and out of the city and the situation gets worse. But can we blame candidates/employees for wanting to get a salary, coupled with benefits like paid healthcare, vacation, 401K, etc. that fulfill their needs and those of their families? With the growing talent dearth the age of technology employees is increasing and that means their needs and priorities are changing too. So where are we headed?
Could we become more like Silicon Valley? I don't work with companies in the Valley because I don't like the attitude of a lot of the folks in the tech space there. I'm not saying everyone, just a number of them and it seems to be growing. They seem to be willing to jump ship if another $5,000 is waived in front of them and in most cases what's offered it's far more than that. They don's seem to have the loyalty that folks in Seattle do to the mission, the team, the idea, and the problem they are working so hard to solve. I'm sure I'm going to get some responses from those in the Valley who would disagree with me about the difference between Seattle and the Valley, and I am happy to hear it all so post away. My hope would be that maybe those post will see me become more enlightened than I am today and in turn less worried about losing the amazing, supportive ecosystem we have in Seattle.
So what can we do to attract, hire, and keep great talent in our small, Seattle companies? Well, this may sound simple but it really is the silver bullet of sorts-- Ask them. I can't tell you how many of my clients are losing great talent because they didn't get them what they needed from the start. Pay is one piece of a bigger puzzle but it is the only one that is a must. I know that sounds bad, but if someone can work for free they are probably volunteering time at a non-profit, and they should, not working for a for-profit entity 60 hours a week. And if they are you are probably going to hear from your HR consultant or attorney about how many state and federal work violations you may be participating in. So ask them. Ask those people what they need to make. Ask them what their "threshold of pain"
is in regards to compensation. What do they need to make so that when they come to work they can focus on work and not worry about putting those shoes on kids, food on the table, or gas in their car. I know you are trying to conserve cash, I had my own start-up so I really get this, but so many start-ups want to offer far less than the person would tell you they need to sustain their current lifestyle and it may work at the time of the offer, and maybe even a few months after, as they are intoxicated by the idea, the passion around the product, and the lure of an exit that could see them making six or even seven figures. But think about that last time you were intoxicated and everything was fun and exciting. Then you wake up and the luster is gone, reality sets in, your head clears, and you realize there were a few things you wish you had or hadn't done. Candidates can feel that too.
Find those people intoxicated by your idea, driven by the problem you are solving, and candidly aware of what they are getting themselves in to both professional and financially. And remember the silver bullet, ask them what they need. This questions also spans things like benefits too. Can you pay for their healthcare premium? For their spouse and kids? Can you offer five weeks of vacation and then make sure they take it? Can you provide them with training and education that would be attractive to them and useful to your company? If you don't ask them what they want/need to work for you then you may be providing benefits that are costly but not desirable and ensuring a shorter tenure with your company than either of you had envisioned.
So use that silver bullet. Ask them before you hire them and ask them often along the journey, as their needs will change and so will the needs of your company. And if you do lose someone, please, please try to lose them to another Seattle based company. It ensures that our eco-system survives, innovation continues to thrive, and our ability to mentor and grow new talent with the tribal knowledge of the start-up experienced is possible. We are all in this together, big and small, but if we look for ways to keep our talent happy and that means a number of different things to different people, we can all succeed. So, ask them and I guarantee you they will tell you what they need and appreciate the question too.