Your startup is working on a breakthrough product that will make the world a better place — but heaven will have to wait, because you just can’t seem to hire and retain the quality employees you need to bring your solution to market.
I know this problem well, specifically when it comes to attracting developers. Competition for this segment of the talent market is fierce, and every startup wants to bring the best of the best aboard.
Engineer scarcity affects companies nationwide, but my small company — medical training platform OnlineMedEd — has found a way to compete with the unlimited budgets of the giants and attract dozens of highly qualified engineers from NASA, Sprint, Uber, and other companies. Here’s how we’ve done it:
1. Pay People What They’re Worth — Now
Scrappy startups sometimes try to attract talent with promises of future success: “We can’t afford a market-rate salary right now, but your hard work will pay off in equity and other rewards in the future!”
The problem with this approach is that you get what you pay for. A developer who is willing to work for less or take an inferior benefits package is likely to put out inferior code. At this point, the company will become caught in a rip current of mediocrity, pulling it away from the land of profitability — or even pulling it under for good. If customers don’t like the product, won’t pay more for the product, or won’t tell other people about the product, your company will never be able to afford the competitive compensation packages it will need to attract skilled workers who can turn things around.
The foundation of a company is a good product that attracts good customers who will become your advocates and evangelists. At OnlineMedEd, we know we have to pay people what they’re worth if we want to have on staff the people who can make such a product a reality. We offer salaries above market rates and enterprise-level benefits.
Just as importantly, we’re transparent about what we offer. Each job listing includes a salary figure, and what you see is what you get. If you offer someone $70,000 to take a position that could be expected to command $200,000, you’re just wasting their time. People know we’re serious and that we respect them because we’re clear and up front about compensation.
2. Provide a Livable Workplace
Shoestring startups often work out of shoeboxes. Hey, HP and Apple started in garages!
However, few people actually enjoy working in such dank, dark, stuffy environments.
We’ve found that environment and culture are mutually reinforcing. Investing in the office environment — making the office human and livable and providing everyone with the tools they need — makes people excited to come to work. The ongoing costs of maintaining such an environment are higher than a garage’s might be, but so are the dividends: increased productivity, increased happiness, and increased longevity with the company. The reduced churn rate alone more than pays for the increased costs, as we don’t have to keep paying recruiters to find new people.
3. Make Work Meaningful
We wouldn’t go so far as to say that every line of code our engineers write saves a life, but there is some truth to that outlook. We help students become better doctors who can go forth and deliver better patient care.
Through generous compensation packages, an open and welcoming work environment, and a collegial and respectful company culture, we’re able to grab top talent to help us scale and optimize our tools. This enables greater reach: more students using the product, recommending it to others, taking lessons learned into their practices, and affecting more patients.
In light of this, everything anyone does in our office is meaningful, whether it be writing code, shipping books, or taking calls. Every action we take will, in the long run, help patients. This knowledge of how meaningful our work is keeps us energized every day.
4. Hire a Few Anchor Employees
If you want to hire A-players, identify and invest in a few key anchor points. That is, recruit one or more wildly qualified individuals. Overpay to bring in a rock star or two — people who inspire others through their abilities and accomplishments. The presence of these top players will entice other top guns to join the ranks. Just as mediocrity perpetuates itself, success begets more success.
Our experience has been that these rock stars stand out for their kindness and respect for others as much as for their intellect, thus lifting up those around them in ways that can’t be captured in a simple job description.
If you’re struggling with recruitment, take a look at your compensation, environment and culture, the true meaning of your product, and your anchor employees. By focusing on these four factors, our small startup has been able to compete with even the biggest tech companies to bring high-quality talent into our office.
Jamie Fitch is cofounder and CEO of OnlineMedEd.