Trouble Hiring? Create a Cult

This article appeared on TechCrunch yesterday

Everyone knows there’s a war going on today in Silicon Valley: a war for talent. Startups are competing for a limited supply of engineering and product design labor, largely constrained by the failure of the US to invest in STEM education and a terribly restrictive immigration process for work visas. Meanwhile, big companies like Facebook and Google are paying out millions to either retain or rehire engineers through talent acquisitions.

This system is under even more pressure from seed funds (Sorry: I’m a part-time partner at Y Combinator, so I’m probably contributing to the problem). Not only do you have to worry about your engineers going to your competition, you have to worry about them getting seeded to run off and start their own company. It’s often hard to compete against the “grass is greener” dream of being a founder, especially when the theoretical upside of doing your own thing is nearly infinite and there are investors ready to write you a convertible note check today. No cap necessary!

If you want to attract and retain the best talent, you’re going to have to work hard at it. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the past couple months:

1) Have a vision

When our main product was Justin.tv, no one wanted to work at our company. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but few talented engineers said to themselves “Oh my god! My dream has always been to work at a general live video platform: you guys are the perfect fit!” We hired several talented people, but mostly because we were a YC company, had a few interesting technology scaling challenges and we seemed really cool.

When we launched TwitchTV, a community around broadcasting and watching video gaming, everything changed. We started to get a LOT more inbound candidates: it turns out the overlap between programmers and pro-gamers is pretty high. We had a new vision to bring competitive gaming to the masses, and there are many people out there who share that vision and want to be a part of making that world a reality. By communicating a vision that harnesses the passions of a certain group of people, we tapped into a talent pool we wouldn’t otherwise have had access too.

2) Be the only option

If you want a job as a programmer at a social media site, all you have to do is walk down the street in San Francisco waving your front-end engineer resume and you’ll be employed in 30 seconds. The competition to be the best social network, photo sharing platform, event discovery engine, or Facebook for X is fierce… and everyone is losing to Facebook.

I remember reading an Elon Musk interview where he claimed that if you were an engineer that wanted to innovate in rocketry or electric cars, there really wasn’t anywhere else to work but Space X or Tesla. Consequently, they attract the top engineering talent in those industries. For every industry, there are some set of talented people who are passionate about innovating and solving the difficult problems. If you’re the company that happens to be innovating and solving difficult problems, then you’re going to end up the the default “Best place to work in X.” My recommendation: pick an industry where that title will be possible to achieve.

3) Create a cult

The buzz over perks, salary and fancy benefits wears off. Every time you give someone a raise or new title, she feels good… for a week. Soon after, it settles in and becomes a new baseline, and worse still it becomes leverage for her to get a higher paying job somewhere else.

Instead, focus on providing an environment that builds community within your company. Often heard example: provide company lunches. It isn’t just efficient, but it increases opportunities for serendipitous discussion over meal times and employees will be more likely to become friends. The more friends at a company, the more enjoyable the job and the more you want to stay where you are.

My friend Matt Brezina’s company, Sincerely, creators of postcard sharing app Postagram, goes beyond that. The entire company takes week-long workcations in Mexico. They heavily recruit within social circles and when a candidate flies in for an interview they will put him up in an Airbnb in a neighborhood he would be likely to live, and the team will spend the weekend hanging out with him. By building a sense of family, you build lasting connections between your employees that will keep them motivated and around.

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Your talented team is the most vital part of any startup. The way to retain the best talent is by having a clear vision, working in an area where you’re the only company and creating a place where people connect with each other.