Startups share hiring tips on how to find technical talent

Startups share their secrets on how to hire and keep technical talent on a shoestring budget.

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Desperate to hire talent for your next big technology project -- and constantly finding yourself outcompeted by the likes of Facebook, Google and a legion of other tech heavy-hitters?

You might want to take a page from some successful startup companies in the Boston area. At a recent Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council panel discussion on how startups hire with limited resources, these entrepreneurial leaders offered up some of their tried-and-true methods.

For starters, hiring out of desperation is almost always a recipe for disaster, according to Scott Ward, senior vice president of Nanigans Inc. The Boston-based Software as a Service advertising company learned that the hard way. "Making a bad hire is much more painful and difficult to deal with," Ward said. "There's the cost of dealing with the individual and letting them go, it can have a negative impact on your team, and you water down the overall talent on your team."

But the effort that goes into finding the absolute perfect candidate is also a luxury for most startups and CIOs alike. That's why building a strong network and figuring out creative ways to sell non-monetary benefits is crucial, the panel said.

Here are seven hiring tips on how startups sniff out and bring in good talent:

Recruit, don't wait for applicants. Rather than wait for potential candidates to find it, Mass.-based startup RunKeeper tends to make the first move.

"I'd say 99% of the people we talk to are not looking for work," said Larry McSheffery, director of talent and engagement for RunKeeper, a fitness and social media application.

One way McSheffery starts his search for potential candidates is by turning to his own network: Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn -- he has an active presence on all of them. He doesn't make a hard sell; instead, he meets candidates on an intellectual plane. He'll tell them, "We're trying to build up this function; you've been doing it for a while. Want to give me insight on how you do it?"

Another tip: Use your own internal staff to scope out events like hackathons, which are becoming increasingly popular and offer an opportunity to observe how people work together, or tap into Meetup groups.

Tap student power. Set up internship and co-op programs for students. They can inject both youth and enthusiasm into an environment, panelists said. And the inevitable will happen eventually: Students will graduate and need a permanent job.

"A number of our co-ops have come back," said David Chang, chief operating officer for PayPal Media Network. "Now they're leading some major teams."

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In some cases, external resources are available to help support these programs. In Massachusetts, for example, the MassTech Intern Partnership will match an intern's salary by up to 50% in some cases. But best of all, interns and co-ops don't come alone; they bring their networks with them, Chang said.

Grade the graduates. Hiring untested students right out of college is tricky -- especially for the more technical side of the house, the panelists said. Those hires will require training, which requires time. Still, university relationships can be worthwhile. Derek Schoettle and his team meet professors, sometimes dropping in during office hours to talk.

"If they like you, they'll say, 'Here are my top three students; here are the folks I think are superstars. You should talk to them,'" said Schoettle, CEO of Cloudant, a distributed Database as a Service provider. "An introduction that's parlayed that way feels good."

By investing in university relationships, Schoettle was introduced to a "brilliant" 20-year-old dropout who has since become one of Cloudant's top employees.

Show, don't tell, why your company is a great place to work. It's one thing to tell potential employees about how great the company culture is, but it's another thing to show them. The first Cloudant employee in Bristol, U.K. did just that. "He made a movie about zombies taking over the University of Bristol and how [viewers] could save themselves by coming to Cloudant," Schoettle said.

Although the project was unsanctioned, the recruiting tactic worked: The Bristol office now has 15 employees who Schoettle described as "incredibly talented."

Share resources. A hire can be "incredibly talented" and also a hiring mistake, in McSheffery's experience. "If you get a great candidate and they're just not the right fit for you, you might want to help them go to another company," he said. That kind of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" mentality can help open up channels to new talent, as well as bolster company reputation within industry circles and by job candidates alike. Collaborating on recruiting talent is "something people don't do enough," he said.

Bring on the games! To apply for a job at WibiData, a Silicon Valley-based enterprise data management startup, applicants first have to play a video game. The co-founder, Christophe Bisciglia, hired a game designer to create a version of the popular game Portal, set in the WibiData offices. The game presents puzzles and challenges for the player. After all puzzles have been solved, the player can then access the application.

"Any broadcast mechanism you can use that can get to a lot of people -- videos, games or something that's going to engage the candidate -- is a good use of time," Schoettle said.

Don't stint on the core team. The panel agreed: When hiring those first few employees, whether to work on a project or as the core of a new company, don't rush things. Initial hires help set the tone for the rest of the team; they can also influence major decisions, such as who to bring in next and how to build out the business, Schoettle said.

"It is a critical investment," he said. At the end of the day, the market's going to change and the product will break, and a trusted team of core employees will be vital for meeting challenges like these.

Nicole Laskowski is the senior news writer for SearchCIO. Email her or find her on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

This was first published in October 2013
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