When I graduated with my MBA from Richmond, The American University in London, School of Business, and returned to the states to settle into my new grownup life, I was being courted by a handful of startups and a half dozen large, name-brand technology and consulting companies. This was the late 1990s, and I was mentored to join a name-brand company.
Many people told me that having that big name on my resume would result in a richer network and an education in business best practices. I listened. I spent the next 15 years in large-enterprise technology. My idea was that starting out as an entrepreneur or at an early-stage technology startup was something only people in California did, and if that's what you really wanted, you would move there too. Many MIT and Harvard graduates moved their technology ideas from Boston to Silicon Valley during that time.
The landscape is different today. Sure, there are many great candidates who still look at well-established brand names for the paycheck and resources, just as I did so many years ago. Student loans are only growing, and careers need fast-tracking. But opportunities are more diffuse.
"Entrepreneurship is as compelling an option as graduate-training programs with blue-chip companies," says Emma Sinclair, a successful serial entrepreneur and currently co-founder of EnterpriseJungle. Still if you don't have an impending IPO putting dollar signs in candidates' eyes, what else can you do to attract talent?
1. Push the sex appeal of the "what might be."
Sinclair notes that the emergence of entrepreneurship in mainstream media has had a significant impact on a founding team’s ability to hire good staff, even when money is limited. "Candidates want to be part of the next Facebook story," she says.
Make sure you define your company's potential to disrupt the market, and what leading that disruption would mean for team members.
2. Lay out a compelling compensation strategy.
Sure, we all want interesting work and to feel like we are making an impact. But we also want to get paid for the work we do. You have to run lean when you're running a startup. High salaries are not usually an option. Sinclair suggests offering employees stock in the business. Just remember to be prepared to discuss what you believe your company’s exit strategy will be and the desired timing. Otherwise, your potential new applicant will have too many lingering questions about the value of working for potentially worthless options.
3. Stay connected, even if you can’t hire people right away.
Sinclair recommends looking at relationships as long-term investments of your time. "The best way to engage top talent you might not be able to afford is by building relationships," she says. Your relationship will grow stronger through common interests and shared values. And when the time comes for your connection to make a career transition, "you will be the first person she calls," says Sinclair.
She cautions that founders should not feel urgency for top talent recruitment too early in their startup’s lifecycle. Instead, use these strategies as you plan for your company’s growth, so that when you're ready, you have a solid human-capital plan that will enable you to hire the best recruits for your business.