On recruiting: why you should alienate at least half your candidates

Posted: May 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 23 Comments »

Recruiting at a startup is fundamentally hard.  You need to convince someone  – let’s say, for argument’s sake, a senior developer; a smart, educated person who should know better – to bet her mortgage on your future, take a big pay cut, and go back to writing her own build scripts.  If you’re in Seattle, there’s Microsoft and Google, beckoning gently from across the lapping waves of Lake Washington, saying, “Come on over!  We have great healthcare benefits!  And you can get your soul back if you need it later, promise!”

How do you compete with that?  Most of the answers to this question – passion, opportunity, upside, etc – I’ll talk about some other time.  But you’ve got one key opportunity, one secret weapon, available to you as a startup: those companies need to attract armies.  You only need to hire one.

When Charles, Brian, and I were founding Ontela, one of the many small decisions along the way was where to locate the company.  Now, there’s a simple heuristic here that most companies use: the company’s world headquarters is the piece of commercial real estate closest to the CEO’s house.  We decided to give it a little more thought, though, and particularly pondered the question of Eastside versus Westside.

Aerial view of Seattle and the EastsideFor those of you unfamiliar with Seattle’s culture and geography, westside (top of the picture) is Seattle’s vibrant downtown; home of great restaurants, arts and culture, and the business core. The “Eastside” is about ten miles and 50 minutes of bloodcurdling traffic agony across two aging bridges built on pontoons.  On the bright side, once you get there, you find Microsoft and overpriced office space.

Here’s why the decision was difficult: over the years, Microsoft and its spinoffs have concentrated much of Seattle’s technology talent in the Eastside where they can be conveniently close to the mothership and need never face the horror of the Bridges.  But by now astute readers may have intuited where the decision was going.  “We don’t have to hire most of the technology talent in Seattle”, we reasoned. “We just have to get a few awesome people.”.  So rather than plunk ourselves Eastside, competing head to head with Microsoft and Google Kirkland, we decided to cast our lot with the minority of geeks in the West.  It meant we seriously alienated more than half our potential candidates who would face two hours of travel each day for the privilege of sitting in our sketchy secondhand office chairs, but the remaining minority were OVERJOYED at the notion of getting to work near where they lived.

Never mind the great implications to corporate culture, this was instrumental to our first hires.  There we were, no VC funding, trying to get senior talent to join – we basically targeted technologists who were sick of a two hour commute.  And it worked.  Hire #1 was a brilliant senior developer who took a huge salary cut in large part because he figured he’d get home sooner to see his kids if he didn’t have to battle the bridge.

So as you consider your startup, remember: it’s vastly better to polarize the market, alienate half your potential work force, and buck conventional wisdom than it is to play to the middle.  Startups are unique; embrace that, and you’ll do well.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to extend the principle of strategic polarization and alienation to the entire company culture.

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  • http://www.alwaysontechnologies.com Lida Tang

    Amazingly enough, I think it is also the secret to carving a niche for your product.

    You product has to be very useful to a core group of people before trying to make it mass market.

  • http://www.alwaysontechnologies.com Lida Tang

    Amazingly enough, I think it is also the secret to carving a niche for your product.

    You product has to be very useful to a core group of people before trying to make it mass market.

  • Don

    “Her”?

  • Don

    “Her”?

  • Dan

    Absolutely. Big companies play to the middle. Startups are about playing to the extremes.

  • Dan

    Absolutely. Big companies play to the middle. Startups are about playing to the extremes.

  • Dan

    Don: it’s a pronoun used to refer to people of the female persuasion. Given your unfamiliarity, I take it you might be a developer yourself.

  • Dan

    Don: it’s a pronoun used to refer to people of the female persuasion. Given your unfamiliarity, I take it you might be a developer yourself.

  • http://ryanapeterson.com/ Ryan Peterson

    Great thought, Dan! Well… aside from the fact that reading this post reminded me that I’ll be venturing to the Eastside this week.

    For a startup, the benefits of this practice seem clear; have you seen this approach work/fail in a noteworthy manner for any particular medium-sized, or large, organizations?

  • http://ryanapeterson.com/ Ryan Peterson

    Great thought, Dan! Well… aside from the fact that reading this post reminded me that I’ll be venturing to the Eastside this week.

    For a startup, the benefits of this practice seem clear; have you seen this approach work/fail in a noteworthy manner for any particular medium-sized, or large, organizations?

  • Dan

    Netflix would be Exhibit A of doing this well at a medium-to-large company… I’ll probably write about that before long too.

  • Dan

    Netflix would be Exhibit A of doing this well at a medium-to-large company… I’ll probably write about that before long too.

  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com Ellie K

    I'm going to disregard most of these comments about female pronouns and other oblique references which are beyond my comprehension.

    Ontela's choice of a Westside location was a fast, easy and inexpensive way of gaining competitive advantage in attracting senior talent. Even for a start-up, particularly for one with no VC vote-of-confidence, that was a very brave and clever thing to do. Doing something different, even if well-reasoned, is nerve-wracking. Actually, the decision to locate where Ontela did might even benefit them in the long-run, with recognition from the environmentally aware, as shorter commute implies less fuel consumption (maybe even tax credits for being a progressive, civic-minded employer…?)

    @Ryan, I have an example for you, of a large, public-sector organization that benefited from a strategy that alienated half the potential employee pool: the State of Arizona Department of Health Services. The State of AZ is cash-strapped. Their approach was to target qualified healthcare professionals and IT people who were entering the final 10 or 20 years of their work life. By offering highly flexible schedules (including part-time positions) and worksites close to residential areas, DHS was able to hire and retain very experienced staff despite below-market salaries. The strategy worked well for nearly a decade, until most of the workforce (qualified or not) was furloughed due to recession in 2009-10.

  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com Ellie K

    I'm going to disregard most of these comments about female pronouns and other oblique references which are beyond my comprehension.

    Ontela's choice of a Westside location was a fast, easy and inexpensive way of gaining competitive advantage in attracting senior talent. Even for a start-up, particularly for one with no VC vote-of-confidence, that was a very brave and clever thing to do. Doing something different, even if well-reasoned, is nerve-wracking. Actually, the decision to locate where Ontela did might even benefit them in the long-run, with recognition from the environmentally aware, as shorter commute implies less fuel consumption (maybe even tax credits for being a progressive, civic-minded employer…?)

    @Ryan, I have an example for you, of a large, public-sector organization that benefited from a strategy that alienated half the potential employee pool: the State of Arizona Department of Health Services. The State of AZ is cash-strapped. Their approach was to target qualified healthcare professionals and IT people who were entering the final 10 or 20 years of their work life. By offering highly flexible schedules (including part-time positions) and worksites close to residential areas, DHS was able to hire and retain very experienced staff despite below-market salaries. The strategy worked well for nearly a decade, until most of the workforce (qualified or not) was furloughed due to recession in 2009-10.

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  • http://twitter.com/halukakin Haluk Akın

    We experience the same thing in our startup as well. We are located on the eastern part of the city where there are less tech jobs available. At first I thought that would make it harder to hire people, but actually it turns out there are some amazing people who just do not want to commute.

  • http://www.facebook.com/arne.wieding Arne Wieding

    What were your experiences with your #1 hire now 3 years later? I dont know if its the best thing if the first hires are in a way motivated by getting home sooner in a startup, but id like to hear your experience.

  • http://www.danshapiro.com/blog Dan Shapiro

    Who said anything about getting home sooner? 2 hours of traffic means you’re spending your time driving instead of working. And at a startup, if you prefer commuting to working, something’s terribly wrong.

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