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

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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