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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's Not Them, It's You - Why You Can't Recruit Top Engineering Talent

Recruiting anyone worth having on your team is hard.  But, as a entrepreneur, you won't get very far without being able to do it.  Over time, I recruited a technical co-founder and several engineers / designers (albeit only part-time).  I'm almost embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to figure out what it takes to get them to give up what little free time they do have to spend it working on your startup idea.  Instead of airing my own dirty laundry, here's an approach that I've found very effective when recruiting engineers.

I tell everyone in the startup world that ideas are a dime a dozen, work on the idea that is meaningful to you (work on the project that you would use A LOT).  The problem is, it's unlikely the problem that drove you to start a startup will be more than 'interesting' to most engineers...especially the engineers you want.  However, interesting is a good starting point, not as good as "I've known this person X for years and we've been looking for an opportunity to work together", but it'll do.

What makes an idea interesting to you is the use case.  Once you figure this out, I encourage all non-technical founders to spend time learning to code a bare-bones v.0001.  Learning to code (a little bit) does a couple of things:

1) you get some cred w/ the engineer
2) you understand the lense through which your recruit sees the world
3) you understand a snapshot of all the work that goes into some business guys bright idea for a new feature 4) you develop genuine admiration for the skill set it has taken your potential hire years to develop

Then, get it in front of a potential hire.  At this point, you must treat the potential hire like the prettiest girl at the bar.  Get them interested, using as few words as possible.  Let them play with the product..  Ask them the some key questions.  What do you think?  Given what's going on with the web today, what would you build next?  If you've had users, give the engineer user feedback.  If they are interested, you'll see the sparks flying.  You'll know it's going well if they start talking, hypothesizing, building Rome and using the pronoun 'we'.

Engineers that join early startups has an uncharacteristic (to their field) risk profile and you have to nourish their inner desire to do more than just code.  And guess what, the engineers I've worked with have WAY MORE TO CONTRIBUTE than just code.  They can smell a whartonite-seeking code monkey a mile away.  Don't be that guy!!!  Any early members at a startup is a utility player, the more they bring to the table, the better off you will be.

FYI, being able to recruit goes a long way towards building a team and moving your project along.  Which is to say, it's a major milestone in terms of showing a customer / investor you can get stuff done.  It'll also stop you from ever having to say, "I'm raising money to hire 3 rock star engineers from company XYZ that have already told me they'll quit their job once I can pay them X."  If you don't already know, the aforementioned statement is second only to, "You'll need to sign an NDA before I can tell you about my idea," on the list of things to say to get thrown out of a serious conversation about startups.


  1. great blog, keep up the good work, i love hearing other non technical founder stories, it's like i'm listening to my own thoughts lol

  2. I'm glad you like the blog. I figure I've learned a few things the hard way, why not share it and save someone a little time.

    Don't forget to help my blog go viral, share it with your friends : )