Positions Beyond the Pay: Meaningful Recruiting on a Startup Budget

The fight for talent, both technical and non-technical, can be fierce – especially when you are running a startup or small business. You may not always be in a position to pay top dollars to attract the top talent. In fact, you may not always offer full time employment, or even competitive pay.

Offer Something Meaningful

When recruiting for your startup or small business, it is important to focus on offering something more fulfilling, meaningful, and interesting than other well-paid, full time, nine to five positions.

Whether you are offering predominantly equity compensation, a part-time opportunity, an after-work or occasional gig, or any other non-traditional opportunity at below-market compensation, consider offering some of the following experiences.

These can increase fulfillment and satisfaction for workers involved in an early stage business.

Have an open source strategy

Developers, engineers, and other technical talent often value opportunities to contribute to the open source community. These opportunities give talented employees credibility, visibility, and recognition from their peers and the programming community.

This reputation-boosting may be one of the biggest perks you offer to your employees, contractors, and supporters. Therefore, it makes sense to decide what, if anything, and how your company will contribute to the open source community.

This decision may have business implications and definitely shouldn’t be considered lightly. However, it is important to weigh many factors, including your ability to attract and retain talent, before reaching a conclusion.  

Democratize and decentralize decision-making

It is often attractive for employees, contractors, and collaborators to be involved in the creation process. It is not unusual for folks to join a startup or a small company because they want to “see how the sausage is made.”

Startup life is exciting, and people who join startups want to participate in the process, not just salivate on the sidelines. If you democratize your company’s decision-making processes, you stand out from most employers and will have more leverage to attract the talent you want and need.

This has the added bonus of attracting talented employees who are ready to jump in and contribute from day one.

Clearly communicate and seek input on timelines and goals

Most people enjoy certainty, appreciate long term vision from leaders, and like to understand how they can contribute. Communicating a larger long-term vision is just as important as communicating the timeline for intermediate goals that will get you there.

This may seem difficult to manage in a startup situation, but maintaining some level of certainty will pay off when attracting top talent. Startup life is known to be unpredictable, but being completely unorganized or overly casual will deter top talent.

Being constantly behind makes a leader look like a poor planner who is not managing the company’s reality. A more intentional and orderly approach will make a leader seem more in control and increase the likelihood that others will follow suit.

Provide support

We all have strengths and weaknesses and our employees and contractors do as well. It is a good idea to have a conversation with potential team members to determine what they are good at, where they need support from you, and how actively they want to participate in other functions.

If they are developers, do they want to provide input about UI? If they are engineers, do they want to provide input to sales? And if so, how much and how actively? If not, how can you support them to make sure they can reach their full potential?

This may mean connecting them to organizations or other professionals who can help them grow in their careers. It can also mean providing opportunities to hone skills they’d like to improve. By being upfront and supportive about opportunities for growth, you can convince top talent – especially new talent – to sign on.

Encourage exploration and problem solving at work

Although it is helpful to set deadlines, it may be a good idea to ask your team what else needs to be done, how you can do things differently, or whether they see opportunities to improve existing processes.

Creating a community of exploration and problem solving will provide exciting motivation for team members. It may be a good idea to periodically set up internal 24 or 48 hour competitions with prizes like fun trophies or bragging rights.

Call your team to action with a fun challenge such as, "Can anyone suggest a solution or prototype for a new feature by Wednesday? This can be a fun way to simultaneously get business done and bond.

Discuss fundraising and all other milestones frankly without hedging or spinning the truth

It is refreshing and memorable when people are honest and straightforward. While it may tempting to spin reality in an effort to shield others from worrying, your team deserves to know the truth. When you ask people to go above and beyond for your goals, don’t they deserve to know what’s going on and what real challenges you are facing?

It is only fair to give them your all if you are asking them to do the same. In the startup world we all have been through spin conversations full of half-truths like “we have many great options,” “we just got an LOI from so-and-so,” "we're talking to XYZ," and "we’re hearing great things from them."

Employees may be too polite to call you out on the spin, but they are highly likely to write off your credibility.

Honestly discuss what is unique and game changing about your business, value proposition, or team

Nothing unites people more than a shared cause and belief. Top talent will go above and beyond and even sacrifice top compensation if they are rallied around your game changing mission and unstoppable passion. Are you on the cutting edge of technology?

Are you providing services that have never been done before? Are you carving out an industry? Does your business impact society at large or address a long-standing social need? It is important to share this with your team frequently and honestly, while explicitly explaining how their contributions help. 

What Do You Value Most?

Ultimately, everyone gravitates toward what they value the most. To attract top talent to help build your startup or small business, you need to develop and prove your value to potential team members. When you can’t offer top compensation, it’s important to stand out in other ways.

By offering an open, creative, supportive environment where team members can make satisfying, well-appreciated contributions, you’ll attract talent who’ll love working with you – no matter what they’re paid.