Lessons from a life of startups, coding, countryside, and kids
“Make something people want” includes making a company that people want to work for — Sahil Lavingia @gumroad
I saw that quote in an article on the Inside Intercom blog and it really struck me as something that many founders fail to see until it’s too late — particularly non-technical founders.
When you’re just starting out the most urgent need is probably money, so you laser focus on chasing investment or, even better, customers. And it’s easy to think that the biggest threat to your fledgling business is the lack of money/investment/customers but it’s not. Not in the long-term. In the long-term you’re going to need more than the founding technical team (probably just one developer!) to develop the product and then you’re going to need to start hiring. But if you haven’t already built a company, and a culture, that attracts developers you’re going to find yourself starved of the resources you need.
It’s probably a bit easier for us technical people to build companies that attract other technical people. That’s not to say we understand how to attract sales people or support staff or designers, but there’s a huge demand for technical staff at the moment. It was drummed into me as a cadet sergeant that I needed to be willing to everything I expected my cadets to do. If they were double-timing it, I was double-timing. If they were crawling across a cowpat-ridden field at night, I was doing it too. And I’ve always adhered to that philosophy: so if I won’t work weekends, I won’t expect any of my staff to do so. If I want to work remotely, I won’t expect my staff to commute to an office. If I want flexi-hours, my staff will get flexi-hours. If I wouldn’t join a revenue-less startup, I won’t expect them too. If a €1000 annual bonus isn’t going to motivate me, I wouldn’t expect it to be enough to motivate them.
As the founder you might be doing all sorts of crazy hours but don’t expect that anyone else will be motivated to do so.
It’s important that founders don’t fall too heavily into the hype created for them. Sure, you’re employers and “potential drivers of the economy”, but developers are not going to feel privileged to have a job at your startup. You can’t simple put up a sign saying “work available here” and expect to be surrounded by a crowd of desperate developers. “But what about this economy?”, you say. This economy? You realise this is software development not housing development, right?! In 2000 (a similarly period of high-developer demand), I knew a startup that had a Porsche Boxter on weekly rotation among the developers.
Developers won’t not feel enthusiastic about sharing your cheap, grubby office. They aren’t going to be motivated by your minuscule stock options. Or by your “market-rate” salary. Or your lack of health insurance. Or your use of Java.
It’s not a definitive list but here’s some things that I’d do to specifically attract the types of developers that I want to work with:
Above all, you need to have a genuine desire to make your employees happy and successful. Just like your desire to make your customers happy and successful. Same thing.
You can of course do all these things and still fail. Without marketing, you can have the best product but no customers will know about you. Without marketing, you can be the best company to work for but you won’t be able to hire. At a minimum, your local tech community should know about your company, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and some of the tech you’re using. When you start hiring, they should already know who you are. They might have met you at a conference, heard you speak at a meetup, or (even better!) used your product. Publicly share more about how your company works internally: the places you work from; the tools you use; the problems you solve; the fun you have.
A shortage of developers will kill your startup just as surely as a lack of money. Marketing isn’t just about attracting customers, it’s about attracting talent too.