Let’s face it: the hardest thing about building a great company is attracting and retaining great people. But once great people are attracted by pursuit of an exciting mission, a complex and interesting engineering problem and, yes, compensation, how to you keep them?
The problem is that truly great people stick out like a sore thumb. Some of them are even members of "The Guild" (the pack of 1000x developers that hang out at places like LinkedIn, Facebook and Google and the top start-ups run by their Guild mates). These people are the targets for cash-rich, rapidly growing “it” companies and command compensation packages in the millions of dollars, heavily skewed toward restricted share and option grants. They also offer rich perks, the best hardware and loads of creature comforts. These people are game changers, and are brought in to build mission critical pieces of the software stack designed to operate at web scale. The salutary impact on their new employer is expected to be orders of magnitude larger than their comp package. From a purely monetary perspective, it is hard for the start-up to compete.
But clearly some start-ups have been successful in recruiting and retaining 1000x engineers, even in the face of sickly flattering offers from the red-hot incumbents with richly-valued shares. There are a handful of tools that successful start-ups use to keep these unicorns in their seats, sometimes alone but often in combination:
Create - and maintain - an engineering culture. Too often developers are viewed as tools for executing a product vision and not as engines of creativity capable of helping shape the vision. The best developers are jazzed by solving wicked hard problems, and in the process gaining tremendous insight into the product, its strengths, limitations and opportunities for development. Celebrate these coding monsters and help push their stuff into production. This only makes them happier. Feed the beast!
Be generous with stock options. Gone are the days when the business founder gets 20x the early technical hires. This is a sure-fire way to create a revolving-door culture where the best are compelled to leave for purely economic reasons. Even developers who are intoxicated by the mission and the problems to be solved have their limits, and top developers know their market value and won’t stand for shabby treatment over time. The equity package for “Guild” members at start-ups has to be massively adjusted. Whether they are “founders” or not, their impact on executing the plan is essential for the plan to come to life. Be generous and work to expand the pie for all shareholders, even if that means taking additional dilution due to a large option pool.
Create larger option pools Day 1. So much time is spent haggling over the size of the option pool in the earliest days. I see founders of seed stage companies routinely wanting to size the post-money option pool at 10%. This is simply way too low. In a Series C company? Perhaps. In a seed or early Series A company, where a significant number of engineers need to be hired? Grossly inadequate. I’d say option pools should almost be double what is common today (10%-15%) in order to provide sufficient flexibility to hire and retain the best people. Option budgets should be re-calibrated to reflect the true value of the 1000x engineer. What is the purpose of spending the time and effort to onboard one of these people, only to be stingy when it comes to ownership? It makes no sense.
Consider pre-emptively marking your top engineers to market. Given the intimacy of the start-up community, it is often pretty well known that a particular start-up engineer is speaking with one of the larger “hot” companies. Further, a totally rocking engineer is well-known by their peers, each of which is a potential threat for making a run at their friend and trying to get them to join their company. When you’ve witnessed the 1000x performance, it is safe to assume that they are being approached regularly by larger firms to join the team. Before these talks gain any traction, estimate the kind of package your engineer would get to leave (A). Then calculate what a reasonable exit scenario for your company is, say, 2-years forward (B). Divide A by B: this will give you the approximate amount of ownership the engineer should have in the company to be economically neutral.
Keep the work varied and challenging. Rock stars like to be stretched. Bad things happen when the exceptional developer’s mind is allowed to wander. Keep it from wandering by being constantly challenged with stimulating and exciting work. And by all means don’t “kick them upstairs” and ask them to manage; this isn’t a promotion, it’s a prison sentence. Get a great VP Eng to manage the release cycle and to keep the team on task. Do not waste the 1000x developer’s skills or psyche on managing people. It’s all about the work - keep it that way.
Show the love. Developers may be low key on the outside but they are pure fire on the inside. They have ego; it just might not be of the in-your-face variety. They are more likely to be thrilled by authoring an open-source project or filing a patent application than getting some public acclaim. What they really want is respect from their peers. To this end, think creatively about ways they can demonstrate their skills and share it with others. Publicly acknowledge the impact they have had and will have on the organization. And just treat them well.
At the end of the day even a generous start-up might not be able to compete with Facebucks or Google’s gazillions, but the range and richness of work coupled with having a massive and observable impact on a smaller company’s business can often tip the scales. But to win against these aggressive and monied competitors, start-ups need to be on their game. Hard.