Why Nobody Is Willing To Join Your Startup

Written By: Dharmesh Shah July 4, 2006

As a follow-up to the popular articles, “Why Investors Aren’t Writing You Checks” and “Why Your Software Isn’t Selling”, this is third in the series of articles that uses an informal, conversational and somewhat humorous style to explore common issues that startup founders face.  

In this article, we’ll look at the issue of why startup founders may be facing challenges in getting people to join the company.  Though this is written in the context of bringing on the early members of the non-founding team, most of the ideas apply to finding founder/partners as well.

Note:  This is a fictional scenario.  Apologies for referring to myself in the third-person.  It’s a little strange, but seems to work.

Why Nobody Is Willing To Join Your Startup
Founder:  I’m really having a hard-time understanding why it has been difficult to hire employees to join my new startup.  

Dharmesh:  Well, this could be due to a variety of reasons.  First off, on a somewhat philosophical note, perhaps you should really consider this more of a “recruiting” exercise and not a “hiring” exercise.  You’re asking people to take a risk, and the best people, the kind of people you want joining your startup, will likely be choosing from several great opportunities.

Founder:  Sure, yeah, whatever.  I can understand it being difficult to convince people to join if all their jobs weren’t being sent offshore.  But they are.  You’d think that hiring programmers and technical people would be easier now that so much work is being done offshore.  

Dharmesh:  Well…in a software startup, you have to remember that the kinds of people you’re looking to hire are likely not finding it difficult to find opportunities.  They likely have a combination of technical skills, business instincts and an entrepreneurial passion.  As it turns out, this is a rare combination that rarely goes out of style.  Treating new recruits as a commodity rarely makes a positive impression.  

Founder:  Fine, fine.  Let’s assume that these prima donnas do have other opportunities.  That still doesn’t explain why they’re failing to see why this opportunity is so much better.  Many of these people are stuck in big companies and likely getting the life energy sucked out of them anyways.  I’d be pulling them out of the mud.

Dharmesh:  It is a common startup myth that all people that are working for big companies lead miserable existences.  This is not true.  Lots of smart, passionate people like where they work and not all big companies are bad.  In any case, perhaps you’re asking them to take on too much risk?  Perhaps you should create more “balance” in the compensation structure.

Founder:  We’re offering to pay pretty good salaries.  We’re venture-backed so we can afford to pay close to fair market value.  So, it’s not lack of compensation that is causing the problem.

Dharmesh:  Ok, even more important than compensation is that people have to believe in the vision of the company and what it is out to do.  Startup recruits recognize that they will be making huge sacrifices and investing lots of time and energy in your company.  They need to understand and value what you are trying to do.  If they don’t share your passion, it’s hard to convince people to make these kinds of sacrifices.

Founder:  Trust me, it’s not a lack of vision that is the problem either.  We have a clear vision of how our startup is going to change the world.  We’re going to be the next eBay meets Google meets Web 3.1.  We’re forward thinking revolutionaries.  Any intelligent person should jump at the opportunity to be part of something this big.

Dharmesh:  Ok, let’s stipulate that you have a clear vision and that potential recruits understand it.  Another possible obstacle is lack of trust or faith in the management team – particularly you.  If your new recruits don’t think you have what it takes to succeed, there’s little reason for them to join.

Founder:  Have you read my bio at all?  Do you know anything about me?  I was the VP of Sales at a Fortune 500 company before this startup.  I have attracted top-tier venture capitalists to fund this new company and have an MBA from Harvard.  Clearly, if the potential recruits don’t have faith in me, they’re not particularly astute.

Dharmesh:  Fine.  You have a strong background.  It could then simply be a matter of chemistry – or lack thereof.  Though I can’t imagine why, perhaps these new potential recruits just can’t see themselves working along side you.  Life is short and at some level, they have to like you in order to join your startup.

Founder:  That has got to be stupidest thing I’ve heard this week.  I’m not looking for them to work alongside me.  They’re working for me and will have a job to do.  What does liking me have to do with anything?  They’re not going to be seeing much of me anyways.  I’m going to be off working on the next round of capital, and closing the next big strategic partnership.  This is not a popularity contest.  We’re not going to be sitting around the campfire, holding hands and singing songs.  That died with the bubble bursting.  We’re here to make money.  

Dharmesh:  Well, I think the problem is you’re looking for a different kind of recruit than the ones I’m talking about.  That may be the problem.  Based on what you’ve said, perhaps you are looking for the wrong kinds of people in the wrong kinds of places.  Maybe you’d be better off tapping into your VCs and using a recruiting firm to find the talent and skills you need.  Early-stage startup recruits are hard to find.  They want to be partners and collaborators.  If you are just looking to fill positions, I’m not the guy to be talking to anyways.  

Founder:  Fine.  You’re probably right.  It shouldn’t be this hard to just hire the people I need.  If you come across any rational people that want to join a great company, have them send me their resume.  I don’t have an HR director yet, so I have to do all this crap myself.

Dharmesh:  Um, ok. 

Summary of my point:  Recruiting the early members of a startup team is critically important and very hard.  Succeeding at this takes a combination of finding the right balance of risk, ensuring you have a passion and vision for the company that others can share and that you are fundamentally likeable.  


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