12 ways to get and keep top talent, even on a bootstrapper’s budget

Bootstrapping. Photo: Alan Cleaver

Most startup founders don’t mind putting off their payday indefinitely — they’re in it for the long haul by nature, and tightening their belts is par for the course.

But bootstrapping presents a special challenge when it’s time to start scaling up and hiring: Without killer talent, your startup might fail. But just because you’re willing to eat Ramen doesn’t mean your top-tier engineering lead wants to do the same.

Yet as a founder, you know better than anyone else why working for a startup is such a rush: the intimacy, the shared passion, the ability to lead a team and help shape a company’s future.

The challenge is figuring out a way to sell your future employees on those intangibles, so you can start building a team that works. (Previously on GeekWireGlympse CEO Bryan Trussel: You really don’t want to take the startup leap, do you?… A giant sucking sound: Seattle startup CEOs say Amazon is sucking up all of the tech talent in the city)

We asked 12 founders from the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) to share their best advice on hiring great talent, even when you’re pinching pennies. Here are their answers:

1. Sell Your Big Vision

If the vision for what you’re working on is compelling, provocative and game-changing enough, sell it! It may be enough to convince team members to come on board because they believe in what you’re doing and what to help it succeed, not just because of the compensation they’ll potentially receive. Sometimes making a difference or changing lives is all the reward team members need to get started.

Lea Woodward, Startup Training School

2. Offer Other Types of Compensation

Money is not the only form of compensation that people need to be happy in life. For many positions in GBS, we look for current speakers who would like more connections within the industry. The benefits of using our platform to grow their brands and gaining contacts with national media are enough to get them to work with us at a reduced cost.

Lawrence Watkins, Great Black Speakers

3. Utilize Your Current Team Members

Your best bet is to attract new team members by selling them on existing team members. The purpose of the team isn’t as important as the team itself. If you attract team members because they love working, creating something and hanging out together, it doesn’t matter what you’re eating.

Travis Steffen, WorkoutBOX

4. Build an Invaluable Culture

If it’s true that people ultimately just want to be happy, create the happiest place on Earth for them to work. This isn’t just about offering the right “perks,” but about building an work community that shares, builds, and champions the meaning behind them.

Derek Flanzraich, Greatist

5. Position Your Startup as a Building Block

The worst thing that an entrepreneur can do is sell false hope to a prospective team member. When you cannot pay market rate, you need to listen to an employee’s goals and craft a role that fits with their ambitions. You will need all employees to “punch above their weight,” so build roles that will allow team members to challenge themselves and grow towards their own career aspirations.

— Aaron Schwartz, Modify Watches

6. Money Is Valuable, but Value Isn’t Monetary

If you can’t pay the dollar amount that an employee wants, supplement the dollars with other forms of value. Opportunity, experience, applicable education, title and recognition can go a long way in securing talent for your company — in lieu of cash.

Nick Friedman, College Hunks Hauling Junk

7. Pitch All That Potential

To attract competent employees when available capital is quite limited, sell them on the future. It can be a tough sell, but if you can get people to buy in to the long-term success potential of your business, they’re more likely to join you.

Andrew Schrage, Money Crashers Personal Finance

8. Focus on the Now

Don’t make promises about the future that you may not be able to keep. Instead, focus on what you can do right now: an awesome culture, industry impact, leadership experience, flexibility, and other things. You can give things that large companies can’t give. At my first company, the ping pong table in the lounge helped a lot, too!

Luke Burgis, ActivPrayer

9. Experience Matters

It’s all about the experience. A higher salary does not equal happiness. Tout the benefits of getting more experience at your company than they would anywhere else. Sell them on the culture, autonomy of work, and general experience.

Bhavin Parikh, Magoosh Test Prep

10. Unconventional Terms Are the New Norm

Most people want the flexibility to do the things they want to do in life, so get unconventional. Let them work remotely or have them set their own work hours. If you combine your enthusiasm for the concept, and give them a deal that improves the quality of their life, you’re onto something big.

Sean Ogle, Location 180

11. Flexibility to Make Outside Cash

If you can’t pay someone as much as they would like to earn, give them the flexibility to earn more outside of working for you. That could mean fitting their hours around another part-time job or supporting them in doing outside freelance work. If they’re happy working for you and able to pay their bills, you’re creating a sustainable partnership.

Elizabeth Saunders, Real Life E®

12. Find Out What Motivates Them

Money is not everything to inherently entrepreneurial people. Is it responsibility, power, ownership, a big payday, culture, or work-life balance? If people rank all of the above, a short-term tradeoff of late-night Ramen potlucks won’t require much convincing.

Abby Ross, Blueye Creative

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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