A sign outside Amazon's HQ in Seattle shows the company's amazing appetite for new hires. Photo: Matt Shobe
A sign outside Amazon’s HQ in Seattle shows the company’s amazing appetite for new hires. Photo: Matt Shobe

It’s tough enough to do a startup, let alone when you’re competing for talent against a juggernaut like Amazon.com.

I’ve heard that a lot in recent weeks, especially as the Seattle online powerhouse continues to gobble up engineers, developers and executives from the startup ranks (most recently Charlie Kindel, and before that entire teams of workers like the folks at TeachStreet).

The booming growth of Amazon — especially for anyone seeing the lines at food trucks in the South Lake Union neighborhood every weekday — is impressive.

Amazon employed 91,300 people worldwide at the end of the first quarter — a whopping 39 percent increase over last year’s total (Yes, a large percentage of that is in retail and fulfillment centers). Not all of that growth is happening in Seattle, but a lot of it is.

And that insane growth rate is having a significant impact on big and small startups alike.

It raises the question: Is Amazon’s growth good for the Seattle startup ecosystem?

Sterling Wilson

I’d argue in the short-term, it is causing some serious pain. But longer term, especially once the engine of growth slows at Amazon or it hits a blip, it could help propel the region’s startup tech community to new levels.

Nonetheless, at a panel discussion and keynote session I attended this week, Amazon’s impact on the startup community came up on two separate occasions.

First, were remarks from longtime Seattle tech veteran Sterling Wilson, the former Qpass president who now runs Zettics.

“There is a sucking sound (out of Amazon). They hire anybody who is good, and pay them a lot of money,” he said. “So, there is a big drain on trying to find people.”

Also noting the development offices of companies like Google and competition with other startups, Wilson noted that there is a “hard, hard path to recruiting people in Seattle.”

Steve Shivers
Steve Shivers

Next up, was Steve Shivers of Doxo. Doxo is an interesting story in part because its backers include Bezos Expeditions, the venture capital firm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

But Shivers too cited Amazon during his remarks.

“We are hurting in Seattle in my view because many folks after the tech bubble burst said: ‘I am going to play it safe.’ And the safe thing is … to go to Amazon. You will make double or triple the money. We are not as big of a pool of tech talent, so that in a market like ours sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room.”

But Shivers noted that it works the other way too.

“There are people who really get tired of that, and then you can selectively find the folks who want to create something again, or be a part of something from day one,” he said.

Julie Sandler

Madrona Venture Group’s Julie Sandler noted the critical role that Amazon and other tech titans are playing in the region, including Jeff Bezos’ recent decision to endow two computer science professorships at the University of Washington.

“Having strong anchor tenants … is hugely critical to the entire startup ecosystem,” she said. “One of the things I’ve been impressed about, particularly Microsoft and Amazon over the past five years, is the active role that leaders in those companies have taken in the startup community.”

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  • AmzDude

    Lots of great talent will move to Seattle to work at Amazon. Then they’ll leave after a couple years because they’ll get a stock payday and realize that money doesn’t make them hate their job any less. Then they’ll look for a better job at one of the many fine companies in the area.

    • Hakon Verespej

      I agree with this and the sentiment of the comments as a whole. I’m grateful for the import of talent by the massive companies and encourage all of our startups to work hard to show people why it’s awesome to be part of your team, part of your misison, and part of our startup community.

      Less talk, more action!

  • Paul_Owen

    John: Does AMZN use contractors? Can you look into that? Without Infosys and the like they can’t meet demand without Seattle developers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rwoan Ronald S Woan

    Is Amazon really more safe than Facebook or Google which pay much more? Or is it that they are hiring more average engineers than the other two because of the numbers that they need?

  • evanjacobs

    At the rate Amazon is growing, everyone in Seattle will be an Amazonian within 10 years. Resistance is futile!

  • http://twitter.com/Seattle_Startup Seattle Startup

    If a startup is able to provide an exciting, productive environment it’ll have no problem attracting tech talent.

  • Harsh Reality

    Seriously? Amazon does not have a good local reputation as an employer. Period. They’re cheap to their employees re benefits, demand long hours, and in many cases the money isn’t that good (not at all by Microsoft standards). Everyone I know there wants/wanted to get the heck out and I’d never ever work there.

  • HR Chick

    No offense, but I’ve heard Amazon is kind of a sweatshop. I’ve heard they work you to death. I work in HR at a fremont startup and we don’t seem to have a problem with Amazon because we combat that with a great culture (and we pay well). We look for those that don’t want the Amazon experience but have good talent.

    • Alex

      Does this sentiment extend to just programmers/developers, or is it for Amazon employees as a whole? I’ve never heard any complaints from people working content or account management positions.

      • HR Chick

        I think this is primarily from engineers, but might extend farther out. We have a few ex-Amazon employees who echo the long hours and no work/life balance.

  • Rchick

    Too much of anything is never good. Period.

  • http://www.matthewshobe.com/ mshobe

    Once again I’m just happy for the photo credit.

  • shannon

    it does feel like everyone has or will at some point have worked at amazon. i do believe, that there are developers/engineers out there who desire the startup environment and it will be us in startup’s competing with other startup’s. the darn amazon sign-on bonuses can make competing hard for smaller companies but i look at amazon hiring and attracting talent to seattle as a good thing, this allows more opportunity for us, in the future, to attract local amazon talent if so desired. it also helps our local community, breeds future leaders/entrepreneurs and i would rather continue to see seattle on the map for strong technical talent…amazon is doing a great job for us recruiters by covering the relocation costs and expenses to bring the talent local…i also appreciate the robust resources large companies have and can provide talent with visa sponsorship, they really have worked hard to provide the smoothest possible services for those seeking sponsorship. us smaller companies can seek to do this, but it may be outsourced and not always as smooth as the larger companies who have hired the talent internally and have a streamlined process. moving countries and dealing with the government/laws can be exhausting and overwhelming, and to have that support and ease can really help those who are seeking this. i appreciate the larger companies that invest in this and the diversity it brings to our seattle community. it may be tough now, but in the future i will be grateful for all the local talent we have the opportunity to attract. now it is up to us startups to rally together, network and share (when possible).

  • Current Amazonian

    Having worked at both Amazon and Microsoft I have to disagree with the premise that Amazon as a whole is a sweatshop. Amazon is a 88K person company. To say that one culture (sweatshop, meat grinder, no work life balance) permeates each business unit is one of the biggest misconceptions about Amazon.

    Because the company is so decentralized, each business unit has it’s own culture, work life balance and attitude. For sure there are business units one should stay away from if they value seeing their families :), but these are easily discernible with a little research.

    Quickest way to tell the sweatshop groups from the cakewalk groups? Ask what the pager rotation looks like… Big difference group to group…

  • http://twitter.com/PhilthyCreative Phil Palios

    While they are hiring a lot, they are also losing a lot. I was on a team of about 200 people and during my one year there, we lost about one person per week. These were usually our best and brightest too. Most of them go to startups.

    Startups should see Amazon as a boon, they are pulling in talent from around the world, and in 1-2 years that talent is in the neighborhood and ripe for the picking (once those golden handcuffs wear off). In general, I would say that people at Amazon love Bezos but are not happy with their jobs.

  • Guest

    Your two examples of “gobble up” don’t make much sense
    Charlie Kindel worked for decades at Microsoft and took a 1 year break before joining Amazon. His credibility comes solely from his Microsoft tenure and it is unclear how a short break from Microsoft would make him a startup guy
    TeachStreet was a failed company and being acquihired was the best possible option for them
    Blaming Amazon for employing these people makes no sense at all

    • http://blog.daryn.net daryn

      Aww snap – failed company CTO here :)

      Working at Amazon has been a unique experience that is impossible to replicate at anywhere except the largest of companies. After more than a decade of working at startups, I’ve been learning a ton, enjoying different types of challenges, and working with tons of very smart people at scales I was never able to reach on my own.

      Sure there are people here that will be here for life, but it is also a huge talent incubator, and people who have the entrepreneurial urge will be well prepared and have strong networks behind them when they’re ready to take their swing for the fences.

      Also, guess what? There are people that love their jobs at Amazon, and people who hate their jobs at cool startups with cool cultures and quirky benefits. Every company/role has something unique to offer, and there are different people who those unique opportunities will appeal to. If your hiring pitch is that you want someone to do exactly the same thing they do at a big company for 1/3 of the salary – sure, you’ll have a tough time hiring – but there’s more to life than money, and there’s a lot of flexibility and interesting things startups can do to lure the right talent.

      • ljester

        I love that you added your perspective Daryn! I work at Amazon too and love it. The description of us as a “Sweatshop” environment is so unfounded! It implies such a lack of freedom and ownership, when the truth is just the opposite. People don’t work hard at amazon because they are chained to their desks doing boring and monotonous tasks. Nobody works harder than an owner. People work hard an Amazon because we are given ownership of big and interesting projects and we care about doing them right. The work is challenging and fast paced. There is certainly plenty to do, but my work-load is completely self determined. If you are the type of person who will take on too much and not time-manage well…then, sure, I can see how one might get into a “sweatshop” situation here. I think having the opportunity to step up to the plate and potentially bite off a little more than I can chew sometimes, is part of Amazon’s appeal for me. I guess from my perspective… If you are looking for a place where you are compensated for to stretching yourself, growing your career and learning what the true limits of your potential are, then Amazon may be a good fit for you. If you are looking for an easy, comfortable job where you can phone it in and that is perfectly acceptable, then amazon will not be your cup of tea.

    • johnhcook

      Those are just two of many, many examples. You could argue that true startuppers and entrepreneurs wouldn’t want to work at a big company like Amazon, but there are plenty of instances where developers and engineers have been gobbled up by Amazon.

  • http://twitter.com/AstroKev AstroKev

    It raises the bar for Seattle startups

  • http://www.facebook.com/recurrence Tyler Kellogg

    I don’t understand the concerns in the article. Every additional hire at Amazon means one more developer learning a whole host of useful skills and excellence practices. In turn, startups benefit from a stronger baseline of talent throughout the region (a raised baseline they did not need to train). Would the Valley have so developed without vibrant technology titans? What Seattle needs is even more Amazons :)

    I loved working there. Legions of effective motivated individuals driving our industry forward with nary a wasted dollar. We are all the better for it.

  • http://twitter.com/krisdahl Kris Dahl

    Does Amazon make recruiting harder for us? Probably. We don’t let it get us down, we just look to exploit the weaknesses and offer better ‘value’ to employees. Things like actually being able to impact the direction of the company, not having to work in cube farms, better work-life balance, and generally being a great place to work.

  • henry albrecht

    There are tens of thousands of great, brilliant, passionate technologists at Microsoft in this area. If you add Amazon, Google and Facebook, there are tens of thousands more. Many of them love their jobs and would never leave. Many of them want to take more risks, own more pieces of the puzzle, define the culture a little more, or just try something new. That desire to explore new horizons (technical and otherwise) is embedded in the DNA of most of these people. I would argue these big companies are 99% great for the local startup environment, and startups just have to emphasize unique attributes to compete.

  • hammering noises

    Gotta echo the previous comments – if you’re complaining that Amazon is sucking up all the talent, you probably suck at hiring. We just beat out Amazon for a senior-level developer/architect they wanted badly. How? We offered flexibility, balance, a truly entrepreneurial opportunity, great culture, and credible proof that this was all more than just close-the-deal happy talk. Amazon offered money, a good culture (smart but rigid, perhaps?), “the chance to work at Amazon,” and more money. I’m a big Amazon fan. I’m an even bigger fan of beating them to snag key talent. May the best opportunity win. : )

  • http://twitter.com/valerwright Valerie Wright

    Working at Amazon vs a startup offers both polar opposite experiences and polar opposite compensation. While it may be hard to compete with the immediate compensation offered, competing companies have to have a strong reason why people would want to come and work for them. People want to know – what will I learn, how will I grow, what impact can I make and how will I be rewarded. Answer that and then create a robust plan to attract those ideal future employees.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gnaweel Lee Wang

    I totally had a thoughtful comment until I saw Julie Sandler’s picture

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