Work with the cool kids! Culture is a weapon in 2011's hiring battle

Startups hope $11,000 in bacon-wrapped cash and sassy billboards will keep top engineers from Google's dollar signs.

Check out Mike Thomas--the "best engineer in the world" and the first recipient of all the stuff Scopely offered to find him. Scopely.com

See that guy pictured above? The one with the beard grooming oil, the fancy tux and the spear gun? He's the best engineer in the world--and he has the toys to prove it.

Oh, the lengths startups are going to these days to get engineering talent.

Technology is evolving rapidly and engineers who know the latest and greatest coding languages and techniques are hard to come by, even in Silicon Valley. Undergrads are being wined (if they're, um, over 21) and dined by technology companies offering never-before-seen perks (cars! free apartments!) and impressive salaries.

Google currently pays recent computer science grads $90,000 to $105,000. That may not sound like much to some, especially with the cost of living in the Bay Area so high, but if your company has only raised $1 million in funding and you need a team of engineers, that salary is pretty substantial competition.

Most startups can't compete financially, so they're competing culturally. By finding ways to signal that they're less bureaucratic, more flexible, and more open to creativity, small companies are looking to boost their chances at hiring top notch engineers.

Scopely's treasure trove of gifts for the "best engineer in the world." Click to enlarge. Scopely.com

Where's the pork?
A briefcase filled with $11,000 in bacon-wrapped cash. A year's supply of Dos Equis. An oil painting of yourself. Those are just a few of the hiring lures Los Angeles-based Scopely has bestowed upon "the most interesting engineer in the world." His name is Mike Thomas, pictured at the top of this story. Apparently he also gets to be featured in a CNET article.

Even if you don't necessarily want all of these gifts (Scopely's CTO is a vegan who doesn't care for bacon wrapped cash), you get that this company is having fun. The culture may not be for everyone, but Scopely isn't looking for people that don't get the joke.

Scopely, which declines to share how much funding it has raised, is in stealth mode. All we outsiders know is that Scopley is "preparing to disrupt a segment of the social web that is ripe for innovation." This latest hire resulted after Scopely broadcast its unique culture in the form of unusual hiring bonuses. Its current website is simply a giant "We're Hiring" poster. The company's homepage url is jobs.scopely.com. Not just Scopely.com. It features CTO Ankur Bulsara in a suit drinking a martini. He and the rest of the company, fewer than 20 people, put a lot of effort into hiring Mike Thomas. It actually seems like that's all they've been doing.

"There's no more important priority than building a team," says Scopely co-founder Walter Driver. "I don't think it's possible to spend too much time on recruiting."

More than 900 engineers have applied to Scopely since it started the campaign. Only one engineer has been hired.

"We're very selective about who we hire," says Driver. "We're looking for the best engineers in the world."

Good engineers don't submit resumes
Startups spend lots of time looking for engineers because most of the ones looking for work aren't the ones startups want.

"If an engineer has submitted a resume, I know it's no good," says Adam Pisoni, co-founder and CTO of Yammer, an internal social network for companies.

Instead Pisoni relies on seven full time recruiters that tap talent from other companies. These in-house recruiters know who will work with Yammer's culture. Engineering represents approximately a quarter of Yammer's workforce. The startup has 230 employees and has raised $57 million. According to Yammer, 230 employees is still "small."

Yammer employees enjoy free beer. Yammer.com

"Our small team thrives on the latest technology, weekly releases and just as much process as is necessary," boasts the jobs page on Yammer.com. "We get the best [Apple] equipment, catered lunch and dinner."

Pisoni says the best equipment and catered meals are something engineers have come to expect. The Yammer "jobs" page features a picture of employees enjoying items supplied by Yammer's "fully stocked kitchen with unlimited breakfast option, snacks and beer." There are also free bikes to use during the day and you can bring your dog to work. Facebook, by the way, has stopped letting employees bring in dogs.

Yammer isn't the only one who goes looking for employees and lures them with culture.

"You want the people who are happy at their jobs and those aren't the ones sending out resumes," says Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball, a company that helps brands implement gaming features in websites, social networks and mobile applications.

Paharia says Bunchball's engineering manager spends 30 percent of his time recruiting. The company was founded in 2005 and has raised $17.5 million. It currently has 40 employees.

Paharia leaves hiring-page breadcrumbs for unhappy engineers. He has his employees blog about what they are doing once a week, something that may catch the eye of a competitor's engineer looking for a change. Paharia says this isn't a time suck since most posts are things the employee accomplished, like a presentation to new customers. They show potential hires a window to the company culture, which just might encourage them to see if Bunchball is hiring.

WePay has a billboard on the 101 in Palo Alto, CA to get the attention of future employees and display it's un-PayPal culture. WePay

"Not PayPal"
WePay, an online payment company trying to take down PayPal, has raised $10 million in the bank and 26 employees. Rich Aberman, co-founder of WePay, says his company has professionally made recruiting videos--Aberman didn't know how much they cost--and has purchased billboard space along the strip of Highway 101 between San Francisco and Menlo Park. The cost for a billboard is between $10,000 and $20,000 a month. WePay's goal is to capture the attention of PayPal employees looking for a startup culture.

"Our billboard message is pretty simple: Not PayPal," says Aberman. The "not PayPal" vibe is something WePay's upstart culture thrives on. Aberman says WePay's culture is more scrappy and focused. So far no hires have been made because of the billboards, but having such a prominent display of culture is probably doing wonders for current employee moral.

Aberman spends about 30 percent of his time recruiting, funneling a big chunk of capital and time into HR. That capital also needs to go towards salaries.

"Unequivocally, there's been a material increase in the salaries engineers are demanding," says Aberman. "That said, the most important thing for WePay right now is having a great team."

"We're often competing against other startups for engineers," says David Hyman, CEO of Mog, a music service that competes with Rdio and Spotify. Hyman, the former CEO for Gracenote, says he has offices in the Bay Area with very distinct cultures. Same company, different vibes appealing to different engineers.

"We're headquartered in Berkeley because we were getting turned down by engineers with families who didn't want to commute [into San Francisco]," says Hyman. "But we still have an office in San Francisco for engineers that don't want to go to Berkeley. It's a programming man cave."

Hyman is hoping his daughters will some day change that "man cave" demographic. Perhaps startups could lure in even more candidates and inspire young women by offering a bit more female-friendly culture. Sure, the ladies will take an oil portrait, and free beer is great. But the tuxedo is going to need some work--unless someone is looking to hire Annie Lennox.

About the author

Regina Hope Sinsky writes about startups. She studied journalism at the College of Charleston and spent several years in television writing and production. After moving to the Bay Area she decided all the best stories came from startups, so she jumped into tech writing. Regina specializes in interviews with interesting people doing nonobvious things with technology.

 

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