We can all agree that starting and running a startup is risky business. From finding financing to creating your first product. Going from initial point A to point B is difficult in any journey and ultimately there is only that one thing that can make it happen – your team. But how can a startup compete for programming talent against household names in the industry, like Google and Apple?
The core driving force of any functioning business is of course its people. In the AI industry in particular, many startups struggle to win over talented developers, which often get snatched up by larger tech companies.
We spoke to four startups taking part in the EU’s X-Europe accelerator to find out how they attract top talent, with less resources than Big Tech giants. We’ve collected a variety of, not only useful tips and insights, but also a prognosis for the future of AI programmers in Europe.
There is a general lack of qualified developers in Europe
Above all internal difficulties there might be to hire the right people, there is one thing that startups cannot control – the general lack of qualified programmers in Europe and their migration to tech hotspots in Asia and the States. Many choose to seek opportunities outside Europe’s borders leaving the continent in a crunch. So, how can startups even try to hire talented developers when they’re fighting over a shrinking talent pool?
This is a continent-wide issue that is neither a quick or easy fix. Andrea Vezzaro, Operations Manager at Wavenure, an AI-based investments performance enhancer startup, recognizes this issue:
With particular reference to the Italian market, there is no doubt that there is a gap in terms of consideration and remuneration. The long-term solution to this ‘escape’ is a change of mentality in the perception of [employees with technical skills like] qualified programmers.
First and foremost, always keep an eye out for changes in average market salary for programmers in your area. Especially in the last few years these have fluctuated quite a lot, not just from country to country, but also city to city. If you’re not meeting at least the average expectations it’ll be difficult to attract talent, no matter the incentives you offer.
Know how to position your startup for the talent you want to attract
When surfing the web for job vacancies, some positions catch your eye more than others, don’t they? Besides the obvious pay and company status, there are other very attractive qualities you can add to a job description that will get talent to reach out to you and not the other way around.
Bots and Us, a data-driven robotics and AI company that provides full-stack robot systems for public spaces, has made it one of their primary marketing objectives to hire great talent. What better way to win the war on talent than mobilizing your marketing team’s strengths?
CEO of Bots and Us, Andrei Danescu explained to Growth Quarters how highlighting company culture, your current employees, and pinpointing your ideal new recruit’s characteristics will help to win over the perfect candidate.
We made a conscious decision to add ‘attracting amazing talent’ to our marketing objectives. This means that we constantly try to communicate externally with the ideal employee in mind – someone who is curious, passionate about solving complex problems and eager to get their hands dirty, while still being a great team player and collaborator.
And the best way to reach them is by showcasing our current team members across our marketing channels as much as possible. We’re attracting the ideal candidates by showcasing our culture and our people.
– Andrei Danescu.
Capitalizing on Andrei’s insight, here is an actionable tip to keep in mind: Your social media channels can provide a window into your company’s culture for potential candidates.
If you want to attract problem solvers, share photos on your social channels of your team brainstorming/working on complex projects together. If you want to attract creatives, post some of your team’s most unique designs. Always share photos of your team building activities and company retreats.
The tradeoff between innovation VS brand and money
Knowing how to skillfully position your startup and job application is an essential start. However, the big question still remains. What can a startup really offer to an in-demand programmer that household names like Google and Apple fail to provide?
Frankly speaking, for developers in AI there is a trade-off between choosing a large tech company that can provide both a higher salary and a reputable name, or venturing off into the exciting yet certainly unpredictable startup world.
We asked this question to Liga Vinkele, CEO and Founder of Fintelligence. A Latvian-based startup providing AI technology that accelerates and automates adverse media screening. Liga’s tips, simple yet effective, clearly describe 3 fundamental reasons for programmers to join startups, and these are 3 things that every startup can provide.
- Interesting product/idea
- Impact – startup ideas solve significant problems in the market
- Company shares – the developer is not only an employee, they’re a part of the company
Again, company culture is key. Large tech companies have the tendency to start following outdated and often suppressive social routines, leading to unspoken guidelines and a steep hierarchy. These are the kinds of environments that can breed toxic work cultures where employees feel they have to compete to get ahead or be the ‘favorite’.
A major startup advantage, on the other hand, are flat hierarchies and open work cultures which are still being shaped. Andrei Danescu summarized this idea in four words that speak for themselves, “Impact and no politics”.
Once you have them, how do you get them to stay?
Having tackled the issues of attracting and finding the right developers, the logical question pops up: how do you get them to stick with you?
Working for the sake of innovation is cool of course, but in real life we cannot eliminate the particle matters (money, career, stability). Hussein Al-Amine, Business Development lead at Fineon Exchange – an AI global powered marketplace for trade finance assets, shared multiple ways to get your employees hooked on the company.
There are multiple ways to retain employees in a startup, the best way is to give them an experience they can’t get elsewhere by exposing them to diversified workloads, giving them accelerated promotions boosting them quickly to the top, and of course by providing them financial incentives like stock options, profit sharing, or sales commissions.
Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment will open you up to a bigger talent pool
The AI industry is accelerating and so are the opportunities within it. But with only about 22% of the global AI workforce being women, losing talent to larger tech companies is clearly not the only pressing issue. With more women entering STEM and as a result AI, two birds can be killed with one stone; more programmers in the game for startups to employ and the opportunity build a more diverse AI workforce.
There are so many elements that need to come together and fix this in the long term – from the celebration of female role models in the field, to media stereotypes changing and education programs being put in place.
Inclusive environments equal great talent. People want to work in an open-minded and inclusive space, and those startups that can provide it will get access to a larger pool of talent. Of course, from the inside, it’s easy to assume your workplace is open and inclusive. But, if you don’t have diverse talent applying to your positions, being hired, or staying and moving up in your startup, it’s time to take a deeper look at your culture and how you can make it more inclusive. You could be missing the chance to hire great talent without even knowing it.
At the end of the day, money is great but, getting to work on cool innovative projects, avoiding corporate politics and bureaucracy, and actually working in an inclusive environment is way better. Sadly, there are a lot less companies that can offer this than you may think. Build a company like this and the developers will come.
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This program has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 Programme under Grant Agreement number 825014.