How to attract the best employees to your startup.

by | Sep 2023 | Start a Company

What’s the right way to attract high performers to join your startup, and how do you retain them?

Across the 90 or so startups I’ve been involved with, I’ve seen leaders solve this in different ways, but it’s rarely about the money.

I love these words from former Deutsche Bank CEO, John Cryan:

“I have no idea why I was offered a contract with a bonus in it because I promise you, I will not work any harder or any less hard in any year, in any day because someone is going to pay me more or less. Any executive worth her pay cheque would say the same.”

Clearly there’s a difference between bank executives and startups, but there’s a lot of similarity too, such as this:

High performers generally don’t need financial incentives to want to do their best work.

Good people are driven to be successful wherever they are, whatever the rewards.

In startups it can be hard to pay someone their true market value because resources are scarce, but people join your company – and reject you – for all sorts of different reasons (I once had someone reject a job because their commute would require a platform change on the underground!).

In my 10+ years in startups I’ve learned that salary, benefits, holiday etc. can often be treated as “hygiene factors”. You have to get them mostly right, but they aren’t the key reasons for someone accepting or rejecting your job offer.

So what does drive people to accept a startup job?

I think it’s usually a combination of the following:

  1. Alignment on purpose;
  2. Shared values;
  3. Passion for the problem you’re solving;
  4. A desire to work with like-minded people;
  5. How well the work fits their skills and abilities;
  6. Determination to make a difference (in a specific sector);
  7. A fit for your culture (fairness / work-from-home / trust / transparency / fun…);
  8. All while earning enough to pay the bills; and
  9. Perhaps having a chance to build some wealth over time.

What did I miss?

How does this help you?

Well, if you’re a startup founder, why not try optimising your hiring process for the other factors that drive career decisions, like the ones listed above, rather than tweaking the obvious bits (or engineering a complex options scheme, which most people are likely to be skeptical about anyway)?

Try changing your interviewing style, the questions you ask, and your overall approach to hiring to focus on what your candidates want besides the hygiene factors.

Perhaps you can make your startup stand out in other ways?


  • Thanks to recruitment expert and DQ portfolio founder number 1(!), Rob Bryson, for help with this post.
  • Carrot image by Michael C on Unsplash.

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