Recruit and retain employees the start-up way

By Michelle van Schouwen

Successful start-ups are known for adding great talent to their staffs, reeling in strong candidates with appealing workplace perks and benefits. Other small business owners can benefit from studying how smart start-ups get employee recruiting and engagement tactics right…and how they sometimes fall short.

Often, start-ups capitalize well on the excitement of being on-board with a Big Idea and being a true innovator. That works. Other small businesses may be able to achieve desirable hiring and retention results by being the very best in a business segment, staying ahead of industry trends and crediting employees for innovation and excellence. Startups also often capitalize on high-cool-factor or shared work spaces, unique benefits, and the ability to work remotely, something other businesses can achieve as well.

What works

We wanted to know exactly what appeals to sought-after start-up talent. We checked with people in key technical and creative roles at growing start-ups to find out specifically what works for them, as well as what doesn’t.

“Give me some ownership opportunity, like stock options, so I’m building something for the team and myself, too,” recommends one product designer. “I know I should value stock options at zero when I take a job, but having them as part of my compensation package still motivates me to say yes to an offer, and to stay and try to grow the company.”

An industrial engineer says that she most values the opportunity to work remotely. “I’ll put in as many hours as it takes to do every project really well. That’s just a commitment I make to the work. But I’d rather do it from the shared office space in my apartment building, or even on the road visiting family than in some cube. Working remotely means I can start in my jammies with a cup of coffee at 7 am, or work until 10 pm. I’m not spending two hours a day commuting, so I put that time to work more creatively.”

A recent-graduate hardware/software analyst agrees. “I’m spending a month working from across the country after a death in the family. I work days and help my mom sort out details nights and weekends. I couldn’t do that with a less enlightened employer.”

According to a software engineer who’s helped build success at several high-growth firms, “Well, my job is nice because of unlimited vacation time, but that’s a double-edged sword at most employers because nobody actually uses that vacation time. That’s probably the biggest distinction from corporate life.”

What doesn’t work

Start-up employees appreciate the offices that provide on-site food, laundry service, massages, and other amenities, but they are wise to the companies’ motivations. “Ha! They just don’t want us to leave. They want to make it easier to keep us here all day and night.”

Phones and tech gadgets related to the job provide an element of fun, but probably don’t buy much loyalty – unless the employer provides them consistently. Says one employee, “We used to get new mobile phones every year, and the company paid the monthly bill. Last year that ended. What the hell?”

Also on the potential negatives list are:

High-growth start-ups may work their employees into a frazzle. “I felt like I was dealing with the Great Wall of Stress every day, and then being paged and called all night, every night,” confessed an engineer after leaving a high-paying gig.

Some start-ups fail to give much consideration to long-term loyalty. Consequently, they often don’t get it – creating turnover that may not work for other small businesses. “I know they could throw me out on the sidewalk tomorrow,” admits a creative development liaison. She adds, “If some investment or big customer falls through, or I miss a deadline, that could be the end of this job. So I’m also open to new opportunities.”

In summary, what does this mean for companies that will never make the Inc. 500 list? Providing deserving employees with flexible schedules and work arrangements, ample vacation, some form of ownership or at least incentive to succeed, credit for innovation, and reasonable working expectations plus a degree of job security, will help companies recruit and retain the best people for the jobs. Every employee will appreciate such perks, and younger ones with in-demand skills may expect them.

Clearly, the future of employment is here, and start-ups saw it coming first.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA.

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