Low Paycheck, Big Upside: Creative HR Strategies For Attracting Top Players To Your Startup

Weaved into the definition of "startup" is big potential, small paycheck--at first. And nothing grows both of those characteristics like the right top players, if you can get them on board.

Adding to your startup's staff represents a major challenge for many small business owners. While there’s no arguing with the fact that bringing on so-called “rock star” employees can help to advance your business objectives faster than bottom-of-the-barrel applicants, you may not have the leverage of high salaries, exorbitant benefits, and other perks to offer these top players.

So how can you overcome these challenges in order to secure the best talent for your startup? Consider the following approaches:

Understand, and demonstrate, what your startup offers.
Startup life represents a distinctively different culture than is found within traditional corporations which, for many employees, is actually a perk. According to Rich Sloan, the cofounder of Startup Nation: “People get involved in a startup for three reasons. One, they like creating, being part of something new. Two, they want to participate in the upside. Three, they want to live a meaningful life, and the closer you are to the success or failure of a business, the more meaning and purpose you feel.”

Knowing that people are seeking out opportunities like the one you have to offer may make it easier to connect with the right people. For example, knowing that employees want to be a part of something “bigger” could make it easier to identify prospective candidates who are experienced, but burnt out of traditional corporate life. You could also use the desire to participate in a startup’s upside to find recent college grads that are skilled, but not yet tied down enough to need salaries that support their families.

Once you do start looking for new employees, remember that the best people to advertise what your company has to offer are your existing staff members. Providing a monetary incentive to those who refer candidates who eventually get hired can be a good way to quickly find talented people who will fit in to your organization.

Offer flexible work arrangements in exchange for lower salary.
Just because you can’t offer much in the way of compensation to new hires doesn’t mean that you have nothing to bring to the table. In fact, as a growing company, you can provide one major selling point that most corporations can’t--remote or flexible-hour work arrangements.

A 2011 study of 3,000 current and recent college students conducted by telecommunications giant Cisco found that two of every five students surveyed said that’d accept lower-paying jobs that came with more flexibility in terms of device choice, social media access and mobility, compared with higher-paying jobs with less flexibility.

Today’s workers are more conscious than ever of their work-life balance, making them especially attracted to jobs that give them the necessary flexibility to run errands, balance child care and take care of other personal business as needed, on their own schedules. As long as you put the necessary precautions in place to ensure that the work gets done, startups are in an ideal place to offer this highly sought after perk to high-performing employees.

Provide other intangible benefits.
Along these same lines, for most people, work isn’t just about being paid to perform a set of tasks. There are plenty of intangible benefits that are considered as part of the job selection process that exist outside of compensation negotiations--putting your startup in the ideal position to offer them. For example, can you:

  • Offer to help potential employees secure the necessary work visas and permits to live in the U.S.? Few companies offer this perk, though doing so can help give you exposure to a much wider pool of talent from around the world.
  • Provide outstanding training and development opportunities? In most cases, offering to assist employees with the cost of pursuing further certifications is much less expensive than providing higher salaries or better benefits, and may pack just as much of a punch. People want to be associated with companies that invest in them, and operating a training and development program is one way to demonstrate this commitment.
  • Give employees a percentage ownership in your company? Doing so will provide them with a potentially lucrative tradeoff that encourages taking lower salaries in exchange for future rewards.
  • Create an engaging, ideal workplace? Bringing in a massage therapist on Fridays, treating your staff to weekly coffee outings or arranging for on-site dry cleaning pickup all cost substantially less than what you’d otherwise pay top-performing employees, making it an economical way to create the type of work environment that will attract the best workers in a cost-effective way.
Remember, you wouldn’t be a startup entrepreneur if you didn’t have a creative, independent spirit. Put these virtues to work on your human resources strategy, and you should be able to find ways to bring on top talent without overstepping your budget.

For more startup advice, subscribe to the Fast Company newsletter.

AJ Kumar is the cofounder of Single Grain, a digital marketing agency based in San Francisco.Single Grain specializes in helping startups and larger companies with search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media and various other marketing strategies.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Tamayo]

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • EliotVitter

     Weaved? Let's say you're adding staff writers at a new startup publication. Would you choose someone whose latest article started with a word that doesn't exist for that context? Didn't think so. The word is woven. Sad.