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Losing the Talent War

Make no mistake about it. When it comes to entrepreneurial technical talent, Atlanta is losing the talent war on a daily basis.

Buried in an article about booming tech jobs is a mention of Brian Gorby. Brian’s a Georgia Tech grad who was working for Modosports, an Atlanta gaming company that folded due to funding issues, when I met him. He was pretty well versed in Adobe Flash & Flex development, and digging into iPhone development – he had the intellectual curiosity and internal drive that startups need & crave. I was at Xeko Elf Island – we liked Brian a lot, but because of our own funding challenges, couldn’t move fast enough to offer him a job before he was snapped up by Moxie, a prominent marketing agency (and he may or may not have joined us either way). He spent a brief turn after that in consulting, then built up iOS experience at Sapient before his apparent move to San Francisco – he’s now a Senior Mobile Developer at EventBrite, a pretty darn hot startup focused around event registration.

There are MASSIVE startup opportunities right now in the area of mobile and social. Now ask yourself… what hot Atlanta startup should a talented, entrepreneurial iOS developer have joined? Pretty limited options. After a couple of years at EventBrite, a solid senior engineer will probably be well-positioned to start their own company. What comparable opportunity is there in Atlanta?

Let’s look at the criteria many investors apply to startups – Stanford provides a nice framework of team, product, and market. Momentum is often a 4th criteria. Startup uber-incubator YCombinator focuses primarily on team, presumably because if you have a great team that handles feedback well, an investor can help a great team build the right product for the right market. So what is the crisis of conscience in Atlanta? There is NO lack of talent. We have founder-quality talent moving across the country to accept lesser roles than they would have as Silicon Valley natives. Do our investors lack the confidence that they can help companies find the right market and product? Perhaps.

At Xeko, we lost any chance we had of hiring Brian Gorby because our funding was in flux, and no other social gaming startup in Atlanta was ready to hire a developer with all of the right skills at a time when social gaming was a prime market opportunity (mid-2009).

Atlanta startup founders are often faced with the question of “Are you working on the business full time?” For technical founders, this question is a joke. Any technical founder with 2+ years of experience can pull down $80-120k per year, easy. Suggesting they should go for broke before their startup finds product-market fit is insane and makes no sense from an opportunity-cost perspective, especially when they start families and need insurance and the ability to provide for their family in a town where seed-stage cash is scarce. Once a startup finds traction, they should be able to find funding without being disqualified because they still have a day job they want to quit.

This isn’t a small problem. Atlanta has founder-quality entrepreneurs moving across the country to take staff-level jobs because we can’t recognize the OBVIOUS market opportunities. Mobile, social, gaming – HUGE opportunities. How many investor-driven startups are in Atlanta in this space? Do investors believe our teams aren’t equal to the task? Are investors uncertain in their ability to help great teams find the right market and product? Many investors seem to just want financial projections that imply a guarantee of success. That attitude leads to more brain drain. I hope we can do better, and retain more “Brians”.

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17 thoughts on “Losing the Talent War

  1. The word potential needs to be inserted a few times before the word founder. You can also remove the word technical before the word founder. In most instances what you are saying applies to all founders regardless of their skill set. Unlike 2009 there are an abundance of opportunities in Atlanta for skilled talent to join startups that have reduced market risk. Doing that and having a nice little exit to get some FU money to do your own thing seems to be an obvious path for those that aspire to found their own thing.

  2. There are few (if any) investors here who are knowledgeable enough in mobile, social, and gaming to make a strategic investment. There are relatively few startups in those sectors here, as well. The point is, it’s a community.

    Finally, if a founder isn’t working on his startup full time and still has his/her job, they aren’t 100% committed. I won’t invest and I doubt any others will, here or in the Valley, because it shows they are hedging their bets, protecting their reputation, and they aren’t willing to fail.

    1. Dean, I definitely buy what you’re saying about investors with the domain expertise to invest in these areas, and I think that symmetry bleeds over into both sides of the table “hedging their bets”.

      What are you going to tell a $90k/year developer to do? If we had a strong history of either decent seed capital or strong company exits that give people a little bit of “FU money” to build their next company, I get it. Early-stage money [generally] hedges its bets by not funding early stage, many entrepreneurs hedge their bets by not jumping off a salary cliff. It seems fair to me.

  3. Lance – thanks for weighing in. I did endeavor to use the phrase “founder-quality” rather than founder, although the more the opportunities emerge, the more that distinction tends to blur.

    I focused on the potential technical founders partly from my own tunnel vision, perhaps. I have not heard many stories of talented non-technical founders migrating westward. Are there enough cases worth talking about.

    The specific person in question left just a few months ago. My question somewhat remains… What thriving startup would make sense in Atlanta for a talented senior-level iOS developer? It seems like a short list, and if not, I know of a couple of people who need to know those companies.

  4. The issue sounds like it’s more about investors asking that question about founders working on the business full time. Does that come from past performances or (for lack of a better word) superstition? If investors (or their peers) get spooked because too many business ventures fail due to the founders not abandoning their day job and pouring 100% of their efforts into the startup, I’d say it’s a legitimate concern. However if it’s superstition or another seemingly arbitrary requirement of the founders, that’s a perception that can be changed. Either way it does hurt for local talent to be leave town, but people are in different stages in their lives and careers all the time, so who knows whether *not* going to Moxie in the first place would have started that chain of events or not. Either way, it really illustrates the effectiveness of networking in the community, to keep up to date on the talented people as they blossom in our own back yard.

    1. Glen – it’s a pretty common investor thought that if someone’s not working full-time on their startup, they’re not serious about it. David Cummings alludes to it (http://davidcummings.org/2011/04/17/entrepreneurial-desire-trapped-by-the-american-dream/), Dean mentions it above.

      I don’t dispute that when investment money comes in, the founders should be full-time. Whether they approach that fundable stage working full-time or bootstrapping while they pay the bills seems less important if the team, product, and market are all good.

      In general, my concern is losing great people because the interesting opportunities aren’t here. In a market that’s growing as fast as mobile apps are, it’s amazing that there aren’t more startups actively hiring mobile developers. If someone is entrepreneurial and their only job options are at huge companies where they’re just another number, we’re going to lose them. It’s a big issue, and I don’t have most the answers.

  5. The plural of anecdote is not data. In this case N=2.

    The talent is not leaving. The talent is here, they just choose not to start companies or join startups.

    1. Oh, I completely agree. We are also losing the talent war to the Fortune 500s in town. This specific example spent time at Sapient before heading out west. There are probably dozens more talented iOS developers trapped in such jobs. They’d love to do something more interesting, but that company doesn’t exist. It’s ok – they’ll get job offer from SF soon enough.

      1. We agree. It has never easier, cheaper or quicker to ,launch a startup web app or mobile app. You don’t need to do it full time. Moonlight. Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings and whenever else you can break free. I find a way myself.

        Let’s not confuse “startup” with “startups that start by raising money before they have a successful product”. If it requires full time focus and $500,000 – DON”T DO THAT ONE.

      2. Right. All I’m suggesting is that once a startup does start to figure things out and needs a cash infusion and full-time attention to reach escape velocity and stand a chance against competitors, that we make that possible rather than scoffing at them because they weren’t serious enough about it.

        Talented entrepreneurial professionals have countless possible ways to spend their time. If they’re spending hours every day working on it, it’s serious.

  6. Great post Rob, always good to keep this discussion alive within the community. The problems seem too large for any one group to resolve, but we’re moving in reverse if we keep losing the fundamental driver of innovation: top talent, be they founders, engineers or otherwise.

    Since it seems relevant, I just wanted to mention that an awesome, local, consumer-facing startup is hiring some tech talent: Scoutmob! (me!)

    We raised some of that delicious, elusive VC from a DC-based firm (New Atlantic Ventures), and we’re staying firmly grounded in the ATL, so it’s time to build an exceptional technical team to take this thing all the way.

    Details and resume submission here:
    http://scoutmob.theresumator.com/apply/278424/Web-Developer-Atlanta.html

    But I don’t actually REQUIRE a resume (having none myself), so if that’s not your bag then just hit me directly via whatever social network you prefer:
    loren[at]scoutmob[dot]com
    http://twitter.com/lorennorman
    http://linkedin.com/in/lorennorman

    Who wants to move to the Valley when things are just heating up here?

  7. Don’t assume there aren’t plenty of ATL start-ups hiring. They just aren’t advertising to the masses/working with the massive staffing firms to staff their teams.

    We have awesome talent across the entire SDLC wanting to get out of Fortune 500, and be part of something “real”. It’s a good time right now to snap up super-smart talent.. if you know them personally+have a compelling story to tell. Not advertising, but our recruiters kick ass in that department.

    When I hear people complaining about a “lack of great technical talent”, I laugh..

    1. No doubt, Kim, there’s a lot of talent out there ripe for the hiring. I have told people that all they need to hire great people is a cool product, great culture, and competitive pay. It can be really easy or really hard, depending on the hiring company.

      1. First of all…Great post Rob!

        What I would like to know is are there any start ups around here that are willing to hire and teach as they go along? Or are most of the start ups just looking for people with the skills that the company needs? As someone coming from a MS architecture background, I find it difficult to look for or join a start up because most start ups are looking for the open source skills (hopefully, I’m wrong about that). I mean I did teach myself android programming, and I am working on a side android project for a client. But I would like to know if there are any companies willing to teach on the job.

      2. Bobby,

        I think the most important thing you can do is keep developing the skills in Android and other technologies you think will be useful. Build a portfolio of apps, and people won’t have to think they’re taking a chance on you.

        If you show enough potential and are willing to accept junior developer compensation, a startup could consider bringing you on board. Startups aren’t made of senior developers, but they do need some more mature talent to be able to properly shepherd more junior developers. It can’t be “teaching on the job”… it’s more like “doing on the job” with a learning component.

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