Thursday, December 30, 2010

A peaceful alternative to the "war" for top talent?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday that merely reinforces what anyone in Silicon Valley has known for some time--there's a war going on between the startups looking for hire top developers and the established companies looking to keep them. (Example #1 of the established companies is Google, which has raised salaries by 10%, gave every employee a surprise $1,000 cash bonus and offered insane stock options to top developers to keep them from defecting.)

According to the WSJ, Okta, the San Francisco-based startup that's the focus of the article, plans to spend 80% of its $10 million Series A round on salaries, most of which will be for developers. Part of the problem is that salaries for developers in the San Francisco Bay Area are dramatically higher than in most other parts of the country; Okta is paying $75,000 for developers just out of school, and up to $150,000 for top developers, while the national median salaries for entry-level developers is $51,000, and $101,000 for experienced, senior-level developers (based on figures from Salary.com).

These costs are driven in part by the cost of living in Silicon Valley, which is higher than anywhere in the U.S. except for portions of New York City. In addition, even though there are far more developers in Silicon Valley than in any other comparable area in the U.S., everyone wants the best developers, and there are only so many of them to go around. That competition inflates the salaries that companies have to pay for talent.

In addition, the decline in IPOs has made candidates skeptical about the value of equity. In the "Dot-Com" years, startups could offer sub-par salaries, even to top talent, so long as they gave them substantial stock options. Today, when the exit strategy for most startups is to be acquired, most of the proceeds go to the angel investors, venture capitalists and founders; very little is left over for employees. So, while startups are very picky as to who they hire, the candidates demand top salaries (and still demand equity as well).

One solution to this logjam is to stay away from Silicon Valley. I've written about this many times before, but moving from almost anywhere else in the U.S. to Silicon Valley will instantly impose an operating cost penalty of 30-50% on your startup. Cities like Austin, Boston, Boulder/Denver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill have excellent quality of life, strong technology bases, top universities and much lower costs of living than Silicon Valley.

Here's the key: These areas don't need to be "the next Silicon Valley" in order to be successful. They don't have to replicate the entire Silicon Valley infrastructure: Money and resources are now global. The biggest investor in Chicago's Groupon, for example, is Digital Sky Technologies, based in Moscow. Moscow is a long drive from Sand Hill Road.

Having lived in Chicago for two years now after 25 years in Silicon Valley, there's not much that I miss. The weather was much more to my liking, I enjoyed being able to drive to the Coast in an hour, and the seafood was far better. On the other hand, I paid 50% more for a semi-squalid apartment, virtually everything cost much more, and state income taxes were three times higher than those in Illinois. For me at least, it's a reasonable trade off.

So, one solution to the "war" for top talent is to stay out of the battlefield.
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