Poaching Etiquette: As Talent Tightens, New York Startups Try to Stay Civil

Excuse me, can I poach your dev?
poach2 Poaching Etiquette: As Talent Tightens, New York Startups Try to Stay Civil

(Illustration: Oliver Munday)

You can feel the love in Silicon Alley. The city’s tech scene is a brotherhood of mutual admiration and support. “Proudly Made in NYC” proclaims Meetup’s website; “Hatched in NYC” notes Aviary’s. Founders wear each other’s company T-shirts and tweet each others’ releases. They made “We Are NY Tech” buttons for South by Southwest and wore them proudly. Once in Austin, Betabeat asked the Bay Area superangel Dave McClure about the city’s tech prospects. “New York needs to stop smelling its own farts,” he said.

Yes, on the record.

Still, it turns out there is a limit to camaraderie. When it comes to hiring, especially in a competitive market, the shivs start flashing. Of the 184 startups that have “Made in NYC” emblazoned on their websites, no fewer than 130 are staffing up. That means if you want to build a startup, you’re going to have to poach some devs.

Slideshow: New York’s 20 Most Poachable Techies >>

Engineers don’t hop around in New York as much as they do in Silicon Valley, where noncompete contracts are unenforceable, but the city’s congenial entrepreneurs are raiding one another’s employees with increasing frequency. Before GroupMe was acquired by Skype for about $80 million, the well-endowed group-texting startup plucked developers from Gilt Groupe, Pivotal Labs and College Humor. The CTO of the fast-growing Betaworks startup Chartbeat, Kushal Dave, jumped to Foursquare in July 2010; the Union Square Ventures-funded Shapeways snagged Signpost’s former tech director a few months ago.

But startups don’t just compete over technical talent, which is in famously short supply. Thrillist nabbed Gawker’s Richard Blakeley to manage content strategy in March, and Crowdtap snatched marketing whiz kid Ben Kessler from SeatGeek in September. “We’ve hired about 500 people in the last 12 months,” said Kevin Ryan, the founder and CEO of Gilt Groupe, who still personally interviews every candidate. “They all have to come from somewhere.”

And while some take the Machiavellian view—“Is there any etiquette to that? I thought all’s fair in love and war,” said Lean Startup Machine founder Trevor Owens—most startups do observe certain gentlemanly guidelines. The unspoken rules of poaching are fairly clear cut. Don’t poach from early-stage companies you share an investor with. Get your investors involved if there is a possibility of taboo intraportfolio hiring. And by all means, keep your friends out of it whenever possible if you ever want to show your face at Tom & Jerry’s. “Never poach from close friends or people you know pretty well,”  said Jason Baptiste, the swaggering, crew-cut-sporting CEO of OnSwipe. “That’s a cardinal sin.”

He would know. Last spring, Mr. Baptiste stood up in front of his classmates in the TechStars accelerator and triumphantly announced that his company had raised $1 million in the first week of the program. “Hide your developers, hide your designers, because we’re hiring everybody,” he said, referencing the catchy “Bed Intruder” remix that made its way around YouTube last year. The joke got a laugh, but no matter: Bloomberg Television, in the middle of taping a TechStars reality show, juxtaposed the scene with soundbites from local founders Vin Vacanti and Dennis Crowley talking about the delicacy of poaching at a time when talent is scarce. “Let me give you some advice: I wouldn’t tell the other companies you’re trying to hire their people,” TechStars director David Tisch said on the show. After receiving a stern dressing-down behind closed doors, Mr. Baptiste promised, “Everybody here is safe.”

“Randomly spliced stuff,” Mr. Baptiste said of the episode. “No one thought we were going after any of the other TechStars companies. We weren’t and never would. Seriously.”

Check out our rundown of New York’s most poachable tech talent >>

The politics of poaching can be even more delicate for hot companies like Foursquare, considered one of the most attractive startup employers in the city by developers and nontechnical job-seekers alike. Foursquare is one of the most active evangelizers for New York tech; founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai appear everywhere from conference keynotes to Gap ads. The resumes of Foursquare’s 70-some employees are dotted with New York startups, including the now-defunct Hot Potato and the still-existing Thing Labs. But even though hiring the best people possible is the company’s top priority right now, Foursquare says it does not poach. “We know that all it takes is stealing one engineer from a startup to make the entire community feel like Foursquare is going after their best people,” said Susan Loh, the company’s head of recruiting, who was hired away from Yelp. “Many of us have friends at these companies, so we want to make sure that if we do end up hiring someone from another startup that it’s not going to disrupt our relationship with these startups at all.”

(Although if anyone should be afraid, it’s Google. Foursquare boasts a fierce legion of Xooglers, including Ms Loh, Mr. Crowley, head of product Alex Rainert, platform evangelist Ashkay Patil, lead engineer Harry Heymann, public relations manager Erin Gleason and many others.)

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  1. Good paying jobs and not enough people to fill them…learn technology people!

  2. Cowboy Coder says:

    So basically there is a gentleman’s agreement to have anticompetitive agreements behind the scenes which work for everyone’s benefit to making sure salaries do not actually rise to true market price. Smart thinking.