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

Excuse me, can I poach your dev?

To avoid any strife in New York startup land, Ms. Loh regularly updates the management team on whom she’s talking to from other startups. If Foursquare did covet an employee of another startup, she said, Mr. Crowley would talk to the employer directly and make nice.“In general, I think the New York tech scene really knows how to play well with each other,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of the aggressive poaching you see in Silicon Valley.” (Foursquare recently started recruiting for its new office in San Francisco.) Still, even Foursquare has to play defense. “One day I had a huge package show up at the office with letters written to every one of our engineers,” Ms. Loh recalled. “Hand-written letters, but it was the same letter written 12 times.”

Mass love notes, courting over LinkedIn and other ham-handed recruitment efforts usually come from nontech industries or third-party tech recruiters, some of whom are notorious for targeting those who seem happily employed. “We close the unrecruitable candidates,” boasts Daversa Partners, whose clients have included Gilt Groupe, SecondMarket and Twitter. It’s these recruiters that make the city-wide talent search, which otherwise would be merely tense, into a paranoid frenzy.

Mr. Ryan sees “zillions” of attempted poachings at Gilt, although the vast majority are unsuccessful, he said. “I’m not sure that poaching is any different from hiring,” he said. “I’m not sure where one draws the line.”

Which is not to say he’s willing to be raided himself. When the CEO of a much smaller New York startup asked Mr. Ryan for hiring advice, he told her the key was to have a dedicated recruiter on staff. Four weeks later, the CEO made a very attractive offer to Gilt’s internal recruiter. “She was desperate,” Mr. Ryan said. “I don’t think it was a good move for the long term. That will irreparably hurt our relationship.” To make things worse, the recruiter declined to leave.

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

When it comes to poaching, Mr. Ryan operates by a simple maxim: don’t try to nab anyone who had been introduced by a boss or a common investor. If a candidate is discovered in the course of a recruiting search, however, he or she is fair game.

The case could be made that the various tacit no-poaching agreements that keep things relatively congenial at New York’s many techie social events is exerting a negative pressure on salaries, keeping pay rates artificially low.

Mr. Ryan didn’t think that was a danger. “There are literally hundreds of companies here,” he said in an email. “Most companies have a few companies that are on a no-hire list (we generally have six to seven) for legal or relationship reasons. [But] this is out of 1,000 companies, so no big deal.”

Besides, as competition for talent continues to heat up, the gentlemen’s agreement seems to be eroding. “Recruit away our team. I dare you. Heck, I encourage you” was the title of a recent blog post in which Jason Goldberg, CEO of, a daily-deal site focused on design, dared poachers to just try sweet talking his staffers into jumping ship. He even offered to hand over their phone numbers. Later, as if to underline the point, he boasted to Betabeat, “Guess what? I’m going to call those companies and try and recruit their people.”

When news came out recently of one high-profile New York startup’s demise, another startup founder admitted he’d been secretly courting one of its top engineers. “This is going to make life a little more challenging for me,” he told us. “A lot of people will start hitting on him. But that’s fine. Competition is a good thing.” Dave Carvajal, a tech recruiter, noted that the longstanding rule that one shouldn’t recruit from other companies within the same investment firm is increasingly broken. “What’s happening is it doesn’t even matter anymore,” he said, noting that clients simply say, “‘Get me anyone from any good company.’ No holds barred.”

One New York founder told us in a casual conversation that his rules were hard and fast: no going out and poaching from fellow startups, but if an application comes in, tough luck.

Not that he was willing to say so on the record. “Don’t really want to be quoted for poaching in case we actually end up poaching someone in the future,” he said in an email, punctuating with a smiley face, of course.

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

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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.