Manners

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.” Read More