Boston’s Talent War: Startups Gaining Edge Over Big Companies?

When Sravish Sridhar was graduating from UT Austin, he got an offer letter from a hot, mid-size software company. The firm even sent him a silver-plated pen from Tiffany & Co. to sign the letter. It was a nice touch, but Sridhar declined. Instead of taking the sure thing, he joined United Devices, a distributed computing startup, and he has never looked back.

That was in 2000—the height of the tech bubble—but some trends are back in style. Chief among them: the mainstream popularity of joining tech startups, and (in turn) the large number of startups looking to hire top talent. Over the past year or two, the competition for this talent has hit a fever pitch in the Boston area and across the country, with companies of all stripes pulling out all the stops to land their top prospects.

Within this landscape, a sub-trend has emerged around town, at least anecdotally. A fair number of experienced tech execs from established, bigger companies have joined startups that are looking to grow quickly (usually ones with some money). They have joined as employees, not founders. This says to me that startups—if they weren’t before—are now seen as a viable career path by an older generation of established tech workers, not just brash and brilliant 20-somethings bent on changing the world.

Take Sridhar’s latest company: Kinvey, a mobile software startup in Cambridge, MA, that closed a $5 million Series A round in July. In recent months, Kinvey has hired Annie Bourne and Sandeep Sikka, both veterans of Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) from its early days, as vice president of business development/general counsel and lead principal software engineer, respectively. Kinvey has also picked up Eli Lederman from Brightcove (NASDAQ: BCOV) in sales and Michael Katz from MathWorks (maker of Matlab engineering software) on the development side.

Some advice on how to close the deal, especially if you don’t have a ton of money to throw at recruits? “Be realistic about what you need to hire the best people,” says Sridhar, who is Kinvey’s co-founder and CEO. “And then work your ass off to get them.” That means, among other things, selling them on how challenging the position will be (in a good way), building a cool brand with some mystique and/or a strong employee culture, and putting together a package of salary, options, and benefits that is “worth people’s while,” he says.

Other small startups (sub-20 employees) seem to be having success with this approach as well. Objective Logistics of Cambridge, MA, recently brought on board Eric Poley, previously with and Veracode, in sales; and Matthew Trail from Bullhorn in operations. “Big-time execs are going for bigger risk/reward and hopping on the rollercoaster,” says Phil Beauregard, the analytics startup’s co-founder and CEO.

That sentiment rings true for Lars Albright, the CEO of Boston-based mobile-ad firm SessionM (himself a veteran of Apple as well as other mobile startups). “There are people looking to find growth opportunities, and they recognize … Next Page »

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