“Donut Settle” Recruiting Blitz Ruffles Feathers in Laid-back Austin

The tech world is known for its rather unorthodox ways of doing things. But a recent gambit by Austin, TX-based Bigcommerce caused offense to some in the city’s famously laid-back tech community.

Bigcommerce, a maker of e-retail software for small businesses, is on a growth streak, and to get the attention of hard-to-recruit engineers and programmers, its human resources executives recently dropped by its competitors’ offices—handing out doughnuts and flyers that stated “Donut Settle for Less.” (One Bigcommerce recruiter was dressed in a doughnut costume.) The guerrilla campaign targeted Austin tech companies such as Outbound Engine, Main Street Hub, and Mass Relevance.

But not everyone in Austin’s tech community was impressed. “Handing out donuts[sic] is cool,” Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory and an Xconomist, posted on social media sites later that day. “Entering competitors offices is not. That’s more like trespassing. I’m really disappointed to see this behavior from Bigcommerce. Stop peeing in the public pool!”

Steve Donnelly, Bigcommerce’s head of human relations, says he is surprised at the backlash. “Online job boards are just not that effective anymore,” he said in a recent interview. “If you want to build a great company at the speed we’re trying to move, you have to get creative to get in front of people and make a connection.”

The stunt has paid off, he added. “We saw a 72 percent increase to our career site, and a 90 percent increase in applications,” he says. “This shows that it’s working. We have gotten a lot of really positive feedback as well.”

Ask any tech company executive what his or her biggest challenge is and the answer often is finding talent. For those with the right set of technical skills, suitors are aplenty. In Silicon Valley, it’s not unheard of for engineers to be wooed away to their employers’ competitors with five-digit signing bonuses.

Baer, a serial entrepreneur who mentors budding startups at Capital Factory, agrees with Donnelly that it’s difficult to find talent. But he told me recently that campaigns like Bigcommerce’s erodes the collaborative “rising tide” mentality that is a hallmark of the Austin tech community.

Richard Bagdonas, another longtime serial Austin entrepreneur who is now the CTO of Mahana, agrees. “Austin recruiters know where each company is located, but you don’t find the recruiters staked out at office entrances with ‘will hire for donuts’ signs,” he says. “I find it uncouth and unbecoming of the Austin tech culture.”

The uproar over, shall we say, “donut-gate,” has prompted the Austin Technology Council to host a roundtable discussion on the best ways to hire without breaking down a culture that has served the city well, says Julie Huls, its CEO.

A study released by the council earlier this year estimates that 9,000 new tech jobs will be created between last year and 2017. “It’s important that before things get even tighter, we really start to take this conversation pretty seriously,” she says.

In addition to tech founders, she hopes to bring together area educational institutions to talk about workforce development strategies to help build up the corps of tech employees needed by Austin’s growing companies.

Huls says that, while she understands the desire to protect Austin’s collaborative reputation, she wasn’t offended by Bigcommerce’s campaign. “Generally speaking, tech companies are traditionally rewarded for aggressive and creative behavior,” she says. “I can assure you that there are all sorts of Austin companies that are using aggressive tactics to recruit in this market.”

Bagdonas offers an alternative strategy to popping up at competitors’ doors. “For a little more money, Bigcommerce could have sponsored the next tech happy hour and handed everyone a drink and a card and people would be grateful,” he says. “I have sponsored it before and found it to be very helpful.”

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