CEO challenge: find, retain tech workers
ParticipantsIngrid Alongi, chief executive, Quick Left Inc.;
Lisa Calkins, CEO, Amadeus Consulting Group Inc.;
Holly Hamann, co-founder, chief marketing officer, TapInfluence Inc.;
David Jilk, former CEO, Standing Cloud;
Toby Krout, managing partner, Scrib Coworking;
Kyle Lamy, CEO, Gridkick;
Geoff Mina, CEO, Connect First Inc.;
Shaun Oshman, CEO, iSupport U LLC.
Moderator: Christopher Wood, publisher, Boulder County Business Report.
Sponsors: Hy Harris and Brent Peterson, EKS&H LLLP; Sally Berg, Berg Hill Greenleaf & Ruscitti LLP.
The dynamic is one that has made business leaders increasingly focus on the culture of their companies, aside from just their business missions, as they compete for the same workers.
The topic was one of several discussed at the Boulder County Business Report’s CEO Roundtable on technology held at accounting firm EKS&H’s office in downtown Boulder.
“It’s probably our biggest challenge,” said Geoff Mina, chief executive of Boulder-based Connect First Inc. Mina said his company reluctantly has resorted to hiring some remote software engineers with hopes of relocating them here eventually. “It’s not easy around here.”
Lisa Calkins, chief executive of Amadeus Consulting Group Inc. in Boulder, said the current climate reminds her of the dot-com time when companies’ demand for workers exceeded the supply. The upside, she said, is that it’s much easier for companies to scout out new employees through email and social media such as LinkedIn.
“You can reach people who are not looking for a job way easier than you could 20 years ago,” Calkins said.
Calkins acknowledged that the flip side of poaching employees from other companies is that the same could happen to yours. That fact has played a large role in bringing company culture into play and keeping employees happy.
David Jilk, former CEO of Boulder-based Standing Cloud – which was acquired last summer by California-based AppDirect – said finding a job has never been difficult for a software engineer.
“The thing that happens during these really tight periods is the engineers have a tendency to get a little high-maintenance,” Jilk said, referring to the various perks companies will offer to attract talent. “You have to manage to that. They will choose a job because of the workout gym at a facility.”
Kyle Lamy, CEO of Boulder-based Gridkick, officially Venture IO Inc., said the rise of the independent worker and entrepreneurial spirit in general has led to a tech workforce that doesn’t want to merely sit around and take orders but wants to feel some ownership of a project and that it’s contributing to exciting innovations.
Location can be a driving factor for attracting talent as well and can prove especially tricky for companies. There’s no lack of office space in Boulder, but affording space in the trendy downtown area gets tougher as companies grow.
Toby Krout, managing partner of the Scrib co-working space in downtown Boulder, attributed much of the energy and attraction to that spot to the location itself, whether it’s proximity to the university, restaurants or other startups.
“There definitely is a location factor when it comes to this type of work,” Krout said. “Whatever that algorithm is, everybody’s trying to figure it out.”
Shaun Oshman, CEO of iSupportU LLC in Boulder, an IT support provider for businesses, said his company leased more space than it initially needed downtown so that it would have room to grow and remain there.
Other companies, such as TapInfluence Inc. have taken a different approach. TapInfluence co-founder Holly Hamann said her company is up front with employees about its location in east Boulder. Hamann said TapInfluence acknowledges that downtown has a great vibe, but that the company can add other perks – such as buying employees lunch on certain days or paying higher salaries – by moving east.
Finding and retaining engineers and developers isn’t the only difficult hiring task in the tech industry, the CEOs noted. Landing sales and marketing personnel who understand and can speak about the technology they’re selling also can prove difficult, especially as marketing itself changes.
Ingrid Alongi, CEO of Boulder-based web and mobile-app developer Quick Left Inc., said the sales teams lose credibility if they can’t speak to customers’ problems.
“We’re not selling a widget or a thing,” Alongi said. “We’re selling trust and relationships.”
The CEOs in the room talked of the increased and diversified range of options for landing angel funding and venture capital. Bank lending, however, has gotten tighter for businesses, especially if they don’t have a lot of physical assets to put up. The combination of factors has led to a dynamic where bank lending even was referred to as alternative funding at one point.
“It was a challenging first eight years,” Mina said of trying to build relationships with banks and go the traditional funding route. “But now it’s good to be in that space where we can tap into some of that traditional capital and not sell ourselves short.”
Just because venture funding often might be easier to land than a loan from a bank doesn’t mean all venture funding is right for a particular business, particularly in the tech world.
“It’s less whether investors are entrepreneurs and more whether they’ve been technology entrepreneurs,” said Jilk.
Hamann said she’s continually struck by watching the evolution locally, as founders who have made lots of money off of a startup go off and start another company and then eventually turn into angel investors themselves as they accumulate wealth. Those investors, she said, are worth seeking out.
“Our first seed round came from people who we had worked with and for,” Hamann said. “I’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s just been amazing.”
The Business Report’s CEO Roundtable series is co-sponsored and co-hosted by EKS&H and the law firm of Berg, Hill, Greenleaf & Ruscitti LLP.
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