How to Attract, Motivate and Retain Startup Talent

Attracting top talent is challenging. Motivating talent is a fine art. Retaining talent can boarder on superhuman. Throw a startup in the mix and those three tasks take on higher importance. Top talent has their pick of exciting startups so yours has to stand out.


Startups are unique in that they attract a certain type of talent. This type of talent is driven to create, innovate and change the world. Attracting this talent requires a certain set of special conditions that will set you apart from all the others. These conditions include:

  • Interesting work: Talent is attracted to startups because they work on cool stuff. Whatever the project is, it has to be interesting and stimulating.

  • A competitive salary: Competitive means within industry norms. Not super low or high. You want your talent worry about building your product not about feeding their family.

  • Competitive benefits: Just like the salary, the benefits have to be within industry norms. This shows that you respect your talents needs.

  • Talented management: The first talent you need to attract is talented management. Good management makes everyones life easier and will make attracting top talent a lot easier.

  • Other high quality talent: Top talent likes to work with other top talent. Attract as many good people as you can and watch how they attract others.

  • Flexible work environment: Life sometimes gets in the way of work. Being flexible so that people can take care of their life issues ensures that top talent will want to work for you.

Notice that I did not include huge stock options or big upside potential. Those are important but not as important as creating an environment where the work is the reward and people feel like they are part of something bigger.


People are motivated by different wants, needs and desires — startup talent is no different. While each individual may have different prime motivational factors, a startup has to provide a framework that considers all of these factors in order to maintain momentum. Consider these motivational strategies:

  • Meaningful work: Most top talent will want to work on meaningful things that will change the world. This is the main reason they came to your company. Keep the work meaningful even when it might be mundane.

  • Freedom to create: Top talent wants to invent and create. Allow them to do that by encouraging people to solve problems in creative ways. Don’t put a lot of process in the way. Trust that good people will build fantastic products.

  • Realistic expectations: Nothing crushes talent like the never ending meat grinder of unrealistic expectations. Everyone knows they need to work hard but don’t add super-human effort to the equation — it just burns people out.

  • Clear goals and objectives: Clarity of purpose allows top talent to get their job done. Strive to clearly define what is required and then don’t change it. Being indecisive and constantly changing direction will demotivate even the most motivated person. Setting these goals does not mean you don’t change them when it’s clear that something has to give.

  • Flexibility: Being flexible is not just for the work environment and should be part of your culture. A culture of flexibility will allow creative solutions for problems that might pop up.

The great fallacy about motivation is that money is a good motivator. In fact, it’s the worst motivator for startup talent. If you find talent that is solely motivated by the Benjamin’s, run far away. It’s true that the attraction to a startup is the potential for huge upside but that’s a small part of it. The real motivation is to work on exciting products and services that your talent can directly affect in big ways. When the upside comes, it’s just that — an unexpected benefit.


Your attraction and motivation efforts will be for not unless you can retain your talent. The most important thing about talent retention is that management is fair, balanced and open with everyone. This can be hard when your startup is going through tough times. Any retention efforts need to be done well before the crisis or the results will be lack luster. Some retention strategies include:

  • Open communication: Treat your talent like part of the team. This means that you need to be as open as practical to the situation your startup is in. Openness will always be rewarded with loyalty if it’s genuine.

  • Treating talent the same: It’s important that a manager treat all her talent the same. Showing favoritism will drive a wedge between your team. This will lead some of them to have a “I can’t win” attitude and that poisons your group.

  • Be flexible within reason: Rigid rules and procedures will just drive talented people mad. Be flexible yet don’t be a pushover since being too wishy-washy will also drive people away. Being flexible also means that you allow your people to solve problems the way they want to.

  • Looking out for needs beyond the company: People have a life outside of work. Respect that and allow them to deal with their life issues when they arise.

  • Being open to suggestions: Nothing drives away talented people more than the “my way or no way” attitude. Always be open to suggestions, acknowledge good ideas and respect dissent.

Retention is really an extenuation of attraction and motivation with a bit of forethought rolled in. The best retention strategy is to build trust and respect before things go bad. Notice that bonuses were not in the list. Any kind of written down, systematic bonus structure where people get reward for reaching certain milestones will backfire with talented people. Remember, the main attraction, motivation and retention factor is the creative environment your create. Startup talent loves the challenge of a good problem and that will motivate them more than any monetary reward.

It Starts From the Top

All of these techniques will do nothing for you unless the CEO is bought into them. It really does matter what the CEO thinks, feels and does. Once you have that, then you can create an environment where your talent can thrive, create and make a difference.

This post was inspired by the employees tag over at Answers.OnStartups

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