How startups can hire hard to find developers

Good developers are crucial to building a successful web-based business, but finding them can be tricky. Chris Goodfellow speaks to online entrepreneurs and other experts to find how to track them down.

There are hundreds of entrepreneurs with the genesis of an idea that could evolve into the next Instagram or Shazam, the so-called unicorns of the tech startups.

It’s not just that you have to find funding and work out how to market a product, the 99% perspiration part of realising a tech startup is about finding the developers that can turn ideas into a reality.

And convincing a top developer that your web-based startup is the next big thing can be a difficult prospect.

Emilie Hindle, a technical recruiter with Digital Gurus who recruits a range of developers and regularly works with startups, says it’s incredibly difficult to attract good developers in the candidate-driven market.

“There is a risk for candidates that, unfortunately, not every startup succeeds,” says Hindle. “There can be challenges in making the business, the financial proposition and the product attractive, and we find a lot of startups can’t always match up to the packages offered by medium and large businesses.”

Hindle says they sell the prospect of working in a startup to candidates based on the potential to have commercial and cultural influence, and the opportunity to have a direct impact on creating something that’s new in the marketplace, adding that in her view the pros massively outweigh the cons.

Workplace culture

The idea of selling the culture of a startup or small business to developers is a common theme in our discussions with startups.

Customer acquisition specialist MVF Global has a team of 13 full-time developers and plans to hire more this year. HR director Amanda Nuttall says it’s really important to understand the kind of developers you can attract and how to create the right kind of atmosphere.

For MVF this means it’s not about long working hours, but being flexible and having good non-financial perks.

“We have a lot of technical guys that are starting their third jobs and starting a family. We have the flexibility and great maternity pay. We’re honest with ourselves that we’re not a gaming organisation,” says Nuttall.

Outside of the particulars of the job, the type of technology available can be really important. This can mean having the latest equipment, but also giving developers the freedom to work with different languages or on a variety of projects.

Rob Pollard, managing director of Lightbox, which has hired three developers, says the variety of the projects and features makes the jobs appealing from a coding point of view.

“I think it’s important we have quite a varied workload. One minute we’re working on a  development product for a hotel, the next a letting agent or a clothing brand, it could be anything and that’s something that this industry brings.”

It’s possible to leverage workplace culture and tap into employees’ networks by using referrals. This can be formalised through a system of cash rewards for staff that recommend new developers or simply asking them whether they know anyone that would be suitable.

MVF Global, for example, offers a £1,000 reward, which increases to £2,000 through the “double trouble” scheme for hard-to-recruit positions. And Suzanne Nobel, founder of London’s event app Frugl, says she has hired the majority of her developers through word of mouth.

Training apprentices

Apprenticeship schemes and funding have been improved in an attempt to make them more accessible to small businesses over the last few years, and this includes giving them more control over the money spent on training.

Pollard advocates using apprenticeships saying that overall his experience with these candidates has been positive.

“It’s down to getting the right individual,” says Pollard. “I would base it on personality and attitude, which you can gauge in interviews. I do look for skills, but they’re not going to be massively proficient and I know we can teach that, what you can’t teach is attitude and character.”

Job boards and social media

The startups featured in this article gave a mixed response as to the effectiveness of using job boards, which can charge several hundred pounds for a single listing, to source developers.

Pollard looks to cut costs by using Recruitment Genius, which posts to several job boards for a flat fee of £199 or less, and rates the incoming CVs according to the criteria of the position.

Outside of the generic job boards like you can also use industry-specific sites that can have a more engaged audience of developers. One example is Stack Overflow, a forum site where coders share information and help each other solve problems, and Nuttall recommended this site although she notes it’s expensive.

Another angle is to look at university or college job boards in your local area, which is a route Pollard has gone down to identify apprenticeship candidates, and social media is another option.

Gill Crowther, director of HR at Nominet, the organisation that brings businesses the .uk domain and has 20 developers on its team, says Twitter has been a useful platform.

“We have used our recruitment brand to build up some knowledge of us in the market place using our ‘this is your domain’ tag line and we utilise social media, especially Twitter, to access our company followers for recruitment purposes,” Crowther says.

If you have a minimal following at the startup stage your efforts on social media may have minimal reach, although there are ways small companies can take advantage.

Using Twitter’s advanced search functionality you can search keywords people are tweeting about specific skills or looking for specific jobs. Directories like are also good places to track down individuals, and a huge part of LinkedIn is recruitment, not just by searching users’ profiles but also by getting involved in relevant discussion groups where potential employees for your business may be taking part.

Networking at events

Meeting potential candidates face-to-face can be a big benefit for web-based startups that are trying to sell their idea to developers, and Digital Gurus and MVF Global where among those we spoke to that had gone down this route.

Nuttal says they’ve had stands at events, but there’s no harm in just going as a delegate. In addition to industry conferences, MVF has targeted games evenings where big organisations run competitions setting coding challenges for developers.

3 Beards organises weekly Silicon Drinkabout tech startup events in London, Manchester and several other cities around the world which is good place to meet developers keen to work with small businesses, and many technology accelerators and incubators also run networking events.

Foreign candidates

It’s possible to look abroad for candidates. Recruiting from the EU means there are no issues with visas, however, going further afield may be difficult for startups that don’t have the clout or infrastructure to sponsor individuals.

That said, it’s possible to work with foreign developers remotely and this normally happens on a freelance basis.

“We’ve taken on two developers who work outside of the UK on a freelance basis and that’s worked out well,” says Nobel.

Crowther says despite the difficulty startups and SMEs have hiring developers it’s crucial to get the right staff.

“We use a variety of methods to attract candidates from direct search through to agencies and adverts, and we then select for both attitude, skills and culture fit through a multi-stage process,” she explains. “Our main tactic is to not compromise. However, tempting it is to fill a vacancy we hold out for the right quality of candidate.”

Whether you use jobs boards, networking, referrals or another technique to identify candidates it’s clear that selling the culture of your startup’s an immensely important part of recruiting the right developer.

Share this article:

Chris Goodfellow
Chris is founder and CEO of Inkwell, the company that runs The Pitch. He’s a journalist and editor by trade, and his work has been featured by everyone from The Guardian and The Financial Times to Vice magazine.

Applications for The Pitch 2024 are open!

The Pitch returns for another year of supporting startup founders with free advice, mentoring, investor introductions and opportunities to network with fellow founders.

The competition is completely free to enter so if you’re a UK-based startup who has been trading for 4 years or less then why not maximise your potential? 

Submit your application today to be in with a chance to win.

Related Posts

A guide to setting goals and time management tips for your startup

17 top coworking spaces for startup founders across the UK