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Convincing People to Work at Your Startup

Hsu Ken Ooi
Hsu Ken Ooi
2 min read

A signification portion of a founder’s time and energy is spent convince people of things. They could be investors, potential users or prospective hires. I’ve talked a fair bit about the first two so I thought I’d spend some time talking about the last one.

The challenge of convincing people to work at your startup in Southeast Asia is very different from the challenge in San Francisco. In SF, you don’t have to convince them that they should work at a startup. In most cases, they’ve worked at a few. You just need to convince them they should work at your startup.

In SEA, you have to do both! You need to convince them that they should work at a startup and that they should work at your startup. Sad.

Fortunately, I think the strategy is similar in both places. The key is to not compete on the things you can’t win and focus on the things you can.

Don’t Compete On..

Here are the things that, as a startup, you can’t compete in.

  • Salary – Your startup won’t be able to pay as much as the larger companies. Frankly, you shouldn’t even try.
  • Stability – Your startup will never have the stability and security of larger companies. That’s the nature of a startup.
  • Prestige – Your startup will never have the prestige (recognizable name, fancy office, etc.) of larger companies.

Compete on..

Here are the things that, as a startup, you should compete on.

  • Growth – Your startup will give people an opportunity to grow and learn at a significantly faster rate. At a large company, they’ll be responsible for a small part of a big thing. At a startup, they’ll be responsible for a big part of a small thing. Turns out you learn much more in the latter than the former and if that small things becomes a big thing, your learning and career becomes a rocket ship.
  • Financial Upside – If your startup becomes a large company, they will make a life changing amount of money. Where they will likely never have to think about money again. That's rare and takes a long time at a large company. It's also rare at a startup but can happen very quickly. This is admittedly a tougher sale in Southeast Asia so we spend a considerable amoutn of time educating people on how to think about this. That includes explaining how equity works and making a spreadsheet for their equity so they can see how much it could be worth.
  • Meaningful Experience – “It’s a job” is something I hear a lot from people at large companies and almost never from people who work at a startup.
  • Your Scenario Is The Worst Care Scenario – If someone is good at what they do (you should only be hiring these types of people) and working at a large company, they can likely get that job or an equivalent job at any time. If that's true then their current situation is their worst case scenario. Even if your startup is a complete bust, they can always get their job back. If that's the case, why not go for it? I find this works well on the right type of people.

An interesting byproduct of framing your startup this way is it’s compelling to the type of people that you want to hire and not to the ones you don’t. Effectively, it’s a filter. I know there’s a tendency to want to convince everyone to work at your startup but if you have to twist their arm to come work with you, they’re probably not the type of person you want. Even if you do convince them, they’ll probably leave at the first sign of trouble.

The most effective way to convince people to work at your startup is through growth and opportunity. If that’s not appealing to them, they shouldn’t work at a startup anyway.

Hsu Ken Ooi