War for Tech Talent Hits ‘White Hot’ New York Startup Scene
IT’S A GOOD time to be a software programmer in New York City.
Although the unemployment rate in the Big Apple remains over 9 percent — roughly double what’s considered healthy — the demand for programmers and engineers to work in the city’s burgeoning internet startup scene is stronger than it’s been in a decade.
New York-based startups like Gilt Group, Etsy, Foursquare, Tumblr, Intent Media and Rent-the-Runway, among others, are all fighting for the best talent. So are old media titans like NBC Universal, News Corp., Time Warner and AOL (my previous employer.)
Meanwhile, West Coast tech giants like Google are increasing their footprint in the city. The web search leader just closed a nearly $2 billion dollar deal to purchase 111 Eighth Avenue, the gargantuan, high-tech mega-building in the Chelsea neighborhood.
In short, experienced programmers and engineers based in New York City have a virtual smorgasboard of companies seeking their talents. The competition is so fierce that some of the top New York startups, like Foursquare, are actually opening Silicon Valley offices to gain access to the wealth of talent there.
“We’ve been lucky in New York to build such a great team, but we don’t have it easy because there’s a lot of competition between different startups and the big guys like Google and big finance,” said Dennis Crowley, the founder and CEO of Foursquare, the booming mobile networking site with a valuation somewhere north of $100 million. “Part of the reason we started our San Francisco office was to help us recruit great engineers faster, since not everyone is ready to move to New York.”
Meanwhile, major Silicon Valley companies like Facebook are poaching New York’s top talent, like Sam Lessin, co-founder of Drop.io, which the social networking juggernaut just acquired in a move designed to, well, acquire Lessin, who has moved to Palo Alto to work at Facebook full-time.
Jacob Robbins, who ran the engineering team at Drop.io for three years, says that in the six weeks since the acquisition was announced, he has fielded several offers.
“There are all kinds of companies hiring aggressively,” Robbins said. “As soon as the Drop.io announcement went out, Sam began receiving inquires asking if the engineering team were looking for new opportunities.”
“A lot of the developers from the Drop.io team are deciding between starting their own companies and engineering jobs,” he added.
Some top candidates are holding as many as four job offers at once, according to Dave Carvajal, the founder and CEO of Dave Partners, a boutique headhunting firm that places engineers, programmers and executives at tech startups in New York.
“Right now in New York City every technology company is hiring engineers, programmers, Java developers or PHP/Perl developers,” Carvajal said. “I haven’t seen it this hot since 1997. It’s white-hot. In the past week I’ve had five top-notch programmers and four of them each had four offers, and we closed three of those five.”
Carvajal co-founded the successful career website HotJobs.com in the mid-1990s before serving as a top executive at TheLadders, a high-end job site that caters to the $100,000-and-over set. A year and a half ago, Carvajal left the TheLadders to start his own firm. It was good timing.
Carvajal says that in the middle of 2009 he noticed two trends emerging. First, the barrier to entrepreneurship was decreasing, meaning it was becoming easier to start a company and secure funding. Second, more investors — particularly early stage investors — were willing to make smaller investments in nascent startups.
In other words, venture capital was opening up to new entrepreneurs who previously might not have been able to secure funding. This meant more startups, and thus more competition for talent.
And then, of course, there was the recession. “When the economy tightens, it forces people to be a lot more creative and innovative,” Carvajal said. “I don’t know if the United States is going to continue to be a leader in auto manufacturing, but the New York internet, e-commerce and digital scene is certainly one of the ‘green shoots’ in the U.S. economy,” said Carvajal.
He highlighted three main areas of labor shortage in the New York startup scene. First, engineers and programmers. Second, online marketing people who “really understand marketing analytics.” And, third, product developers.
With the implosion of Wall Street and subsequent layoffs, all of a sudden many smart young people who might have aspired to work at an investment bank or hedge fund are finding startups appealing. (Last year, Wired.com profiled some of the new Big Apple tech startups.)
“One of the things that is attractive to a lot of the top talent is the alternative lifestyle that startups can offer, where they can actually have fun, they can actually be surrounded by people who are highly intellectual and are highly committed to making something great happen on the web,” Carvajal said. “They can work equally hard, but just have a lot more fun than being in the rigid confines of finance or consulting.”
The competition for talent in New York is so intense, in fact, that Carvajal is actively looking to poach people from West Coast firms. “We are specifically looking for all of those graduates from the top East Coast universities over the past five to eight years who had to go to the West Coast to get a great job at a great startup,” he said. “We’re going to bring them back home.”