We don’t fight the talent war

We’re happy pacifists when it comes to finding great people. The best are everywhere, hiding out in all sorts of quiet places.

“The only winning move is not to play” — WarGames

Snapchat poaching from Airbnb. Uber poaching from Twitter. Facebook poaching from Google. If you run a tech company, you’re familiar with the talent war. You may have even been a soldier or a general.

But, as with any war, you’re probably better off staying away unless you’re guaranteed to win. That’s why at Basecamp, we’re pacifists when it comes to finding talent.

You know the drill: Developer makes a name for herself at a hot tech company, plays some other tech companies off one another, and incites a bidding war involving lots of cash and equity. The winning company gets some ink and piques the attention of VCs by landing the prize prospect.

To us, the idea that tech companies are fighting over a few good people is ridiculous. Unless you’re in need of someone with an extremely rare expertise — someone like a head of engineering at Tesla (one of whom, incidentally, just got poached by Apple) — we can think of no good reason to aggressively chase any single individual.

In fact, if someone comes from a hotbed of talent, we usually steer clear. It’s not that we couldn’t get that person; we just don’t think it’s worth the effort. Even if you win the chase this time, when people know they’re in high demand, they’ll get antsy soon enough and begin looking for the next big opportunity. You’ll become just another blip on their résumés.

But more than that, we believe great talent is waiting to be found in unexciting places. It’s on us to find awesome people who are stuck in jobs that don’t allow them to flourish.

Oddly enough, even though we’re a prominent software company spread across the country, we don’t have a single designer, programmer, or product person who lives in the Bay Area, the mecca of engineering talent. We found one of our best designers in Oklahoma; one of our best programmers in the rural outskirts of Toronto; and our head of technical operations in Tampa. Then there’s one of our best customer service people, who lives on a small, fifth-generation family farm in southern Tennessee. Before joining Basecamp, he managed a fast food restaurant. Many people who work at Basecamp had been working at lower-profile shops — or entirely different industries — prior to joining up with us.

So how do find undiscovered talent? Ask around — but ask specific questions, like: “Do you happen to know anyone who’s cramped in his or her job? Someone who’s great but hasn’t been given the opportunity to do great work? Someone who’s stuck in a situation that feels like a job instead of a career?” If you post ads on job sites or your own site, cast your language specifically to catch these kinds of people.

One of my favorite moments of talent discovery came when we hired a designer who was hiding out at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. Ever heard of Lemont? I hadn’t either. He previously applied for a job at Basecamp, but he didn’t make the cut. A year later, another position opened up and he put his hat in the ring again. We’re so thankful he did — he’s grown into an outstanding designer, and he’s an even better person.

I’ve found that nurturing untapped potential is far more exhilarating than finding someone who has already peaked. At Basecamp we hired many of our best people not because of who they were but because of who they could become. Many of our employees have been with us for more than five years. That’s something that means much more to me than having a celeb cycle through our company every few quarters.


A version of article is also available in the July/August issue of Inc. Magazine.

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