How early-stage deep-tech startups can attract and retain the right talent

“When you’re in a startup, the first ten people will determine whether the company succeeds or not.” – Steve Jobs

Love him or hate him, I think Steve Jobs hits the nail on the head with this statement. We all recognise the fact that people on the team can make or break a startup.

The search for great talent is even more challenging for deep tech startups, competing with the tech giants of the world to fill highly sought-after technical roles such as robotics engineers, data scientists, and quantum researchers.

Yet deep tech startups still enjoy a certain draw, especially amongst Millennials and Gen Zs. A dipstick survey we conducted recently found that they enjoy contributing to a good cause, having more autonomy and flexibility built within the job, and being part of a team with strong potential growth.

The next generation of talent has also shared their aspirations to be part of a collective where they can make a difference and create a real-world impact on issues they care about. This is where deep tech startups, with their promise of developing solutions that address pressing global problems, are well-positioned to appeal to this purpose-driven generation and compete to attract the ‘cream of the crop’.

So how can early-stage deep tech startups better their chances at attracting the right talent?  It’s not exactly rocket science, but here are four things to note before going on the talent hunt:

Benchmark remunerations with industry standards

While early-stage startups may not have the luxury of offering huge salaries, it is still important to ensure adequate and fair compensation aligned with industry standards. Founders can offer equity plans –an approach we see more widely adopted in mature startup hubs such as Silicon Valley– to help cushion the cash flow.

But how much should be given and to whom? Frankly, there’s no straightforward answer, although the general sentiment is about 0.5 – 5 per cent in equity options, depending on seniority and timing of hire. While there are reports on equity or remuneration in other parts of the world, this data is not readily available in Singapore and the Asia Pacific region.

Recognising this gap, SGInnovate is working with AON to survey startups in the region to gain a better understanding of salary benchmarks and the results will be out in the first half of 2021.

Effectively communicate the company’s vision, achievements and plans

Beyond financial considerations, deep tech founders should clearly articulate a vision that resonates with the people they are trying to attract and appeal to their interests. It is important to be able to stoke the passion of potential hires and make a strong case for them to join the company.

Potential hires are assessing the company, as much as interviewers are assessing their ability to contribute to the team. Consider sharing the support that the company has received from investors, and how far the tech or innovation developed has come.

Laying out the company’s business and commercialisation roadmap will further imbue confidence in the talent that the company is forward-thinking, and that the business can remain competitive.

Having the right backdrop is also key to winning that talent over, so be it a formal interview, business lunch or casual coffee, take the time to let these potential talent get to know the team and the company better. It will make all the difference.

Offer enrichment and upskilling programmes

As startups generally play on their agility and small team strength, it is equally important to provide opportunities for upskilling and expansion of job roles and responsibilities. Provide on-the-job learning, internal training and mentoring/coaching with an experienced member of the team to build a good people-centric reputation for the company.

Additionally, there are deep tech workshops available to build talent capabilities, including SGInnovate’s Deep Learning Developer Series for AI and the Cybersecurity Professional Series funded under CITREP+, and many other government-funded schemes such as SkillsFuture that subsidise the costs for talent to pick up new skills through workshops and courses.

To grow, develop, and strengthen resources, tap on these schemes and external learning opportunities to plan a learning path together as a company.

Utilise talent programmes and marketplaces to identify high-potential candidates

Last but not least, start early in the game and think ahead about the types of talent that will be needed in growing a deep tech startup. Actively engage people with a view in assessing if they could be the talent required when the company reaches different stages. At every opportunity, the market in the best possible light so that potential hires would be familiar with the company.

Take advantage of talent programmes such as SGInnovate’s Summation and Power which are geared towards encouraging fresh graduates/undergraduates and mid-career switchers respectively, to gain real-world skills in the Deep Tech space. Community events and talent marketplaces are also effective networking opportunities where potential hires and Deep Tech startups can connect.

The upcoming New Frontier 2021 on April 10 is one such event that startup founders should keep a lookout for to engage with fellow industry leaders and meet potential talent.

Building a deep tech team together

Through my interactions with many leaders, I’ve come to realise that the ones who build the strongest teams often possess one key trait: a strong sense of awareness – both of themselves and also their teammates. They understand the strengths of the team, gaps to fill, team dynamics and are open to bringing in the right people to complement them.

Most times, the right people come from different backgrounds, experiences and academic prowess. So don’t let biases and discriminations be the hurdle to hiring the right people. If anything, COVID-19 has shown that when push comes to shove, talent can be found working from anywhere, anytime.

Juliana Lim


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