How To Hire Elite Talent When You’re Broke

Illustration of hand drawn businessman holding help sign

“He wants a salary of $200,000, but I can’t afford to pay him that,” “Stefan” said to me.

“Then he doesn’t fit your company culture right now,” I said. “That’s okay…”

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“Why is it okay?” Stefan asked me. “And what does it have to do with our culture.”

“If you hire him, you’ll destroy your company culture,” I said.

“I don’t get it,” Stefan said. “I need great engineers, and I need to pay them well.”

“Yeah, I get it,” I said. “I’ve been in the exact situation you’ve been in. Let me explain how I handled it.”

You have to sell your ass off to recruit top talent.


Years ago, I was in a meeting with “Peter” and Jack Gifford, the founding CEO of Maxim Integrated Products. Maxim’s revenue was around $1 billion at the time of this meeting.

Peter had just been named Managing Director of the Engineering organization for a business unit that built amplifiers. It was a big deal for Peter to get this promotion, yet he was unhappy.

“Jack, I’m worried about being able to recruit engineers into the business unit,” Peter said.

You see, in the world of analog integrated circuits, designing amplifiers wasn’t considered a sexy thing to do. Thus, the worry Peter had about recruiting top talent.

Gifford, however, was having none of it, and rightly so. He looked at Peter and yelled, “You sell your fucking ass off! That’s how!”

Peter got the message. It was the last time Peter ever complained about recruiting. And, as I remember it, Peter was quite successful recruiting top engineering talent into his organization.

So what does recruiting in a $1 billion company have to do with recruiting when you have no money?

Well, at first blush, you could say it’s totally different recruiting for a $1 billion company than a cash strapped startup, and you’d be right. However, the basics are the same; you have to sell your ass off.


You have to get talent to buy into your vision.


Great talent, be them engineers, sales people or marketers, have a choice where to go. In my experience, you have to sell the vision of your company. This is similar to pitching investors.

Indeed, I would literally go through my investor pitch with prospective employees. The ones who bought in, I would get to the next step with. The ones that didn’t buy in, I wouldn’t recruit.

Stefan asked me, “But what if no one buys into your story?”

“It’s a red flag if no one is excited by what you’re doing,” I replied. “Think about it. How are you going to build a team if you no one is excited about what you’re doing?”


Then the talent has to be in the right place in their life.


“We don’t have that problem,” Stefan said to me. “I have another candidate that I like that is willing to work for $80,000 and equity. I really like him a lot.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“So, how does this affect your culture?” Stefan asked me.

“Easy,” I said. “You can screw up your culture by hiring people that demand too much money. It will piss off your team If everyone else is sacrificing except for an overpriced engineer.”

“But what if they (the team) don’t find out?”

“The team will always find out,” I said. “Trust me on that one. You have to assume everyone will know what everyone else is making. In my book, that’s too high of a risk.”

Stefan nodded his head in agreement.


Those that aren’t ready to take a risk might join you later.


“Now, there are some people that really want to join your company, but they just can’t afford it. That always the case,” I said. “What you do with those people is you arrange for them to join when they fit your budget.

“It’s what we did when we were building our team. We had around seven engineers ready to join once we got funded.”

“Did all of them join?” Stefan asked me.

“Great question,” I answered. “No, people will drop out. In our case five of the seven joined.”

“That’s not bad,” Stefan said.

“That’s why you always want to be recruiting,” I answered. “Then, you’ll always have a pool of talent ready to join your company when you’re ready and they’re ready.”


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