Unfair Advantages and Recruiting
Back in March, on the SXSW-interactive panel that I participated in, one of the things we talked about was how we recruited top college graduates to Austin back in the ’90’s.
It would be easy now to assume that Austin was a pretty cool place, and an easy draw, for college kids coming from the coasts back in the ’90’s. But it wasn’t so.
- The vibrant downtown Austin we all know now, was a shadow of its current gory (or infamy, depending on your perspective). Sure, there was already live music in venues on sixth and 4th street 7 days a week. But the establishments were relatively uniformly inexpensive, poorly maintained, and centralized.
- 2nd street district (aka Warehouse district)? Well, those were still warehouses.
- Wholefoods? The current headquarters flagship was a car dealership (used car dealership?)
- The JW Austin? A parking lot, with a couple of restaurants on the Congress frontage.
- Frost Tower? didn’t exist yet.
- Your favorite nightlife spot? Odds are it wasn’t there yet either. But we did have some good ones.
- Food? We had both kinds: Tex and Mex.
- Art? Museums?
- There hadn’t been a new building of size in downtown in over 10 years.
But we did have a certain gestalt that caught on with people who stayed awhile. Those sleepy summer days with blues on the green (in the Arboretum no less), trips to Hamilton Pool or Deep Eddy. Concerts on Southpark Meadows, the Backyard and other outdoor venues. And a certain combination of laid back and goal-seeking that you just don’t find in too many places.
Sprinkle in a few live oaks and better food… and it all comes together.
So how did we sell Austin to recruits from college and industry in that era, when Austin was definitely not-cool? We focused on our few unfair advantages:
- Home ownership. Living in Austin was so affordable that recent college grads could buy houses. Cost of Living was a big win over the coasts. And while Austin has gotten more expensive compared with the rest of Texas, it is still vastly cheaper than the coasts. We showed them how affordable apartments and homes were here.
- SXSW – no other city in the world has a festival like SXSW – at the time it was only a music festival (and film was just starting). We took loads of recruits on “sell trips” to close the deal and get them out for several nights of fun during SXSW with our team.
- Outdoor living. We took them out on company ski boats to the lake, to outdoor eateries, to rock climbing or ultimate frisbee, or Town Lake. But we focused on the activities that were accessible in Austin but maybe out of reach in other places.
So how would you sell a town today, that someone might not think of as “cool”? Well, let’s take a place that I know well – Columbia Missouri. It’s a small college town, in central Missouri, near the Missouri River. Not unlike Austin, but dramatically smaller (Austin has more people move here every two years than currently live in Columbia).
What are Columbia’s unfair advantages compared to the cities it competes with for talent in Missouri?
- University proximity for a source of friends or talent to hire – in fact there is more than one higher education institution in Columbia.
- A great music venue – the Blue Note – and music festivals. I once traveled up to Columbia to see the Cowboy Junkies play at the Blue Note -and it was fantastic.
- A movie festival (True|False) that pulls in great films considering the size of the town. There’s a hip theater/bar/restaurant that is the center of gravity.
- An improving foodie scene. When I lived in Columbia I don’t recall food being a calling card, but now you’ll find a top notch coffee shop, good Thai food, and various other local eateries that produce great food.
- A downtown renaissance – Columbia has a real downtown area with a critical mass of businesses and residences that makes it interesting to newcomers. It isn’t a high-rise zone, but it is a very walkable and accessible downtown area.
If I had a company in Columbia, these attributes would be the drumbeat I’d pound out. And maybe you don’t go head-to-head with Silicon Valley with these attributes, but you’re not just competing against Silicon Valley. You’ll find many people would rather live in a small town if they could have a reasonable balance of the things they love about the big city – food, music, film, culture. But you’re also competing with other towns nearby – and similar towns across the country. You’ve got to play to your strengths vis-a-vis your real competition.
Also, you’ve got to use these events that bring visitors to do some recruiting. Invite techies to meet before or after the music or film festivals. Schedule a startup pitch competition at the same time of year, or a small conference. Make culture and technology adjacent and coincident – and then recruit like hell.