Don’t Sign If You’re Going to Decline

I can’t say it any other way: Don’t renege on a start-up offer once you have accepted. If you only knew what the true reaction inside the company was to your decision, you wouldn’t do it. By declining an offer you’ve already accepted, you are burning a bridge, scorching a whole section of your network, and doing irreparable damage to your reputation.

Most candidates don’t truly appreciate the effect that reneging has on an offer. They think, “It’s not that bad. They’ll find another candidate quickly. They’ll understand.” Maybe if the company is IBM and role is entry-level, but not for any role of significance in a start-up. In order to properly appreciate how the company reacts, you need to put yourself in their shoes.

Imagine that you just finished your job search after interviews with several companies. You had three different offers and just made your final decision. You sent in your acceptance letter, set your start date for two weeks out, graciously declined your other offers telling them you’d found your dream job, and you’re now heading to the beach for some down-time with family before you start the new job. Bliss, right? No more interviews, no more searching, no more negotiating. You. Are. Set.

Then imagine two days before your start date you get an email from your new employer saying they would like to take back the offer. In that email they said how much they loved you, but a “dream candidate” came their way last week and they just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hire her/him. They had to pull your offer but hoped you would understand. “You’re a fantastic candidate. We’re sure you’ll find another job soon.”

You’d be outraged… incredulous. You would tell every single one of your friends what a terrible, awful company they were. You would join GlassDoor with three different accounts just to write three different scathing reviews. You would go out of your way to tell anyone who was considering joining that company how terrible they were. You would never ever forget.

That’s how the company feels. Really.

In the rare times we’ve seen candidates renege, it’s because they felt they had to accept an expiring offer before they could finish interviews with their ideal company. If that happens to you, talk to the company with the expiring offer and ask for more time. Tell them you owe it to everyone involved to complete the process, that you would give them the same respect. Not only is it true, but it allows you to make a decision based on fit rather than one based on pressure.

Is it ever acceptable? No, it’s never acceptable… but it can *sometimes* be understandable. As I said before, if the company is large and the role isn’t significant, the blowback will likely be minimal. Unfortunately, the start-up community (specifically in Austin) is small and tightly knit – news of your renege will ripple throughout the company and even beyond which could have a lasting effect on your reputation. The key is helping this well-connected community understand your decision thoroughly. For example, if the other opportunity is truly a “dream job” – one that everyone can look at objectively and say “wow, you really have to take that” – then you might be able to pull it off without causing too much damage.

The key is to do it gracefully and respectfully. Communicate the situation, in person, before you’ve made your final decision, tell them why you are making the decision and how terrible you feel. Allow them the chance to convince you otherwise and allow them to see that you’ve put a tremendous amount of thought into this. Make it hard for them to hate you.

Oh, and NEVER do it in an email.

What’s the Market?

I get this question all the time from our Austin clients – “What’s the market for a Ruby on Rails Developer?” or “What’s the market for a Data Scientist?”  Unfortunately, talented engineers aren’t commodities and there is no reliable place to find this data.  In Austin, the start-up market is so hot for strong individual contributor software talent that standard sources of data like or even reports from the likes of Culpepper don’t even come close to being accurate. In particular, specific technology skills are so valuable that they often throw off the curve. For example, we had a prospective client base their salary range for a mobile developer off of data they gathered on and they ended up over $20K too low.  The generalized data from isn’t able to capture that the mobile technology skills are incredibly in-demand in Austin and thus command a significant compensation premium.

So, I did some poking around different information sources and benchmarked them with the candidate salary and offer data we were seeing.  Here’s my cheat sheet for a more accurate reflection of market compensation in Austin:

1. Use Indeed’s salary search:

2. Search for job title AND the specific skills you are looking for, for example, say “iOS developer” or “Ruby developer”

3. Don’t put Austin, TX as the city, instead, put San Francisco, CA

4. Apply about a 10% discount to the results

This obviously won’t be correct all the time, but I think it will be much more consistent with reality than traditional sources.

Headhunters – A Guide for Candidates

Most candidates don’t truly understand how the recruiting industry works. They have a vague notion that a headhunter is someone who can get them a job but the details of how and why this happens are not clear.  I think that this lack of understanding can lead to misaligned expectations so I’ve made it a point to explain how contingency-fee headhunters, like HireStarter, make money with every candidate I meet.  I want to be absolutely certain that expectations are set properly and do my part to shed a little light on the dark and misunderstood corners of our profession.  Here’s what I tell them…

The basics.

Companies come to contingency-fee headhunters when they can’t find the candidates they are looking for through their own efforts.  They sign a contract that says that they will pay the headhunter a fee only if they hire a candidate that the headhunter has brought to them.  That fee is usually calculated as a percentage of the candidate’s base salary.  The fee is also subject to a guarantee period (usually 90 days) so that, if the candidate leaves or is fired within the that period of time, the headhunter must provide a replacement candidate or sometimes a refund.

We don’t find jobs for people, we find people for jobs.

The term “headhunter” is quite possibly the most accurate term to describe what we do… we find candidates to fill jobs for our client companies – we hunt heads.  We do not find jobs for candidates.  If a candidate contacts us out of the blue, there’s a chance that they might fit for one of the roles we are trying to fill and, in that case, the candidate feels like we “found them a job” but it’s critical to understand that’s not actually what happened.

The companies pay, the candidate doesn’t.

There’s an overused saying that advises “If you’re not paying, you’re the product” and with headhunting that’s still technically true.  While I believe every candidate should keep in mind that, financially, a headhunter is beholden to their client companies, that doesn’t mean that they should be treated like a product. A headhunter is nothing without their trusted network and the long-term relationships that they build with candidates are the lifeblood of their business – they should act accordingly.  If you feel that a headhunter you are working with is ignoring you or is unresponsive, that’s not a good sign that they value your relationship.  That said, to make a living, headhunters have to focus on filling the jobs they are working on and, if you’re not a good fit for any of them, their time with you will be a bit more limited.

We are paid to be selective.

Many people believe that a headhunter will get them access to companies that might turn them down if they simply applied for a job.  While there are rare cases where a headhunter can see the hidden potential in a candidate and convince a company to interview them, it’s far from the norm.  Our client companies come to us when they want a very specific skill-set and they can’t seem to find the right candidate through their own efforts.  That’s when they decide that it’s worth the added cost of using a headhunter to find candidates with these special skills.  When they come to us, they want us to bring them their ideal candidate – they don’t want us to send them candidates that are off the mark in any way.  So, if you’re stretching… trying to get access to a job that you’re not qualified for, jumping into a new industry, or attempting to start a new career, a headhunter probably won’t be able to help you.

It’s not like real estate.

Some candidates want to be able to call a headhunter like they call a realtor.  They explain what they are looking for and they want that headhunter to go find them a job.  While it’s possible for a headhunter to go out and market the candidate to any company, keep in mind that this industry is not like real estate where commissions are standard and any realtor can represent a buyer or a seller in any transaction.  Headhunters cost money and some companies don’t use headhunters, use them to fill only certain positions, or only work with certain ones.  Those companies might refuse to look at a candidate from a headhunter due to the costs involved.  For these reasons, it’s best to consider headhunters as representatives of their client companies – the ones that they already have contracts with.

Not all of us are the same.

As in every industry, there’s a wide variety of players.  There are headhunters that spam the earth with job postings, responding to only a few of the candidates they think are best while igoring the rest.  There are headhunters that take a good candidate’s resume and shop them around to every open job they can find, using them as bait to get new business.  I could go on and on but I won’t, I want to tell you what kind of headhunter HireStarter is:

We try to be transparent and provide value to everyone that comes to us.  If we contact you about a role we are working on, we promise to be respectful of your situation and not use high-pressure sales tactics to get you to interview.  If you let us represent you at our clients, we will help you at every step of the interview.  If you come to us looking for a job and we don’t have anything that would be a good fit, we will take some time to try and help you with advice or introductions.

I hope this was helpful.  We look forward to working with you.

The Statesman Covers the Talent Shortage

I was interviewed by the Austin American Statesman for a piece they were doing on the talent shortage in Austin:

… But most new companies aren’t in that position, said Marc Davis , CEO of Austin recruiting firm  ”With a young startup company, training is not an option. Skill sets are so in demand, and funding for startups has gone down. Nobody has time to hire people who don’t have the skill sets,” Davis said. “I don’t have a warehouse of these people, so I have to yank them out of somewhere.”

That’s led to a jump in counteroffers by companies trying to keep their people, he said.

“We’ve had candidates get an extra $30,000 just to stay,” he said. “Their managers say it is worth it because otherwise they have to pay a headhunter, and they’ll lose time and money getting a new candidate up to speed.”

Austin salaries vary greatly, depending on the size of the company and its ability to raise venture capital. For top-level, experienced software programmers with key skills, pay can range from $130,000 to $150,000 a year, up from $100,000 to $120,000 over the past couple of years, according to