TechStars Seattle, on the Prowl for Talented Coders, Adopts HackStars Program
Last year, the organizers of TechStars in Boulder, CO, decided to try a little experiment. Already stocked with 10 teams of entrepreneurs working on their proto-companies, the startup boot-camp saw a niche for extra hands to help knock out some of the startups’ technical projects.
So David Cohen, TechStars’ founder and CEO, brought in a young software developer and aspiring entrepreneur named Sam Herbert, who had applied to TechStars but didn’t make the cut for that year’s class. The TechStars brass gave Herbert a small stipend and let him circulate through the system, to see what kind of work might be available.If it works out, they figured, he could even wind up working for one of the companies.
“Two weeks into the program, he was recruited by one of the teams,” says Nicole Glaros, managing director of TechStars Boulder. “That’s when we were like, ‘Hmm … maybe this has a little bit more legs than we thought.’”
For Herbert, that open-ended engineering gig turned into a co-founder’s position with ADstruc, a venture-backed New York City-based outdoor advertising startup. “The last thing I thought would happen was I would be living in New York a year [later],” Herbert says. “But man, I’m so glad that happened. It’s been an adventure, and I just hope it keeps on going.”
And for TechStars, the experiment became HackStars—a recruiting program that puts entrepreneurial techies into a talent pool to help the accelerator’s fledgling companies tackle their projects, and maybe even land a new job.
The HackStars program, already in place at TechStars in New York and Boulder, is now making its debut in Seattle, where TechStars recently closed applications for a second class of entrepreneurs. Developers and designers in HackStars get the same $6,000 per-person stipend given to the co-founders of hosted startups. But they also get a chance to try the startup life even if they don’t have their own idea or team. As Seattle TechStars director Andy Sack wrote on his blog, it amounts to a way for techies to “hack into TechStars.”
Of course, software jockeys of all types are in high demand these days, both nationally and here in Seattle. We’ve talked about this situation many times at Xconomy, examining the relatively low rate of in-state college degrees, the continued growth of local tech behemoths and startups, and the many Bay Area companies establishing Seattle-area footprints to lure away talent from Microsoft, Amazon, and others.
The labor market for technical talent is also hot in Boulder, Glaros says. So why would an engineer give up nearly sure-fire job prospects for a few grand and three months of long hours with no promises of a long-term paycheck? It doesn’t appeal to everyone, Glaros says—but for the right people, the opportunity can be a perfect way to scratch an entrepreneurial itch.
“We got a lot of really high-quality engineers that were working in large companies, who wanted to make the leap to entrepreneurship. But they didn’t know anything about the industry,” Glaros says. And in any case, with their skills in such high demand, good engineers know they can probably snag a reliable job afterward without too much sweat, she adds.
This reminds me of an interesting story I heard recently about a group of entrepreneurs who weren’t having much trouble finding software talent, even in this competitive climate. The reason? Good engineers aren’t coin-operated. In other words, top-notch people are attracted by interesting problems to solve and the opportunity to make a difference—something they might not always find inside a corporate giant. That sounds like the type of people who might be attracted to something like HackStars.
It’s an interesting addition to the TechStars program, which has quickly become a hub of startup activity in Seattle. In addition to the 10 TechStars-sponsored companies, the South Lake Union office also houses startups—like BigDoor Media and Zipline Games—that are financed by Founder’s Co-op, the seed-stage fund run by Sack and Chris DeVore.
At the very least, something like HackStars offers a more structured way of luring some of those “wantrepreneurs” that startup junkies are always hoping to entice off the sidelines—part of the Seattle community’s bid to turn up the energy on the creation of tech startups. If it works out the way Sack and others are hoping, a few coders might be spending some long days indoors next fall.