Finding the needed technical talent for a travel startup can be a real challenge. Although the simple fact of working in the travel industry is compelling to many job candidates, on the technical side - especially in cities where there is a large tech presence - the available offering of interesting and exciting jobs can still pose stiff competition.
Skilled engineers who understand the travel industry are tough enough to find - make that double for a lean-running startup. Even if you can find promising talent that suits the needs of your company, it's challenging to try and convince qualified developers to work for low pay, fewer benefits, and little job security compared to the competition.
All that said, it has happened for some! As engineers have the upper hand when it comes to choosing where to work, it can be telling to look at travel startups who have found and kept strong leaders for their tech teams.
We surveyed CTOs from some Voyager HQ companies (Shep, LuggageHero, Axle and Venuebook) about their experiences taking the leap to join a travel startup, and strategies they’d suggest for recruiting new engineering talent to companies. Here's some pieces of hiring advice from travel startup CTOs who have been through it before.
1. Have a clear understanding of the core challenges facing engineers in travel
When it comes to attracting the best talent, founders must have complete clarity around the challenges facing their company. Often, this comes down to an understanding of their specific industry, explains Shep Travel’s Rafael Torres, who identifies the top travel industry obstacles he’s encountered:
“Integrating data with other organizations within the industry can be challenging. This is an industry that's been around for a long time, so you will find a plethora of integration technologies and techniques. It's a good challenge to have as an engineer, but you need to use good engineering principles if you want to build maintainable systems.
Internationalization is not just a thought in this industry. Different time zones, currency symbols, languages ... you name it. You would want to build your system to deal with all of that gracefully.
The industry is full of jargon, so it can take a bit of time to gain effective domain knowledge.”
2. Disclose these challenges up front!
Just understanding the environment’s challenges isn’t enough - you should share them with potential technical hires as soon as possible to help them understand the business opportunity, recommends Venuebook’s Jay Zawrotny. This is especially true for engineers without a travel background. Here are Zawrotny’s top hurtles for engineers in travel:
“Working with dual sided markets. It can be very difficult to find the right balance in a product to empower both the clients and the travel companies, venues, or hotels.
Choosing between bleeding edge technologies to grow as an engineer or focus on familiar technology because you know what experience you will get.
Choosing to invest time in building new features to support new markets and types of revenue or improving the quality of existing features.”
3. Focus on the relationship perks, not the material ones
Torres: “There's always perks you can offer during the early stages: more equity shares, autonomy, leadership and career opportunities, etc. However, to me it's a lot about relationships. It's essential that there is an open, trust-based communication with the CTO. You want to feel that you can have a candid conversation about anything (not just tech stuff). With that in mind, focus on building a strong relationship first. Then, throw in the perks.”
4. Promote opportunities for rapid advancement and fast action
Startups are far more likely to be high-growth than established companies, which means that engineers can advance more quickly - and perhaps more importantly, can execute ideas quickly. You should promote this relentlessly to potential hires. LuggageHero’s Kristian Loekkegaard notes, “I much prefer the early stages of building a new company, where working in a dynamic startup environment where the path from idea to action is short.”
5. Prioritize team resources and support professional development
Loekkgaard says, “Make it clear that you are not going to expect engineers to build a non-core service that can be purchased out of the box for $1000 a month from an industry leader. And that you are not going to let them work on outdated workstations to save a couple of thousand dollars (which compared with their salary is peanuts anyway).”
6. Also support personal development
Either by sponsoring your engineers’ interests in attending industry events, conferences etc. or giving them time to study, test new things out, and potentially even have side projects that let them work with other technologies and problems. Even if they are going to be the most senior engineer in the company for a while, they still need to learn new things and be challenged in order to stay at the forefront and continue to ensure that you are an innovative business.
7. Seek out talent hives
Great talent congregates in visible places. Find your local hub for the type of talent you're looking for. And if it’s not there, create it. Says Zawrotny: “To attract a CTO there will be nothing better than personal networking. Try to get involved in the local tech meetups going on each month in relevant technologies to your business. If you have your own space, offer to host a meetup once a month. If you have capital, sponsor a conference or the development of the technology you wish to use. When attending or hosting a meetup be sure to mention that you're looking to hire for a CTO role. CTOs are likely going to be working for someone or transitioning from somewhere else and looking for their next venture.”
8. Know exactly what you want
Clarity is the currency of effective recruitment. If you can't express at least a rough technical roadmap, you'll struggle to match the CTO to an unknown technical skillset and background, explains Zawrotny. “Be very clear about what you want from a CTO. It may be tempting to expect them to handle all technical decisions, but without a long-term strategy and a deep understanding of your requirements you will never get a satisfying result no matter whom you hire.”
9. Once you know what it is, make sure your candidate’s got it
This advice is especially pertinent for non-technical founders seeking a CTO co-founder. Without a crystal-clear sense of direction and purpose, it will be extremely hard to secure qualified talent. Zawrotny recommends asking pointed questions to ensure that the CTO has what you need: “Express that you are looking for a leader who will help produce a high-quality product that can scale and satisfy the needs of users supported by a team of passionate people who want to work together and bring more innovation to the travel industry.”
10. DON’T look for a CTO
Some of the “search for CTO” narrative in startups is somewhat misguided. Torres suggests a shift in thinking for founders: “Stop looking for a CTO. By that, I mean shift your way of thinking away from being a founder that needs to hire a CTO to build a specific product, to wanting to find a co-founder who can take responsibility for the technology behind the business you are going to build together.”
11. Know the difference between talent and skill
Clarity on job requirements extends beyond CTOs, to hiring engineers. You’ll need a well-defined idea of which types of skills are necessary to achieve the desired outcome. But don't get caught up in years of experience or coding languages, warns Zawrotny. It’s more about technical talent that can deploy the right technique for a given problem: “Don't look for technical talent, look for technical skill. Skill takes time to develop and takes a willingness to learn. Don't worry about how many years of experience a person has or what specific tools they have worked with. Instead focus on finding passionate developers who want to improve, care about the companies they work for, and want to be better to make the company better.”
12. WAIT FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT
Depending on your business model, experienced talent may not be needed right away and it can help your bottom line to wait. As Shawn Vo of Axle suggests, “Focus on lean product development and market validation with the founding team before investing in heavy tech talent. If you have the former and you're attacking a large market, you should be able to raise money and hire good engineers.” In the early stages, In early stages, an existing Founder may be able to learn just enough code to validate the market before bringing an experienced engineer into the mix.
13. Focus on the “travel advantage”
When faced with two offers of relatively equal weight, often the more interesting industry wins out. Travel has the inherent advantage of being cool, aspirational, and exciting -- after all, its a shared passion for so many. Don't hesitate to play up the “travel advantage,” says Torres: “If you're passionate about engineering and traveling, working in travel as an engineer can give you the unique opportunity to use technology to enhance the experience of traveling for all of us.”
14. MAKE A SENSIBLE OFFER
Though the offering may not be as much as a larger company could bring to the table, it’s important to strike a balance between paying in passion and valuing an engineers’s skills when making your offer. Vo points out, “The good CTO that you want can go work at a big tech company for >$200k a year. Or they can start their own company and get 50% equity. It never makes sense to take like $80K and 10%.”
15. Own the impact
The global scale of the industry can also be a selling point. Engineers will often work with well-known brands from Day 1, and have the chance to impact an industry that millions of people interact with each day. This exposure leads to an opportunity-rich career path, as Loekkegaard has himself experienced: “Once you have acquired a certain level of expertise in the industry, you are likely to be in a good position to land your next job and keep advancing. Or to start your own company -- the travel industry is still ripe for innovation as you will learn if you go into it, and thus there is plenty of work to be done by engineers!”