Want to Be Your Own Boss? You're Hired.

By Caitlin Huston How do you get somebody to work at your startup if they'd rather be launching their own?It's a situation many new companies are facing. They're hungry for workers with advanced technical skills like engineers and product designers. But these days, many of those workers aspire to start businesses instead of signing on with someone else. So, startups are trying to appeal to prospective hires' entrepreneurial side, offering them the chance to set their own salary and decide which projects to work on. They're also pitching the jobs as a way for would-be entrepreneurs to learn how to launch their own company later on.Sometimes, employers try more personal inducements. Jason Freedman, co-founder of commercial real-estate startup 42Floors, made a job offer to an engineer who was a self-professed Roald Dahl fan. Mr. Freedman sweetened the deal by leaving a plate of cookies and a copy of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" on his doorstep."It was one of those tiny small things that made him feel respected and loved," Mr. Freedman says.If finding entrepreneurs is so tough, why not just look for workers who don't want to start their own companies? Some employers say they need what would-be founders have to offer.Mr. Freedman, for one, says he wants employees who can work fast, come up with ideas without being told what to do and help reshape the company over time. What's more, nonentrepreneurs often can't handle the loose structure of a startup and have trouble working without guidance, he says.But the pool of tech talent with entrepreneurial skills is small—so companies are competing hard to land qualified candidates, says Naval Ravikant, co-founder of AngelList, a fundraising site for startups, and AngelList Talent, a recruiting site for new companies.Freedom is a big lure. At 42Floors, engineers can build what they want by working on their own or by pitching ideas to the company during weekly meetings. This method has launched some innovative projects for the company, Mr. Freedman says, including a feature where users can hover over an online image of real-estate listings to see the picture and details without having to click. For more mundane projects, Mr. Freedman says, he and other executives have to try to persuade employees of its importance. If they're not able to persuade them right away, he says, the project typically must wait until they make a stronger case.Mr. Ravikant says it's also important to give prospective hires the promise of a big mission, like a company "that will change how startups fundraise forever." Roger Cosseboom, an engineer at 42Floors, can attest to that. Mr. Cosseboom—who received Japanese scotch as a personalized gift from the company—says he ultimately chose to work there because he felt the employees were aligned in their vision of creating what was best for users. "It's not that it comes down to the perks," says the 31-year-old. "It's more about the kind of cultural fit and whether or not I can be part of a team that [I] believe in."Mr. Cosseboom says that he still wants to start his own company. "It's kind of cheesy, but it's the best way to change the world a little bit nowadays," he says, adding that he hopes to learn from the team at 42floors. "You can internalize these lessons and then find a better platform to launch your idea."Indeed, the chance to learn about entrepreneurship can be a strong draw. Jason Tan, CEO of Sift Science, a Web platform based in San Francisco that helps retailers identify fraud, says he tells engineering and design graduates to think of working for his startup as a training school for their future companies. "Instead of paying tuition, you're getting paid to learn," Mr. Tan says.As for compensation, Mr. Tan says he offers candidates equity "in the top percentage." Mr. Freedman also gives equity and lets employees pick their salaries. They typically choose reasonably, he says, because everyone in the firm sees what everyone else makes. Ms. Huston is an editor of The Wall Street Journal's The Accelerators blog on startups. She can be reached at caitlin.huston@dowjones.com.

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