Davids vs. Goliaths: Offering Value Is Key to Attracting Top Talent to Your Tech Startup

League Inc.

Founded in 2011, GeekWire is a national news website reporting on significant, interesting, and new developments in tech. We sat down with GeekWire’s co-founder & editor John Cook to discuss recruiting, Seattle’s startup scene, and their own challenges with employee benefits.

Q: How was GeekWire started?

My co-founder, Todd Bishop, and I were both longtime tech reporters based in the Pacific Northwest. Between us, it was essentially as though we had spent 15 years studying what it took to build a tech startup into a successful business.

We saw a need to create a national technology news site based in Seattle. Most of our competitors—most of the folks in the technology media world—are based in San Francisco or the Bay Area, and we saw Seattle as a special place that deserved a world-class technology news organization to cover the ins and outs. That was a big reason why we started GeekWire.

We also brought in a traditional news sense to GeekWire with a belief that media was changing rapidly. There were new platforms on which to tell stories, and we're not adverse to trying new things. We like to have a little bit of fun in the mix as well, so we’ve developed a culture of experimentation and playfulness, while still being serious about doing real journalism in this day and age. These are attributes that have resonated within our community and beyond.

Q: What’s different about Seattle’s startup community?

Seattle’s technology startup community is unique. It thrives within a progressive West Coast city that is constantly in motion, and yet still has beauty and spectacular nature surrounding us. 

But, despite the level of innovation in the city, Seattle’s culture is perhaps not as entrepreneur-friendly compared to the likes of Silicon Valley. It’s more common in the Valley to leave your comfortable job at an established B2B SaaS company after three years because you’re joining your buddy’s startup. It's more accepted in the DNA of the culture in the Valley than it is in Seattle.

Q: Why is recruiting hard for Seattle startups?

A good startup entrepreneur has to be able to sell to both their customers and their (potential) employees, as well. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You still see some of those hard-charging entrepreneurs who can make that case that it's not all about the money in the short term; that you're going to be able to be a part of something smaller where you're going to have a bigger impact. No one wants to be just a faceless, shapeless number in a larger organization. That message still resonates with a lot of people.

But with the landscape of Seattle’s tech scene, it becomes a huge challenge to recruit talent to your startup because you’re competing with the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Dropbox, Salesforce, Ebay, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, T-Mobile, and Amazon—all of which have transformed the Seattle tech community. It's made it somewhat harder for the startup community here to take root. It's still robust but it hasn’t experienced rapid growth.

Startups here are keenly aware of what they’re up against when it comes to attracting and retaining the right talent for their teams. The competition is intense. That’s why it’s important to understand what truly matters to your employees and to offer as much value as you receive. One of the best ways to show your commitment is through the health benefits package you offer.

Q: What was wrong with your last benefits provider?

GeekWire has grown and we’re committed to creating a great work experience. We care about the wellbeing of our staff, and one of the best ways to show that is to support them with amazing benefits.

Needless to say, it’s been trial and error.

Under our old health benefits plan, if an employee had a question about their policy, it was a tough slog for our staffer, Cara Kuhlman, to comb through the carrier's fine print, searching for an answer. While it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, it could be a painful and time-consuming process, especially because she’s got at least 50 other important things to do at any given time.

The sad part is, people were just accustomed to thinking that all benefits plans were awful because it’s been a challenging and frustrating system for so long. No one was complaining about how cumbersome our plan was because everyone believed that was the status quo.

Healthcare and health benefits is perhaps one of the most painful, frustrating things that you have to deal with as a business owner. It's one thing I don't like to deal with at all. So if there's any ability to make that less painful, easier for us to operate, and even fun, we’re all for it.

"Since playfulness is a key part of our culture, we wanted to inject some fun into our health benefits," @johnhcook @geekwire @JoinLeague

An important part of our culture at GeekWire brings in an element of fun and playfulness to everything we do—even if it’s something as mundane and as critical as healthcare benefits. And so anything that makes that process easier or more fun is more than welcome, especially if it gets the job done well. This approach couldn’t have worked better when it comes to League, our new healthcare benefits partner.

Q: What’s different about League?

League is a progressive company trying to solve an acute pain point. It seems to have the same style and mentality of many of the tech companies we interact with: It's fast-moving, responsive, customer-oriented, and trying to really solve a problem that exists for a lot of companies and employees. This goes beyond our niche of smaller tech companies—most companies would appreciate that approach. In our world, where companies are moving extremely fast and time is money, anything that can expedite that production process or make it more effective is going to be beneficial.

As we are a small team, we also wanted to essentially offload a lot of the HR responsibilities associated with managing health benefits. So outsourcing that responsibility to somebody else has been hugely beneficial. We’re done with the stuffy, boring health plans. Since a key part of our workplace culture is fun and playfulness, we like to inject some fun into our health benefits, too. One of the ways we like to do this is by having League organize a massage day for our team after we've throw one of our big events. That sort of personal touch can have a real impact.

Q: What has your experience been like with League?

It’s only been a few months since we started using League, and we’re still exploring the additional features and services, but our staff has been loving the Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA) League offers alongside the Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA). We got a slightly better rate on our insurance program, so instead of just pocketing the difference in savings, we decided to keep our benefits budget the same as last year and just invest the extra in either the HRA or the LSA, allowing people to spend money on other things that encourage a healthy lifestyle.

"With our HRA and LSA, we know we’re taken care of not only with our customizable benefits but also with excellent customer service," @johnhcook @geekwire @JoinLeague

This is important to us as a team and as a startup because we want to cultivate a healthy work environment. We want to ensure that people feel as if they are getting treated well, as it relates to their lifestyle. It's not the biggest monetary kickback, but just doing little extra things like that for your staff is beneficial and will hopefully pay dividends down the road. We think we’ll be able to see the concrete effects of both the HRA and LSA in about a year, if not sooner.

Q: What’s the impact been for GeekWire?

Shifting the painful, heavy lifting of managing the health benefits to League was of great value to us. We know we’re taken care of not only with our customizable benefits but also with excellent customer service. That's a big time-saver for us and one of the reasons why we chose League. We’re all about tech, but we’re humans first.

As a tech company, we also notice and appreciate things like a clean and user-friendly interface. League’s mobile apps have been especially useful to our tech-savvy employee base. A mobile app is important because it makes it that much easier to access our benefits and track our HRAs and LSAs so we can get the most out of the service.

"@JoinLeague is definitely at home in Seattle’s special startup scene. I’m sure you’ll read all about it very soon," - @johnhcook, co-founder of @geekwire

We're always searching for ways to be more efficient and effective, while driving more benefits back to our employees to keep them happy and healthy. That's one of the reasons why we chose League. It was able to deliver exactly what we were looking for. We've been satisfied with the service, and are looking forward to seeing how it evolves. And, from what we’ve experienced so far, League is definitely at home in Seattle’s special startup scene. I’m sure you’ll read all about it.