How to Compete for Talent as an Emerging Company

The competition for top talent in tech and life sciences is fierce. 

Early-stage and emerging companies often find themselves in competition with much larger organizations to attract and/or extract experienced talent they need to help achieve their next stage of growth. 

However, if you think you can’t compete with established companies for talent due to their deeper pockets and robust benefits, think again. 

I have worked in the pharma and biotech industry for over 30 years, leading HR organizations and projects, both as an internal HR practitioner and most recently as a consultant. Among the many important lessons I have learned during my experience is that emerging companies succeed when they use their superpowers – finding what makes them unique and using it to their advantage. 

From the mission-driven mindset of your organization to the breadth of responsibilities that come with early-stage company roles, you can leverage the agility, financial upside, and culture of your organization to compete with the big guys.

5 Ways David Can Compete with Goliath  


Be Strategic with Total Rewards

Employee compensation is the most substantial source of cash burn for most startups. Offering market competitive and fiscally responsible compensation packages when filling vital team roles can seem a daunting task, especially for smaller companies. However, some innovative compensation planning that includes cutting-edge short- and long-term incentive plan designs can help preserve your cash runway and manage equity overhang while offering a competitive compensation package to candidates.

Financial incentives can be powerful engagement drivers, and since early-stage life sciences companies mostly rely on time-based options for their LTI plans, it’s important to beware of the risk of incentivizing speed over quality in order to meet business milestones. To avoid this dynamic, some companies may follow a scorecard that includes not only pipeline development metrics, but also commercial activity and other benchmarks.

Thanks to their smaller roster size, though, emerging companies can benefit from discretionary plans that use additive or multiplicative models based on both corporate and individual metrics that can both make clear targets and direct culture. 

Another option to explore is vesting schedules. Front-loading vesting and shortening the vesting period from the standard four-year with a one-year cliff presents an appealing option to candidates. The potential equity upside in early-stage and emerging companies is a significant selling point so make sure you educate new hires on this valuable component of their compensation package.

Win with WFH Options


In a recent global McKinsey survey, 64 percent of the respondents, out of more than 5,000 full-time employees, said they would like to work from home one to four days a week. In today’s climate, flexible, hybrid, and remote environments are not a barrier to establishing clear expectations or concrete work hours. There are also innovative programs that can help business leaders establish and codify the company’s culture to ensure the mission and vision of the company is part of the employer brand.

So, startup companies can leverage their virtual nature and expand employees’ abilities to work from somewhere outside the office. This not only expands your talent pool but can positively impact both your culture and your fixed costs.


Promote “Learn as You Grow”

Running a startup can be hectic, and your resources are often limited. This can leave your employees without the time or other organizational resources for formal learning and career development.

However, the all-hands-on-deck mentality setting this creates means there are inherent opportunities for on-the-job development. Employees may be working alongside executives and can cross-train in other disciplines or departments, developing into utility players. 

As Jeffrey Hausfeld, MD of BioFactura writes: “In a small company, you wear many hats because you don’t have as many departments as large companies do. You have to float between many roles because it’s important for these companies to preserve investor capital and promote functional cross-training.”

Recognizing and leveraging the scrappy nature of early-stage companies allows you to offer broad exposure to aspects of the business that employees would otherwise not encounter even after years of experience in larger, more established organizations.

Put the Flex in Flexible


When startups are in a high growth mode, strategic workforce planning can help you identify flexible alternatives to investing in full-time resources until the business strategy calls for it and the budget allows for it.

Workforce planning enables a purposeful and planful approach to managing headcount, versus over-reliance on the “friends and family” program – also known as hire who you know! Workforce planning informs budget planning, optimizes your organization’s readiness for scale, identifies and prioritizes critical roles and responsibilities and helps you determine whether to buy (FTE), borrow (consultants/contractors), or build (promote internally) talent. Bottom line, a workforce plan enables you to align your headcount needs with business priorities to ensure you invest your precious capital in the right resource at the right time.


Sell Your Mission – and the Opportunity for Meaningful Work

The mission of your company is one of your greatest strengths. When I speak with people who are interested in making the leap from established companies to early-stage companies, one of the themes I typically hear regarding why they are looking to make the change is meaningfulness. Your company offers the opportunity to work close to the science/technology, while enabling employees to see the impact of their decisions and efforts. It’s a front row seat to which they may not have access in a more established company. 

In early-stage and emerging companies there is no tree to hide behind. If one person fails, the enterprise may fail. That’s a powerful motivator for people in life sciences, since the work we do has a direct impact on patients, their families, and the health care professionals who treat them.

Unlock Your Superpowers

Success for early-stage and emerging companies depends on finding the right mix of talent, and attracting that talent requires creativity, innovative planning, and establishing your brand. These are unique abilities that Mix Talent can help you unlock.

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