Photo: Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride has deployed a full-time ‘unicorn hunter’ to scout top talent for the company.

Ah, the holidays, a time to celebrate family, friends and the spirit of . . . poaching?

In a close-knit tech community like Waterloo Region, few topics are more taboo than pilfering another company’s employees – and few topics are more misunderstood, according to Kurtis McBride, CEO of Kitchener-based Miovision.

When I heard recently that McBride felt the Waterloo Region ecosystem could use a bit more competition to go with the kumbaya, I had to hear more. And so, over lunch this week, he laid out his arguments.

Miovision, whose mission is to solve the problem of motorists waiting at red lights by building smarter traffic networks, has grown to 75 employees since the company got rolling in earnest in 2008. Like many young companies, it has come to realize that a strong company culture is every bit as crucial as a good product.

As a result, McBride and his team set a high bar when it comes to recruitment – a bar they know is less likely to be cleared by candidates found through the “spray-and-pray” approach of conventional job postings.

And so, they’ve hired a full-time, in-house recruiter to go out and hunt (McBride prefers that term to ‘poach’) potential employees by building relationships and gradually selling them on the Miovision vision.

If that means targeting people who appear to be happy working for other companies, so be it. After all, if they’re willing to leave, how happy could they be, really?

McBride, who has had a few of his own employees poached over the years, knows it stings. But he suggests that, by forcing everyone to up their game, a little more poaching will leave us with a stronger ecosystem.

Here’s how our conversation went:

Q – So you’d like to talk about poaching, and how it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Where are you coming from on this?

A – Well, probably like everybody in town, it’s hard to find really good people. If you want to just open up the door and let people in, that’s easy, but if you want people who can actually help build the culture and build the business, it’s hard to do.

We used to run what we call the spray-and-pray model, where you post a job everywhere and hope that resumes come in.

It’s not like we don’t post jobs, but in terms of relying on it for finding the people we need, we’ve pretty much abandoned it, and we’ve moved to almost an outbound sales kind of model.

Instead of going to hire people, we go to build relationships with people. So, even if people aren’t looking to leave where they’re at, we still like to get to know them, and we’re basically mapping out where all the most passionate, best programmers or salespeople or whatever are.

We have a guy whose full-time job is to do that, and then my management team also gets involved in doing it. We sort of set quotas around how many times we go out and meet people, and we’re basically building up this database of people we would love to work with at some point, when there’s a fit – when we need what they have, and when they’re looking for something new.

What we’re starting to realize is that the more good people we add who are aligned to our culture and our vision and our values, then not only do we get to hire good people, but the culture reinforces.

So you bring in some good people who are aligned, and they know a bunch of people, so you just get this multiplication effect where more and more of those types of people start to show up.

I wouldn’t say the flywheel has gotten to the point where it’s going to spin forever, but you can see how it would get there as it starts to grow geometrically and you start adding all these people.

You start to ask yourself, ‘How are we being successful at this?’ And really it’s coming down to how clearly are you communicating your ideas about your culture and vision for where you’re trying to take the company.

And obviously, if you have a crappy culture and a boring vision, then good people don’t want to come and work for you. But, I think our theory is, if you multiply this across the community, the easiest top talent for me to find is top talent that’s being underutilized and is bored and isn’t motivated and wants to leave wherever it is.

So, we send out probes and understand where in the community those talent pools are that are not happy. Once we find one, then we go mine from there.

What should happen – and I think if there was a discussion at a conscious level in the community – is, if I’m poaching your good people, it’s not because I’m good at poaching your good people. It’s because you’re not doing something that you should be doing to keep your good people.

We come back to the strength of your culture and the excitement of your vision.

So I don’t necessarily call it poaching. But if we look at changing the culture in this town a little bit, away from ‘don’t touch each other’s people’ – I mean, I challenge anyone in town to come and poach my people, because at the end of the day, the friction costs for them of poaching my people over someone else’s people will be higher.

If we all were doing that, if we were all openly trying to take each other’s people, two things would happen.

One, it’s going to force people to get better. You’re going to have to have a clearer vision, a bigger idea, a better culture, you’re going to have to be more profitable so that you can pay your people better, and you’ll have to have better benefits. So, as a community, we’ll improve.

The other thing is, sometimes I have really, really talented people who don’t fit. They just don’t fit the culture, and it’s not that they’re bad, but they just don’t have a place at Miovision. And that shuffling that will happen in the community will make all the companies better with the exact same resource base, because you eliminate the pebbles in the stream, so to speak.

It’s a bit of a Darwinian view of the ecosystem. There will be cultures that won’t adapt and won’t come up with bigger ideas and don’t have good cultures, and those companies certainly won’t be able to attract the top talent.

There will be other cultures that will see the threat they’re being put under when their good people start leaving, and they’ll challenge themselves to get better.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Q – You alluded to a hands-off culture in the local ecosystem. What has your experience been?

A – I mean, I’ve certainly even sent the emails where you’re like, ‘What you do you mean, you just poached one of my guys?’ Not recently, but I’ve certainly sent those emails.

I’m not saying that people don’t do it; I just think that when they do do it, they feel bad about it, or they expect the angry email back that says ‘I’m off-limits’ kind of thing.

I guess I’m proposing more of an inversion of that. Let’s actually embrace it and promote it. I might fire a shot back, but it’s fair game.

Q – So it’s not really poaching, but more like hunting, with a licence?

A – Yeah, it’s hunting. The reason gazelles are really fast is because lions keep getting faster, and the fastest ones get away from the lions and the slower ones don’t have kids.

I’ve always looked at my competition as my market competition, and I have competitors in the U.S. and in Europe and all over the place. I’ve never really looked at the competition as my local competitors, but the more we keep raising the bar on what we’re looking for, we realize it’s really, really hard to find good people, and we have to compete as vigorously with the local competitors as we do with the market.

Q – How has the talent situation changed since Miovision started rolling in 2008?

A – It’s hard to say. Early on, when you’re six guys in the Accelerator Centre and you can afford to pay 35 grand, it’s hard to find talent.

When you can pay market rates and you’re 75 people, you’re not looking for the same talent.

It’s hard to say whether it’s gotten harder or easier; I think it’s always been harder. I would say if it isn’t hard, then you’re not setting the bar high enough.

Q – Do you think this community has a particular shortage of talent compared to other places?

A – I don’t have a lot of basis for comparison because I’ve never really worked anywhere else, but I was up in Thunder Bay meeting with a guy who runs a software company up there, and that guy has a shortage of talent.

So compared to that, I think we probably have it pretty good.

In the Valley or in Toronto, maybe there’s more talent, but there’s also more competition. So I don’t really think there’s a shortage of talent here, but you definitely have to look for it.

You can’t fish with a net. You’ve got to go looking for it.

Q – How long have you had a full-time recruiter on staff?

A – I call him the unicorn hunter. He’s been with us for about two years. He was a real estate agent before, but he’s got a background in computer science.

The prototype you’re looking for is someone who can sell your company. They’ve got to themselves believe in the values, otherwise it won’t come through, and have some ability to talk technical – not like in an interview, necessarily, but understand that we use Java and C++, and then talk about the vision.

Then they also have to be able to sell.

I would say with almost every single person that we’ve hired through this process, the first conversation is, ‘I’m happy where I am. I don’t want to leave.’ Because why would they leave, if they’re the top developer in their environment?

They’re getting paid well; they set the direction for the rest of the team.

So his job is to kind of get them from there to ‘maybe,’ and the rest of the team kind of takes over from there.

Q – How many people have you brought aboard using this process?

A – We average maybe one a month right now, over the past 18 months.

Q – What are the selling features that you tout for Miovision over those places where people are already happy?

A – It depends on the person. It’s a sales process, so tell me about your needs.

Over a similar time frame, about two years ago or so, we went out and brought a group up from California, called BAT Studios, a marketing and branding group, and they basically helped us go through and codify the culture.

So we have four core values, and we run what we call the empowerment model. The core values are, customer first, complacency’s not an option, passion for success, and then value individuals and empower teams.

When you hire those types of people, they’re easy to empower. Our management ratio from two years ago has probably gone from four-to-one to 15-to-one as the result of this kind of model.

You just give them a vision of what they’re trying to achieve.

I used to do the organizational design. I used to go deep into the organization, try to understand the business, come back up and try to do the org chart design or the communication flow design, and it just got to the point where there was no way for me to do it right, because you just couldn’t understand the nuances of what needed to happen, and who liked who, and who’s pissed off at who.

So with this model, you focus all your processes on communicating to the individual, and I think it scales.

We do monthly town halls, we do weekly all-hands meetings, we do standup meetings every day, we do one-on-ones. It’s really about the who, what, where, why, when, focused at the individual, in a context that’s relevant to them, and then the org chart almost becomes irrelevant. We maintain one because HR says we have to, but who reports to whom is not really the point.

Our org chart is more nodal, with nodes and spokes that connect to one another. And during the recruiting process, when people come in, they come into that nodal structure, into the best node they’re going to fit with.

They meet the manager and they meet some of the peers, and when they start, they kind of drift around to where they add the most value.

The downside is that not everyone does well in that kind of environment, because some people like the structure, and they like being told what to do.

Q – What’s the biggest obstacle you face in recruitment for Miovision?

A – Honestly, these days, it’s awareness. It’s a big community, with lots of companies that do marketing at the community.

Ideally you want to get to the point where when you sit down with somebody who has agreed to sit down to lunch, that you don’t spend the first half of lunch trying to explain who Miovision is.

Some of our focus right now is trying to get better at that.

Iain (Klugman, Communitech’s CEO) always called it Canadian humility, curing yourself of the humble gene and getting to the point of telling your story in a more systematic way.

Q – Anything else to add on the issue of poaching/hunting?

A – I was going to say, what’s the politically correct way to say, ‘You’ve been put on notice?’

We’re getting poised again for growth. We spent two years strengthening the foundation and making sure that when we did grow, we wouldn’t have to retreat, and so we’re through that.

And we’re coming.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
Google+

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.