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The digital skills crisis: Recruiting for a software-heavy startup 

The UK is in the midst of a digital skills crisis, so recruiting for a tech startup can be really challenging. Here are some pointers to keep in mind if you're hiring.
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Recruitment is a challenge – it’s time-consuming and expensive. The challenge is doubly hard if you are recruiting for a technical role, but here’s how one startup has risen to the challenge.

The UK has a digital skills crisis – this means recruiting for technical roles is a serious challenge. 

In fact, 5.8m people have never used the internet at all, despite the fact that 90 per cent of all new jobs require digital skills to some degree – even if that just means being able to Google things and check emails.

Ultimately, the digital skills gap costs the UK economy approximately £63bn a year in lost income, according to the House of Commons report: Digital Skills Crisis. 

The issue is exacerbated in small businesses, and 49 per cent of all SMEs are suffering from the tech skills gap. When there is such high demand for those candidates with tech skills, it’s easy to see how they can get snapped up by larger businesses which might have, at least on the face of it, more to offer. 

Often, larger businesses can offer higher salaries and more opportunities for career advancement. Of course, startups have plenty to offer for the right kind of personality – those willing to hit the ground running can learn a lot by joining a business at the early stages. 

We caught up with the founders of pi-top, manufacturers of build-it-yourself laptop kits that aim to serve as accessible learning environments for students to learn about coding and computing. 

The creation of pi-top 

The company was started in the summer of 2014 and its first product was launched on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo in October of that year. Its goal is to educate people about computing and coding, and this should eventually help alleviate the digital skills crisis.

Co-founders Ryan Dunwoody and Jesse Lozano were never really interested in being a small company, from day one it was about creating a real impact. 

“Sales will dictate how fast you can grow. We hit the right product at the right time and have had demand that has really pushed us to our limits, month on month, year on year,” said Lozano.

The biggest challenge for the pair has been growing the headcount of the company while delivering on large scale employments. 

“We have only had $7m in investment which, when you are deploying tens of thousands of devices a quarter, makes you realise the importance of cash flow management.”

Currently, pi-top consists of a team of 45 people across offices in London, UK; Austin, Texas and Shenzhen, China.

The recruitment process

Although pi-top is working on a solution that eventually might help plug the technology skills gap in the UK, so far Lozano does not believe the company itself has been affected.

During the recruitment process there are often technical tests for those applying for engineering or design roles, but overall they look for a good cultural fit. In a startup more so than in any other kind of business, this is crucial as staff will typically be working very closely together. 

“At pi-top we are a very close team of people and I am glad to say outside of work I would be friends with all of the people who have joined us on this journey,” he said. 

“I have had advice in the past to the effect of ‘you don’t need to be friends with your co-workers, you only need to respect them’. For a startup, I could not disagree more – I think you all have to be friends or else the team will suffer and not be able to overcome hardships.”

What makes a good fit for a startup?

Not everyone is cut out for life in a startup – as we said earlier, you need to be able to hit the ground running, and you may be required to take on much more responsibility than perhaps you would in larger companies where there are more shoulders to take the strain. 

“You have to have a thick skin and be willing to bet against the odds and expect to win,” said Lozano. 

“Red flags are numerous – lots of talented people can be a bit ‘weird’ but frankly startup life isn’t normal, so that’s fine. Really, it’s unchecked ego (a bit of ego is fine) or an inability to understand how you might be wrong. These traits lead to a potentially dangerous ‘my solution is perfect’ mind-set which we don’t really encourage.”

Looking ahead

The pi-top pair are not looking to slow down expansion any time soon – over the next 12 months they will be focusing on improving the product set and growing the team. 

“We opened our US-based office in Austin, Texas in January 2016 and that is a big focus for our future growth as over 50 per cent of our product ends up in the Americas. We have an exciting product pipeline which will see schools, code clubs and educators gaining access to STEAM education tools that really are a world away in terms of quality from what is offered by anyone else,” said Lozano. 

“The digital device spend in the US alone for schools is over $10bn per year, it’s a huge market and we are fully committed to give that market the perfect solution to STEAM and eventually wider sciences.”

This article is part of a wider campaign called the Scale-up Hub, a section of Real Business that provides essential advice and inspiration on taking your business to the next level. It’s produced in association with webexpenses and webonboarding, a fast-growing global organisation that provides cloud-based software services that automate expenses management and streamline the employee onboarding process.

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About Author

Letitia Booty

Letitia Booty is a special projects journalist for Real Business. She has a BA in english literature from the University of East Anglia, and since graduating she has written for a variety of trade titles. Most recently, she was a reporter at SME magazine.

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