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The war for talent is heating up – How to build a winning startup team

Do you feel like you’re doing too much? Are you overwhelmed by an endless list of half-finished projects? Are some not even in your expertise, meaning you’re spending time on things that a specialist could do better and faster? You may be suffering from "bandwidth constraint disorder" – an ailment that is common, but startups tend to especially suffer from it. It's a result of the growing war for talent businesses face around the world.

Here, oDesk CEO Gary Swart takes a closer look at the battle for startup talent and outlines three areas that can help to step up your game...


It's not a new idea, but according to KPMG’s study, ‘Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World,’ talent is increasingly critical to a company’s success — 81 per cent of executives surveyed said talent management will serve as a key competitive advantage over the next three years.

But that’s easier said than done, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s report, ‘Preparing for a New Era of Work.’ The study found that – thanks to global competition, changing demographics and persistent ‘geographic mismatches’ between the supply of workers and the demand for them – a stark skills shortage is emerging worldwide. In the US, McKinsey reported that the gap between the number of people graduating and the number of graduates businesses need could reach 1.5 million by 2020. China, meanwhile, will face a shortage of 23 million university-educated workers by that time.

The effects of this shortage are already being felt worldwide – finding, attracting and retaining top talent is more difficult than ever. According to a survey conducted by Genesis Research on behalf of oDesk, 70 per cent of businesses surveyed reported that ‘traditional hiring methods are painful.’

To be competitive in this increasingly harsh talent climate, businesses need to get savvier at three things:

1) Going global

Our hyper-connected world is flatter than ever. This is impacting the way we work; 71 per cent of executives surveyed by KPMG said working across borders and collaborating with teams in across countries has increased over the past three years.

Going global

But businesses are still figuring out how to take full advantage of ‘going global’, especially startups that are establishing global models earlier in their growth than ever (often from inception). KPMG’s survey found that expanding workforces in new markets (including identifying and hiring talent internationally) was the second-biggest concern for HR departments, second only to retaining talent. And there's still a lot of work to do – only one-quarter of respondents said their HR departments ‘excel at sourcing key talent globally.’

This shift towards global HR is only expected to grow. According to oDesk’s Online Work Study, 95 per cent of businesses surveyed agreed that ‘in the future, hiring will be more dependent on having the right skills than on location.’

2) Becoming virtual

Thanks to advances in cloud-based technology, as well as growing access to internet access worldwide, we can now work from anywhere.


This isn’t limited to web developers or writers, either. Anything that can be done in front of a computer – from legal work to business consulting – is being done virtually. In essence, work is no longer a place.

KPMG’s survey found that:

  • 60 per cent of businesses surveyed have increased their use of virtual workspaces
  • 48 per cent have reduced their reliance on physical office premises
  • 72 per cent maintain that their companies should ‘increase the use of both virtual and flexible workers’

Similarly, two-thirds of respondents in the oDesk study believed that at least half their workforce would be online by 2015. However, there's still room for improvement – only 24 per cent of executives told KPMG that their HR department ‘excels at supporting an increasingly virtual/flexible workforce.’

3) Being flexible

It’s clear that our workforce structure is shifting, the composition of teams is changing along with it. According to KPMG, 55 per cent of respondents have hired more contract or temporary workers in the last three years.

Indeed, businesses are realising that teams are not one-size-fits-all. From entirely virtual companies, to in-house core teams with support from a flexible bench of online freelancers, to fully blended teams of local and virtual workers, a variety of workforce structures have emerged – leading to more nimble, high-performing businesses.


This shift is only expected to become more pronounced in the coming years; 95 per cent of businesses in oDesk’s survey plan on increasing or maintaining their hiring of online contract workers in the next year. And within 10 years 94 per cent of respondents believe that most businesses will have ‘blended’ teams composed of both on-premise workers and online contract workers.

In addition, when you build these flexible teams of on-demand workers with specialised skills, you can empower employees to do only the work they do best by breaking down projects into skill-specific tasks. Indeed, 67 per cent of businesses in oDesk’s survey reported that online contract workers allow them or their in-house employees to focus on higher-level skills.

Now it’s your turn

The war for talent (and bandwidth!) is fierce, hugely important, and just beginning...

As with anything, there is no silver bullet solution, but taking the time to staff up a new, more competitive team that is global, virtual and flexible will help. These teams will need the same management care and attention as traditional teams of course, but that’s an article for another day.

As with anything new, this shift may require some time to adjust. Take it slow – try starting with a few test projects with virtual team members. See which perform best, and build longer-term relationships with them as trusted team members. Eventually, you will have a highly tuned global team that responds flexibly to needs as you experience bandwidth crunches.

Image credit:
featured image – flickr user JD Hancock
globe – flickr user Whatsername?
working from home – flickr user striatic
office – flick user Johan Larrson

For related posts, check out:

Schools of entrepreneurship: Why an MBA matters and how Oxford and MIT stack up
Top tips for startup HR from SoundCloud’s Caoimhe Keogan
Meet the cool creatives from Hyper Island – the “digital Harvard” grooming a crop of top startup talent

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