For jobseekers, start-ups are looking a lot less attractive

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Kapil Kolhatkar sought out a job at Clover — a Square competitor owned by First Data — because it had the feel of a start-up with the security of a public company.

"I probably would not join an early stage start-up just because of the risk factors I can feel brewing in the economy," he said.

Kolhatkar, age 24, had been looking to leave his job since November (the company was tightening spending, and he wasn't getting a requested raise). He dismissed sectors he perceived to be weak, such as the on-demand and cloud services, and interviewed at several companies, including Yahoo.

"I wanted to make sure that the position was a relatively safe position," he said.

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Kolhatkar just accepted new job as a technical specialist in First Data’s Clover division.
Source: Kapil Kolhatkar

Silicon Valley job seekers are approaching the job market with a level of caution which has been uncommon, until recently. Candidates are prioritizing stability, size and money in the bank over paper valuations and the promise of growth, said Carolyn Betts Fleming, founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting. They are also more concerned with burn rates and revenue, she said. (Betts Recruiting helped Kolhatkar find his position.)

"People are being more analytical and thoughtful in the decisions they are making," she said.

As a result, tech giants and well-funded unicorns are likely finding it a little easier to hire top talent, said Jon Bischke co-founder and CEO of Entelo, which makes recruiting software.

"When the market is not as red hot for start-ups, it is easier for bigger companies to compete for red hot talent, especially the engineering talent that is so sought after," he said.

The incredibly competitive market for engineering talent is partly to blame for small start-ups' desire to attain lofty paper valuations and offer potential employees highly-valued equity, said Sam Angus, corporate partner at Fenwick & West. The Securities and Exchange Commission is now fielding an increasing number of calls from employees concerned that their startup equity might not be as valuable — or liquid — as they had hoped, said Chair Mary Jo White on a recent visit to Silicon Valley.

The top 10 Nasdaq-listed tech companies and the top 10 U.S. unicorns saw an increase in interest from job seekers in the first quarter of this year, according to new data compiled by career site Glassdoor. Interest in companies within these two groups jumped 20 percent and 39 percent respectively. This may indicate a flight to quality among tech workers, said Glassdoor trends analyst Scott Dobroski.

For some job seekers, this means seeking out opportunities at Silicon Valley giants, even the ones traditionally considered "un-sexy." The biggest jump in interest at tech's public giants was seen at Cisco (34 percent), Intel (29 percent) and Oracle (25 percent). For others, committed to remaining in the startup world, they are moving up the chain, and making more conservative choices.

Among the biggest U.S. unicorns, interest in jobs at Pinterest, Snapchat and WeWork increased the most in the first quarter of this year, rising 99 percent, 72 percent and 60 percent respectively. It is worth noting that the base numbers for startups are much smaller, so a few extra clicks make a big difference, said Dobroski.

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At the start of the year, many people were bracing for mass layoffs following a cooling in the public and private markets, but that has not happened and sentiment has shifted, said industry insiders. Though valuations have come down, companies are reining in spending and there have been some limited layoffs, the job market has remained largely intact. So far, the fallout has been far more limited than the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000 or the financial crisis.

"This has been somewhat of a more gentle letdown than the other two corrections, and it may at some point level out, but it's hard to know," said Angus."You have not seen the widespread layoffs among tech companies today and and you still have many tech companies that are hiring and growing."

Job postings at an index of 100 Silicon Valley startups dipped just 6 percent from March to April, according to new data from DataFox, a sales intelligence startup. This was driven almost entirely by Dropbox reducing its full time job posts on listings site Indeed from 113 to 30 between March and April. (A spokesperson for Dropbox said the company is hiring for hundreds of positions globally, and uses a range of websites for job postings.)

Are start-up prices falling faster than we thought?

Of course, in times of tightening, some roles are more resilient than others. There is so much pent up demand for engineers that there are still plenty of opportunities and salaries have not come down, said Daniel Chait, CEO of recruiting software company Greenhouse.

"The talent that those folks are going after has been in such short supply for so long, a modest dip is not enough to move the needle," he said.

Other revenue-generating positions, such as those in sales, continue to be stable, particularly for experienced sales managers and inexpensive college graduates, said Betts Fleming. What has changed is that startups CEOs have shifted focus, from simply filling their ranks to grow quickly, to hiring employees with technical skills and domain experience. With fewer hires, they want to be certain they are picking the right people and are still to paying top salaries. Increasingly, companies want data to better understand the competitive landscape.

"Companies are becoming a lot more strategic," she said.

For job seekers whose roles are not directly tied to revenue, such as those in marketing, it has become more important for them to demonstrate a unique value proposition. It is common for those roles to be filled by consultants who may or may not be hired full time.

"In a down market, people get very focused on return on investment," said Bischke.