We were a hot startup and, long story short, we've become a slow-growth (mature?) company being more or less #1 in our industry.

However there are workers which are leaving our company. Asking them in one-on-one talks "why?" they answered (almost) invariably "because I want more money".

However, in the exit questionnaires only 10% talk about a higher wage. The rest invoke other reasons, the most frequent being the lack of future enhancement of their career and/or the capping risk (they feel like they will be in a pigeonhole - something like that).

What can we do in order to retain the good people?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Sep 6, 2015 at 4:21
  • I suspect the real reason is salary, and the HR exit interviews are people just being polite...
    – daaxix
    Sep 20, 2015 at 6:55

9 Answers 9


The people you attract as a startup will go for the smaller no nonsense highly volatile environment that a startup often has. These people will be more likely be pioneers and not people who like continuing the status quo. Once your company transitions from the start up phase to a more stable phase your company often changes. More layers of management become necessary to manage the larger amount of people. In addition, some products go more into a maintenance mode in stead of quick dynamic development.

So, in part you cannot keep the people you started with. If they prefer the startup environment, they will move on. The trick here is to then find new talent that thrives not in the dynamic startup phase, but people who enjoy the more stable mature phase. Trying to keep your talent from the startup phase is not necessarily a good idea.

To keep some of the startup minded people happy you can let them handle the R&D of new products. In that department you try to mimic the startup environment. In addition, keep tabs on how your people want to develop, and actively support them in that.

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    Agree with this, but also you can give them important role and make sure they help scale the company, since they are the type of people who like fast-pace high-growth environment and like to be part of the few that make it happen. You can also try the amazon/google approach and create "mini startup" within the organization and have these people lead it. Any ideas you're dying to try? These are the people you should probably put in it (and give them an important title within the department/program/whatever you call it)
    – CleverNode
    Sep 3, 2015 at 17:24
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    @Novina You might also consider ideas they're dying to try, especially if they can make a business case for it.
    – jpmc26
    Sep 3, 2015 at 19:11
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    LinkedIn (or otherwise keeping track of where they move to) might be useful here, to test the hypothesis that the staff who are leaving are leaving because they prefer to work in a startup. Far more worrying would be for example if they're leaving because they prefer to work for your competitors! Sep 4, 2015 at 1:46
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    "Trying to keep your talent from the startup phase is not necessarily a good idea." However counter-intuitive it may seem to some; yes!
    – brian_o
    Sep 4, 2015 at 20:20
  • An incredibly valuable tool could be the Netflix culture deck. I don't know that I'd suggest your company should have an identical culture to Netflix but there are a lot of key principles for making developers happy. Sep 8, 2015 at 17:12

Trying to get good information from exit interviews is generally pointless. Very few people will tell you the real reason they are leaving. What you need to do is talk to the employees who aren't leaving right this minute about what they would like to see improved.

However, if the people are mostly leaving for new start-ups, they are the kind of people you probably have no hope of retaining because you aren't a start-up anymore. If they are mostly leaving for other companies at your maturity level or somewhere even larger and less exciting, then they could have been retained had you done something differently.

It is to be expected that many start-up employees leave as the organization gets larger. Some people like the inherent risk in a start-up and others prefer the more stable environment. Some like the stupid hours of a startup and the excitement of doing something new and cutting edge. Those people are not happy doing maintenance (although they should do it some anyway, any dev who had never had to maintain what they wrote generally writes code that is is hard to maintain and doesn't consider what is needed over time.) Many go to start-ups because they think they will get rich, when it doesn't happen they look for another start-up. Many like the no rules cowboy or frat party atmosphere of a start-up and no amount of money will keep them in a organization that is getting large and consequently more bureaucratic.

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    Yeah, this pretty much nails it. My father has been in the startup scene for decades and has not-jokingly talked about a company getting too big for his liking when there are nearly 20 employees. The autonomy, responsibility, and feeling of accomplishment you can get in a startup is nearly impossible to reproduce in a more mature company.
    – enderland
    Sep 3, 2015 at 17:59
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    It's not so much the organization getting larger, but who is coming in. When startups get to a certain level, they feel they need to start hiring management, and those managers feel like they have to manage. People at startups don't want to be managed, because they generally don't need to be managed. Then you end up with more managers than developers, which is an imbalance that is guaranteed to drive developers away. To really speed up the process, allow the new managers to bring in their friends as "senior" developers. I've witnessed this several times, and it's never any fun.
    – Mohair
    Sep 3, 2015 at 19:26
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    @Mohair The problem I've seen is that managers are often given a superior role to developers in an organization. I think that this is often because to manage effectively, you must have some authority. However, managers shouldn't be more important than developers. The weight of their opinions shouldn't trump that of developers because often times managers don't know enough to reasonably make the decisions they are making. I've also seen the imbalance of managers to developers, and managers bringing in friends to fill roles for which they are completely incompetent and unqualified. Sad really.
    – crush
    Sep 4, 2015 at 14:41
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    I love this answer because it suggests a testable hypothesis: if the people who leave are going to demographically similar companies, you have a specific culture problem.
    – brian_o
    Sep 4, 2015 at 20:17

First things first - remember the old saying: "People join a company, but they leave their managers". Most likely, your management is failing your employees. They are not providing the right work, the right career growth, the right sort of working environment for them. Individuals are different, so there will not be a catch-all solution for retention.

What can we do in order to retain the good people?

By satisfying their needs from their job. The common refrain for motivating/engaging people is three parts (popularized by the book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"):

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Are you giving your best and brightest the freedom to do what they need to do, without hassle or headache? The old-west of startups provide a lot of freedom, compared to bigger companies. But even as a bigger company, there's a difference between necessary interaction to work with the larger pool of resources and overhead caused by this unweildy beast.

Are you letting them learn and grow their areas of expertise? Startups tend to be challenging environments, pushing the boundaries of employees' skills. Big companies can get complacent - trying to maintain their status rather than pushing the boundaries.

Do your employees understand what they need to do, and how that helps the company go? When there's only a dozen employees, it's really clear about how your contributions help; it's really clear what needs to be done, because you see what everyone else is doing. In larger companies, it's not readily apparent. Without good communication (often via 1 on 1 meetings with their manager), employees can lose sight of that, along with there sense of purpose in the workplace.

But again, different employees have different needs. Your management should be working with employees constantly to determine those needs and address them individually. Some will want more responsibility. Some will want more training and learning opportunities. Some will want different/more challenging work. And it takes skilled leaders to fish out those desires from people who rarely realize consciously what makes them happy.

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    Don't forget recognition - sometimes all it takes is a title (or even salary bump) not because they want the money, but because they want something to (humble)brag about.
    – Basic
    Sep 3, 2015 at 19:40
  • Excellent answer. Check that management aren't ex-developers no longer in touch but still offering advice and handling appraisals etc using experienced gained 30 odd years ago. I'm constantly amazed that the managers of managers don't consult the minions, in confidence, to get feedback about management quality, because they're certainly not going to get it from the managers themselves.
    – bye
    Sep 4, 2015 at 12:08
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    Seconding @Basic's point. As a pro, what I want most is to be told "'you're doing great work, you're a valued member of the team". A salary bump makes that concrete, but isn't by itself a motivator --though salary not keeping up with industry can be a demotivator.
    – keshlam
    Sep 4, 2015 at 12:53

Pay them more money. They obviously feel that they're being underpaid, since they're telling you that specifically. But "future career enhancement" looks better on paper.

If people are quitting over low salaries, that's a sign that you've been underpaying them for too long already.

  • 10
    A lot of people are not primarily motivated by money, at least above a certain minimum. The exit interviews confirm this. If people only stay for more money, they will probably leave soon for a job that pays even more. Sep 3, 2015 at 16:44
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    future career enhancement means i want to make more money in the future too Sep 3, 2015 at 17:06
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    I think this is it. Irrespective of your opinions on money, the best evidence here is what they've said. Wanting to believe the exit questionnaires over that is wishful thinking by the OP.
    – Nathan
    Sep 3, 2015 at 17:51
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    This is not a complete anwser its just an easy one... Sep 3, 2015 at 18:16
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    See my answer in this thread - "want more money" could also mean "I was getting paid low in exchange for stock options but now that this company isn't growing those aren't useful to me and so I'd rather go somewhere else for a normal salary"
    – Tom Kidd
    Sep 3, 2015 at 20:56

We were a hot startup and, long story short, we reached to be a slow-growth (mature?) company being more or less #1 in our industry.

I'm not an expert on this, but having listened to the StartUp Podcast, it sounds like your company has turned into what they're calling a "Lifestyle Company", as in it's not going to make anyone crazy rich and it's not going to be growing by leaps and bounds (the "slow-growth" you're referring to).

Obviously you can't give us too much context and have your company remain anonymous but I can't help but wonder if some of your people were doing the typical sweat equity bit where they were working for low wages in exchange for stock in the company but now that you have (perhaps) shown that there's no huge payoff to be had, they're bailing. I think some people here would read your "because I want more money" bit and think that you're just not paying market wage or that your employees are greedy but it could be that they really want the big payoff that comes with being in a startup that explodes and if you've proven that there's no giant acquisition in your future then there's nothing you can do to stop these folks from leaving. In addition to the other reasons stated here, one of the things happening is that they took a gamble that they could win big by working for you and now that that's not looking likely they're going to go try somewhere else. And since you were a "hot" startup, having you on their resume could be gold depending on location.

To some extent my answer is the same as everyone else's here with the additional wrinkle that if these people wanted the big payday that comes with being in a gangbusters startup, they're going to bail. Whether or not it's correct most people think that startups either get huge, plateau or crash. It could be they figured your company would either get huge or crash, but plateauing is similarly unacceptable for the risk taker.

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    "now that that's not looking likely" -- well, maybe they did win big in vested stock options and they want to move on to another score. The company doesn't have to have failed to pay off in order to no longer be attractive, all that matters (to people thinking this way) is whether it'll pay off like that in future. Sep 4, 2015 at 1:53

Consider these statements:

  1. they answered (almost) invariably "because I want more money".

  2. the most frequent ones being the lack of future enhancement of their career

These two sound exactly the same to me but in different contexts. When you ask in a head to head talk they will most likely think about their future (where do I want to go next?) job then answer, but in a formal document about their current (how could they have kept me?) job, they won't want to sound like they want to make more money without adding more value to the company (unless they are feeling underpaid) so the same problem (wanting to make more money) will be pointed out as "lack of growth".

I don't think people will say "I want more money" in an exit questionnaire unless they felt paid unfairly.

So addressing the "growth" issue is likely to increase retention, as long as you don't present them with a very slow growth path that will get them to quit sooner.


Based on what I can glean from your description of the situation, my assessment is your company is hemorrhaging talent because it doesn't stand for anything and therefore no longer engenders any loyalty. You've achieved the what and the how but you haven't yet found the why for accomplishing either.

You say your company is number one in your industry. Getting to number one was the likely incentive for the people who said yes and joined up early in your company's life. They took on the risks and other pitfalls of working at a startup because it afforded them an opportunity to achieve a trophy other established companies could not offer.
But that was last season. What new championship is your company offering to these top performers this season?

Top leaders forge a company culture: a reason to win. The culture is what gives members of a team something to go after beyond material compensation. Without culture -- without a reason to earn a big win for the cause (instead of just the numbers) -- there's nothing unique on offer, nothing to sacrifice for. It's the difference between being having a task and having a purpose; between having something to do and having a passion to pursue; between repeating the same things and making a difference in the world.

I know that may sound very "motivational-speakery", but all human endeavor really comes down to fulfillment. We do that which we think will bring us satisfaction. Money only motivates up to a point. If all you have to offer is more cash, there's always someone else who can out-spend you for the specific slice of talent that matters more to them, and your company gets carved up over time.

I recommend the work of

as primers.

Some practical advice:

  1. Who is responsible for retention? Unless certain individuals are tasked with and actually empowered to turn the issue around, it's spread will only accelerate throughout the company. Eventually your innovative start-up will be hollowed out at its core and replaced from the inside with a safe, complacent middle-of-the-road staff.
  2. Who is setting the company culture? Every company has a culture, but a good culture is only crafted by intention from the top with purposeful leadership. Somebody has to say "This is what our company is, and this is what it isn't," and that person who says that needs to carry enough weight and authority to make those statements stick.

Both of these areas of responsibility are mission-critical, full-time work.


Well, if growth potential is really an issue, maybe you could try providing

  • education reimbursement
  • allocating a set percentage of time to personal projects
  • institute a performance management process to help employees manage personal growth
  • allow some level of cross-training with other jobs in your business, so that employees understand what other people do and/or get to learn new skills

If money is an issue, maybe do some research to make sure you're competitive. If you really cannot pay people more, maybe focus on the soft benefits like gym memberships, office parties, outings, etc.

Might also be a good idea to look at your culture. I agree with the other comment that people leave their managers. Think about whether or not the company is promoting a culture that is unsustainable in the way managers and employees interact.


People who work and like to work for slow growth established companies are different than those that work for established companies.

Certainly look at the factors mentioned in other replies like work culture, pay, benefits, etc.

But more importantly, you need to start hiring people who are looking for stability. These are different people than you hired when you were a startup, don't pretend, don't advertise 'startup feel'. Advertise #1 in your field, well established, and most importantly profitable.

You need employees that like digging into messy code, and enjoy the challenge of small wins over big fiascos. Not to stereotype, but these are going to be older employees, possibly in the later years of their careers, but still up on the technology. These are people with families, kids headed to college that want the stability of a company that is #1 in their field. They don't want a startup that might not make payroll next week.

You are going to have to pay for these kinds of people though, they tend to have senior in their title and have 20+ years of experience and the salaries to go with that. But they will be very loyal and will trudge through the muck with you.

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