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The key to deeptech employee retention? Don’t be afraid to think like the big guys

For early stage startups retaining deeptech talent is about more than salary. It's about introducing later-stage processes and thinking like the big guys

Anna Roe, chief people officer at Mind Foundry
Anna Roe

By Anna Roe

The growing competition for talent means deeptech employee retention is becoming more challenging. Recruitment is extremely competitive, and salaries for engineers are on the up. According to Glassdoor, machine learning scientists are earning an average base salary of £66k per year, while data from Option Impact found that salaries for data scientists averaged around £86k. 

With the increase in the costs of living and the growing competition between companies, remuneration packages are likely to continue to grow. But retaining your best deeptech staff comes down to more than just salary. 

So what’s the key to deeptech employee retention? For us, it was about thinking like the big guys and accelerating “later stage” processes. 

Add ons for deeptech candidates

Smaller companies and startups can’t beat the big guys when it comes to money. That’s why add-ons are even more important for deeptech employee retention. But offering the right ones — and, crucially, delivering on them — is where startups need to focus their attention. 

Valuable add-ons for a deeptech organisation should create an environment that improves technical skills, feeds employees’ natural curiosity and provides clear progression and development opportunities. 

Our team at Mind Foundry includes many academics and more than half the technical team have PhDs. Support for continued learning and development (L&D) opportunities is incredibly attractive to them and drives retention. 

So we don’t restrict the team’s desire to learn and grow, we don’t have any formal budgets or limits in place. Instead, all requests for training, conferences, books or higher education go through a case-by-case approval and will most often be approved by the senior team. 

When it comes to higher level qualifications or PhDs, we’re developing a programme whereby we offer to cover the cost of a part-time high-level relevant qualification for anyone in our team. To support this, we also allocate 20% of an employee’s time for personal development.  

This is something that is particularly advantageous for smaller companies as most organisations only start to formalise such initiatives when they reach 250+ staff.

The average tenure for our employees is 2.3 years and that still stands despite 20% of the organisation having been hired in the past two months. This is significantly higher than the industry average of 18 months. Importantly, our L&D opportunities extend to our employees in every division — whether that be a PhD or an industry-specific qualification. 

How development frameworks can help with deeptech employee retention

It’s also common for people working in deeptech to want clearly defined processes for all areas of their role — especially if it involves soft skills such as management or peer-reviewing.

We are investing in Lattice, an enterprise-grade HR system, so we can provide best-in-class frameworks, engagement platforms that deliver a depth of insight and structured performance reviews so everyone has a clear development and progression path. 

Performance reviews should always be based on 360-degree feedback and combined with performance against key goals or metrics. Ideally, this should happen twice a year, with a quarterly check-in — minimum — on how individuals are progressing. Employee performance is a continuous activity and should be treated as such — it shouldn’t be a one-off event that happens every year without any context. 

“The cost of not investing … early on is expensive — from employer brand and staff satisfaction, to fulfilment, retention and staff wellbeing”

Progression frameworks should be built with longevity in mind. Even though Mind Foundry only has 60 staff, our progression framework has seven levels to ensure it’s future-proofed for our growth. 

While some elements of these frameworks will remain consistent across staff — such as culture — others will be tailored to suit the specifics of a given role. It’s common for employees in highly technical roles to not want to be managers, so their progression path needs to be aligned with these preferences and with those that do want to progress in a more linear way. This ensures that even though staff may have different titles or responsibilities, there is a clear understanding of their level and place in the business.  

While these practices may seem intimidating or unnecessary for earlier-stage companies, investing in certain processes is especially important for deeptechs given the very specific needs that deeptech employees have. The cost of not investing in these things early on is expensive — from employer brand and staff satisfaction, to fulfilment, retention and staff wellbeing. 

The culture fallacy

Large corporates have embraced the idea that culture fit should be defined by a shared set of principles and it’s not necessarily about “out of work” likability — something that can lead to subcultures and a high staff churn. 

At Mind Foundry, we reject more people based on culture fit than technical fit and believe that culture is defined by an intrinsic set of values and behaviours. We look for humility, how someone instils trust, how people think about customers and whether they’re aligned with our mission. These are a part of our entire candidate process and influence everything from hiring and onboarding, to our rewards programme and exit interviews. 

The other thing we acknowledge is that people care about the impact they are having, especially those who leave academia to work in deeptech. Communicating the impact you have as a business from the interview process — and reaffirming it on a day-to-day basis — is key for deeptech employee retention. Larger companies tend to sell the vision well but employees quickly become disillusioned when their day-to-day work is mired in bureaucracy or lengthy feedback loops. This is where smaller companies can really set themselves apart, combining mature business processes with their innate agility.  

There are plenty of examples within the broader tech industry of companies living and breathing this and getting culture right. Wise is a great example — it built its values into every stage of the people process and rewarded against those values and behaviours, recognising that it isn’t just financial compensation that matters but public recognition too. Ultimately Wise knew its values from the outset and embedded them into its entire process. The company built its culture around that knowledge, and never lost it — and its success today is testament to the fact intentionality around culture pays off. 

Anna Roe is the chief people officer at Mind Foundry. 

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