The roles that we fill at this stage are highly specialized and generally call for nearly contradictory attributes in candidates. You need incredible good engineers who are not already in golden handcuffs, are crazy enough to join a risky early stage company, do not want to found their own company right now, want to work at all hours, and are aligned with the culture you are trying to build.
It seems that this is indeed what startups are looking for. It also seems that they are generally unwilling to pay market salary. And startups don't seem willing to part with enough equity to make up the difference in the slightest if you weigh in how unlikely it is for employees to see any return on equity.
There may be a reason why these jobs are hard to fill.
Quite. There have been recent discussions on HN which point out the darkside of this: that early employees of startups often take as much risk and work as hard as the founders, yet get a tiny sliver of the upside. Co-founder, or nothing.
I'm personally interested in this because I know first hand about the bottom of EV-comp curve: I personally enjoy working at really early-stage companies, have little in the way of expenses (27yo DINK), but don't have enough saved to start my own thing (payed off 50k in student loans last year).
It feels somewhat akin to working at game companies: Working in the industry is glamorized, so young and energetic people flock to it and get relatively shafted on the margins. My job is nowhere near as bad as working at somewhere like EA, but it's not unlike it either.
I won't be doing this for much longer though, as the market isn't changing fast enough. Next time it's co-founder or series C+. In-between I always feel like I'm being had, to a degree.
It's not just not getting a large part of the up side. If the company fails, there isn't enough base pay to create a financial cushion to rely upon in the lean times. Something I have personal experience with.
Certainly I fall somewhere in that category. I'm not in a position to co-found, but would like to wind up at a startup. However, due to the high-risk nature, I want to have a good solid chunk of equity that I could cash out (loosely equivalent to the valuation of the risk that I took on)