Forget the ping pong table: Companies offer patent help and equity in client work to attract developers

Companies need to streamline the hiring process and review salaries regularly to win the war for talent, according to HR experts.


Image: MJgraphics/Shutterstock

There’s no sign of relief for companies looking to hire developers. Software engineers are as in demand as ever and those jobs are projected to grow 22% — much faster than average — over the next 10 years. 

Companies need to do more than offer remote work and flexible hours to fill engineering spots. Here’s a look at how two firms are taking on this challenge and building talented teams. Two hiring experts also share their advice on how to modernize the hiring process.

Support for securing patents

NuCurrent takes a unique approach to attracting developers: offering in-house support for patenting new ideas. Engineers at the Chicago company have access to in-house attorneys to develop patents and other intellectual property. 

CEO Jacob Babcock said NuCurrent engineers have produced more than 200 patents over the last decade. The 50-person company includes three lawyers, which provides a high ratio of legal support on a per engineer basis, Babcock said.

“We tend to attract people with a diversity of interests who love building things with their hands and who don’t mind if they burn their fingers from time to time with solder paste,” he said.

NuCurrent started with the idea of wirelessly recharging neurostimulation devices but has since broadened its focus to industrial and IoT solutions. The company now provides full hardware and software solutions for various customers in addition to working with enterprise companies such as Honeywell and Relay+.

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Several NuCurrent engineers have their names on more than 10 patents each, he said. The in-house legal support becomes a competitive advantage for hiring and retention.

“You can say you want an innovative culture, but if you don’t give them the pathways to make their contributions meaningful, what’s the point?” he said.

Babcock said NuCurrent has been a beneficiary of the Great Resignation as people realize that they need a motivation other than money to go to work every day.

“We have seen a positive effect from new candidates coming in and realizing that they can work with amazing customers and see the impact of their work,” he said.

NuCurrent also offers equity in the company to all employees.

“Our team knows they’re going to be supported in putting their ideas forward and getting into the market but also when they’re doing incredible innovation, they’re able to get the financial and emotional reward from it,” he said.

The company also has an energy management program for employees that encourages people to think about the personal drive they bring to work as well as their personal lives. Babcock said most of the company’s engineers still come into the office almost every day with the sales and marketing teams working from home a few days a week.  

A new spin on equity

AE Studio takes a different spin on building employee ownership. Melanie Plaza, CTO of software firm AE studio, said increasing human agency is one of her company’s priorities. In practice, that means building products and services that discourage multi-tasking, change only when necessary and value long-term customer value instead of short-term economic gain.

“The vision is to build tech that empowers people to make decisions that they want to make for themselves instead of tricking them into nefarious behaviors,” she said.

Part of that philosophy is offering equity in customer projects to engineers doing the work. 

“It’s cool to be taking equity in a bunch of different projects so you’re getting paid for your work but you also have skin in the game,” she said. 

AE Studio started the program in mid-2021, which required a significant effort of legal and accounting work. Plaza said the investment has paid off in a recruiting edge when hiring developers, designers and data scientists.

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AE Studio uses a formula to calculate equity awards that takes into account an employee’s contribution to a particular project. Employees don’t have to work on a project to get equity in it. An employee can see how many shares he or she has in the company’s total equity, which is divided among everyone.

“You can get paid a good market salary and also have equity in a bunch of different startups and skunk works and you’ll keep adding to this diversified portfolio,” she said.

Trav Walkowski, chief people officer at the HR firm Employmetrics, said that AE Studio’s equity perk is a good idea as long as it’s offered as part of a proper salary package.

“The other question is how do their developers participate in the process of picking projects, because if somebody is getting sh*t projects then that’s not fair,” he said.

One downside to the equity structure is that it’s complicated and can be difficult to explain, Plaza said.

“The equity is technically not worth anything so it’s a little hard to visualize what it’s worth in dollars,” she said. “When the equity appreciates, everyone gets a share in it.”

The company takes on minimum viable product work for startups as well as large projects for enterprise clients. The equity program extends to the company’s internal skunk works as well.

She shared the example of managing subscriptions via text messages instead of using a process that is harder for a customer to navigate. 

“It sounds like a good idea to make it hard to cancel or skip a month in something like a vitamin subscription by trapping users and extracting value,” she said.

AE Studio built a service customers could use to pause the subscription via text.  

“In the short term there was a revenue loss, but the lifetime value was much better because the customer didn’t cancel but paused instead,” she said.

AE Studio ultimately sold the service to Recharge, a payment management platform for subscription products.

Modernize the hiring process to win talent wars

In addition to specific benefits such as equity or the chance to patent new inventions, companies should revamp the hiring process overall, according to two HR experts. This includes everything from the interview process to online social media profiles to regularly scheduled salary reviews.

Walkowski recommends that companies update all online profiles to give a very clear picture of what the employee value proposition is.

“A person should be able to look at all or one profile and immediately get a sense of what it would be like to be an employee at that company,” he said. “Then it’s about getting through their funnel at lightning speed.”

Most companies and hiring managers are still stuck in 2015, according to Walkowski, with a hiring process that involves three or more interviews, a project in some cases and then background and reference checks.

“Today you cannot do all that, you meet a candidate and make a decision or you’re going to lose the person,” he said.

He recommends using a panel interview to streamline the process.

“Then you can really quickly decide who the top one, two and three candidates are and then get offers rolling and have back-up offers ready,” he said.

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Jay Denton, chief labor market analyst from talent intelligence software company ThinkWhy, said businesses must consider talent supply, talent demand, location and non-traditional benefits when hiring developers.

“What emerged (from the pandemic) is the trend of employers improving pay and benefits for their employees as well as being more responsive to employee concerns surrounding the ongoing uncertainty, which in turn has helped attract and retain employees,” Denton said. 

Denton said companies also should conduct annual compensation reviews to ensure they’re offering salaries on par with the market. 

“Companies should plan to refine compensation packages every six months or as often as market supply and demand shifts occur,” he said.

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