Tech startups in the hinterlands cope with hiring challenges

Workers at Dyn's headquarters, in a former mill building in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Workers at Dyn's headquarters, in a former mill building in Manchester, New Hampshire.

How do you grow a tech company when you’re headquartered far from the talent hub of Greater Boston?

Companies in places like Manchester, N.H., and Woodstock, Vt., are facing that quandary, after they’ve scooped up all the software developers they can find in those markets.

The most creative solution I’d heard of in recent years came from HitPoint Studios, a videogame startup that had been located in Hatfield, Mass. (Exactly. Across the Connecticut River from Amherst.) HitPoint needed to hire game developers from the Boston area, so they rented a residence that they dubbed the HitPoint House, where employees could crash for a few nights each week after driving out to Hatfield, and then work a few days from home. “We had as many as eight people there, and one ‘den mother’ person who lived there all the time and ran the place,” says CEO Aaron St. John. But eventually, many of the company’s Boston-area employees wound up relocating to western Massachusetts. And HitPoint itself eventually moved to Amherst. “Being in the city makes it a much bigger draw,” St. John says. “It was a tricky problem having people work remotely. For creative stuff, it never works out as well as you want it to.” Now, many new hires come from the nearby campuses of UMass and Hampshire College, and employees who join HitPoint from Boston, New York, or San Francisco are expected to relocate to Amherst. HitPoint now has 33 empoloyees.

Yonder, based in Woodstock, Vt., makes a mobile app for outdoors enthusiasts. It raised $3.8 million in funding last year. And shortly after that, in November, the startup opened a small outpost at the Cambridge Innovation Center. That office has two people now, and Yonder CEO David Roberts tells me the company plans to hire at least three more, mainly focused on iPhone and Android development. (The company is also working with Cambridge-based development firm Intrepid Pursuits on the Android version of its app, which should be out next month.) Yonder has seven employees in Woodstock.

Swipely CEO Angus Davis seemed a little insulted when I suggested that Providence, R.I., might be on par with Amherst or Woodstock. But he does acknowledge that about 15 percent of his 100 employees travel down from the Boston area, many riding the MBTA’s commuter rail. Swipely helps small businesses with sales, marketing, and customer analytics.

Up in Manchester, Dyn, a cloud services firm, is considering three options as it grows: a shuttle bus from the Boston area, a satellite office somewhere in eastern Massachusetts, and a commuter rail extension from Lowell (where the line currently ends) to Manchester. Chief technology officer Cory Von Wallenstein tells me that each has its pros and cons. A satellite office in Boston could splinter the company’s corporate culture, but extending the commuter rail is likely a longer-term fix.

But Gray Chynoweth, Dyn’s chief operating officer, says the rail solution could happen sooner than you’d think — perhaps as soon as 2017. And, he adds, “If we had a real prospect of rail in 2017, we could start recruiting more effectively in Boston before that.” (Here’s more background on the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, formed back in 2007.)

As an example of how prospective employees think about working far outside the city, Chynoweth says he was talking to participants in the Startup Institute’s job training program recently. “I said, ‘Who would be willing to work for us in Manchester,’ and four out of 60 people raised their hands. Then I said, ‘What if you could hop on the train in North Station and be there in about an hour, and 35 hands went up. It’d opens up an entire new talent pool to Manchester and southern New Hampshire businesses. And if you’ve got my phone and a laptop with you, you can be completely economically productive,” Chynoweth says.

Dyn has 320 employees in Manchester, San Francisco, and two overseas offices — and about two dozen open positions.

Have you seen other approaches to bringing on additional tech talent when a company is based outside Boston? Post a comment if you would…

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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