From a Tech HR Veteran: What I Wish Every Founder Knew

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

I manage a business that helps startups figure out HR for the first time. Companies think they hire Bright + Early to build out policies, recruiting and culture, but, like most HR pros, we end up spending a lot of time playing coach instead. Though every startup is unique, founders often bring us the same concerns. Here’s what the Bright + Early team want you to know:

Your employees actually WANT structure

A lot of founders tell me they’re sure their team will resist things like career paths or performance reviews. They know it will help the company level up, but they fear everyone will see it as the end of culture and the beginning of corporate-land. They couldn’t be more wrong. We begin our work with every new client by gathering feedback from all levels of the company, both anonymously and interview-style. The #1 requested things from employees at companies under 50? Regular feedback and knowing “what’s next” for their career. It’s not the end of culture- it’s an investment in your best people. And they really, really want it.

You need to overcommunicate

It can be tempting to assume, that on a team of smart people, that everyone knows what the company is striving towards. If your team is over 15 people, I can guarantee you: that is not the case. You absolutely must communicate, over and over, what the current goals and vision are (including progress), as well as the company’s mission and culture. Over. And Over. And Over. During new employee onboarding. In writing. Every single damn time you have an all-team meeting. If you have a set of guiding values, these must be driven home with equal frequency. Consider regularly (and publicly) recognizing people based on your values, or even designing your performance reviews to evaluate how well people live them.

Your team needs to see and hear you

Yes, they need to see your face. And not just around the office. I need you to get up in front of these people, at least every couple of weeks, and show some leadership. Tell them what is on your mind. What you’re happy about. What you’re worried about. What you’re up to. Feeling a connection to the founder, and seeing their passion and vision, is engaging and inspirational. This might feel uncomfortable at first- who are you to get up and play Oprah? A leader, that’s who.

A 10th employee is nothing like a 50th

Your first 5 employees are special. They need to be incredibly dedicated. They’re taking a risk and possibly even a pay cut to join a very early stage startup. After you pass the 30–50 mark, this is no longer the case. You are no longer really offering an opportunity to “get in on the ground floor”, and you won’t have any luck recruiting below market pay in exchange for that. I’ve seen CEOs of 80 person companies offer well below market salary as a test to see how dedicated a candidate is to their “startup”. If you’re tempted to do the same, you’re not being strategic. At best, you’re living in the past and starting a new employee relationship off on a bad foot. At worst, you’re going to hear a lot of declines. At this size, you’re a real company and people joining expect their salary and the company (benefits, time off, process) to reflect that.

Don’t try to be a do-it-all hero

Get ahold of your schedule, and recognize that you probably are doing a terrible job of this. You likely need real, professional help. You don’t need to turn into a d-bag with their own closed office and a bodyguard sitting outside of it, but I’m willing to bet you’re already in over your head. You want to make everyone happy, but you’re being pulled in a million directions, and they all seem important. Fundraising. Managing your senior team. Managing conflict. Interviewing. And, I’m willing to bet, a lot of broken promises. My suggestion: be honest when you can’t take something on, unless you want to slow things down and damage your internal relationships. A good start is to get a remote assistant to manage your email and calendar.

Not everyone is going to be honest with you

When you’re a founding team of 5, it’s easy to still feel like ‘one of the gang’. Sorry, you’re not- welcome to power dynamics 101. Like it or not, you are everyone’s boss, and just about nobody will be completely honest with you if it means jeopardizing your view of them or not getting what they need. Some ways to get real feedback: have a 360 review done of yourself. Hold “skip levels”. Recognize your senior team as experts and ask them for feedback on their specific areas of expertise. Because no one has the same top level view that you do, you’ll need different allies to keep tabs on different parts of the business. Have someone unbiased to talk to (an organized CEO group, an executive coach) about everything else.

You need to stand for something

Whether we’re talking diversity, politics, or major news, it’s no longer an option these days to take a completely neutral stance as a company. As a leader, you will be called on to make tough decisions at times. Would you break up with a client that doesn’t do good in the world? How will you answer when candidates ask what you’re doing about inclusivity at your company? One PR manager I know told me that she now regularly gets emails from customers about whether her organization works with companies helping to carry out separation at the US border. Your team, clients and the general public will be looking to you as the company’s moral compass, and silence no longer = neutral. It sends a strong “I don’t care” message, which is a viewpoint in itself.

An Office Manager does not an HR leader make

My biggest piece of advice? Your hardest problems will not be technical- they will be human. I absolutely respect the tough, do-it-all jobs that early stage office managers have, but it’s not likely that they are equipped to solve those big people problems. Office managers are often the heartbeat of the company and have a great intuition for how decisions may impact the culture, so I suggest consulting them here and there when appropriate. However, unless they are an HR pro or are being mentored by one, they should not touch: conflict resolution, organizational planning, compensation decisions, or performance reviews. Bring in an expert.

Happy building! 🚀


PS: Want to hear more tips, tricks and news to help you scale your culture? Sign up to receive the inaugural issue of our brand new biweekly digest!

About us:

Bright + Early is a modern HR consultancy on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces. We partner with early to mid-stage companies who need to scale fast but stay friendly. Nothing in place? Don’t know where to start? No problem.

Follow Bright + Early on Twitter!


A collective of modern HR experts on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces.

Nora Jenkins Townson

Written by

Founder @ Bright+ Early, former head of people ops @wealthsimple, startup HR veteran. Into food, books, weirdness and creating the future of work.


A collective of modern HR experts on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces.

More From Medium

More on Startup from brightplusearly

More on Startup from brightplusearly

The Secret to Not-so-Scary Performance Reviews


Related reads

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade