The secret of growing your Startup team

HR in a Tech Startup

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.- Muriel Strode

In WeGroup, we’ve made the conscious decision to follow our own path and invest in HR in a very early stage. A decision that has been questioned, welcomed and applauded. The why has been made clear. Over the past six months we’ve met several entrepreneurs excited to follow our example who asked us the question: “how do you deploy HR in a startup?” Here is our answer.

Let’s face reality

There are several challenges that an early phase startup company faces regarding talent management.

In a startup, you start out with limited financial resources. Unlike corporate organizations, you don’t have the option to combine different strategies like outsourcing recruitment simultaneously with internal recruitment campagnes. On top of that, there is a war for attention* going on on online media where it is hard to get your message out. In fact, you are competing for reach with big corporations like for example Axa or Deloitte. As a consequence, the world doesn’t immediately notice when you are hiring. However, it is crucial that you get this one right! Due to the small team, every team member has a big contribution towards the overall organizational performance. In a startup, you can’t afford hiring the wrong person. That being said, people tend to forget the defining aspect of a startup. A startup is a growth company! In the case of WeGroup, the goal was to grow from five to 15 team members in less than eight months.

*not to be confused with the war for talent where recruitment agency disabuse this concept as an excuse to almost “stalk” people with the false promise of a better opportunity. We are convinced that the talent for our organization is out there, when we work for that talent, they will find us.

Of course, if it was easy to grow a business, than it wouldn’t be exciting. In a startup reality, we are going to work smarter than a corporate organization and not let resources go to waste. We have the advantage that we can still shape work in our organization the way we want. Time to define our strategy.

Don’t be the same, be smarter

First and foremost, we are going to focus on talent retention. It is crucial that the time, energy and resources spent to employ the right person isn’t spent in vain. The team members we employ should feel at home in our organization. Secondly, we are going to put talent satisfaction on our priority list. Giving team members autonomy, meaningful work and continuous feedback are feasable actions that help raise talent satisfaction. Finally, we are going to try to be smarter by investing in talent well-being. We use the advantage of a small organization, with the many direct touch points, to go the extra mile for our team members. If you do this in your starting organization, your team members will gratefully reciprocate.

A job isn’t just a job, it is who you are

How are we achieving these positive organizational outcomes? When we were laying down the ground works for our HR infrastructure, we knew that the strategies and tools for recruitment, development and engagement had to be aligned and built on the same foundations. In industrial psychology, it is assumed that person-environment fit leads to talent satisfaction, performance and overall well-being. P-E fit is the degree to which individual and environmental characteristics match. In other words, the people we want in our organization have the values, goals and personality that match the shared values and culture of the organization.

Organizational culture is not about a foosball table

We know you feel like you have heard this story before. “Startup culture is awesome, they have cool stuff but what is the point?” Let us start by telling you that culture is not about a foosball table. A thought out organizational culture is about identifying what will help your team achieve more positive outcomes. An organizational culture is the dna of an entire organization and comes back in every fibre of HR. Let’s use the case of WeGroup and keynote how you identify, build and what you get in return of an advised organizational culture.

Identifying organizational culture

When you enter any organization, it doesn’t take long to notice certain unspoken social agreements between team members or behaviors that are applauded or frowned upon. Open communication about the financial state of the organization, the way people react to a team members’ error, people urging you to carry out ideas rather than asking permission, … . When you want to formalise and acknowledge these series of behaviors, you need managerial and social support. In order to acquire this support, we defined our core values through a simple core value game together.

  1. Sit the team or founders down and ask to write down seperately on index cards what makes the organization unique and what behavior they find important.
  2. Collect the cards, make them visible and let the members sort the cards into 4–6 similar groups.
  3. Select and define every value, based on those groups.
Value creation at WeGroup

The pitfall of this process is that organizations feel like it ends here. As an organization you need to act upon these values. Often you see that values are hanging on the office wall, painfully reminding the founders that not everyone is setting the behavior they want to see in the organization. What we want to accomplish with identifying the values, is building HR processes that are based on these agreed upon values and enable the desired work behavior.

Building organizational culture

To start answering to the organizations’ need of talent, you can incorporate those values in the talent recruitment process. For example, create a different buyer persona for recruits, develop an employer brand around it and think of the scenarios your ideal candidate goes through to apply for the open position.

In the case of WeGroup, we knew we wanted to attract ambitious, socially active and smart tech students and starters (a degree has limited added value when you can code) with an openness towards learning and are willing to take initiative and go the extra mile.

In our employer branding, we should show that we are ambitious, we like to have fun together and that we are very different from a standard corporation. Perhaps we can trigger dedicated, young techies by giving them a puzzle to trigger their curiousity?

“Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team.” — Jessica Herrin, Founder, Stella & Dot

Assessing a candidate in a cost efficient way is tricky. The cheapest and most commonly used assesment tool is probably the only one available to a young organization but vere prone to bias: the interview. Knowing this tool is flawed, you can try and use it in the most effective way. When assessing a candidate, try to ask about experiences and situations that indicate certain value aligned behaviors in the past. In the case of WeGroup, we needed to know what makes someone proud, what they aspire, what they have done over the past few weekends, how they have behaved in team and experienced feedback.

Once you’ve succesfully onboarded a team member, you can focus on initiatives that enable the organizational culture. Praising ideas by organizing open brain storm sessions (and following up on ideas), organizing weekly teaching moments to value learning, creating personal development plans to help them achieve their ambitions (they will follow there dreams at a certain moment anyway, you might as well be known for making your team members’ dream come true). These are only a few examples of value based initiatives that will increase the fit between the people and the environment you are actively creating.

Impact of organizational culture

We don’t have enough data yet to back up every claim of our story but we do have indicators. Take the example or Aäron:

Aäron is a Devine student that started working for us last summer. He never misses a team activity and voluntarely worked until midnight the day before the launch of the web site. He referred four people to our organization. In october, Äaron signed a fixed contract starting next year. Making it for us a very low acquiring cost for a React developer. After signing the contract he decided to work for free as well as an intern.

When the people you’ve carefully recruited perform well, indicate that they are working towards a full time contract, refer new qualified hires and give you the feedback that they love working for you, we believe you can assume that something must be going well. We hope that we can inspire young organizations to follow the trail that we leave and can show that the path of startup growth is one that leads to talent satisfaction and the well being of the team.