Hiring, the Single Most Important Skill as a Founder

Today’s post comes from Moritz Plassnig, founder and CEO of Codeship (Techstars Class 22).

The longer I’m involved in Codeship (the company I co-founded), the more other founders I mentor, the more I’m convinced that people and a great team is the lifeblood of a fast growing startup. I would even go so far as to say that people are the foundation of every organization, big or small, high-tech startup or huge corporate juggernaut. But the startup world is unique in its constraints and also in its opportunities and thus, the emphasis on building a great team is more important at a startup than in any other organization.

There’s no such thing as overnight success, as much as countless books and movies try to portray well-known entrepreneurs as geniuses. Success is the product of a variety of factors, hard work as much as great and unique skills, the perfect timing and elements outside your control, such as luck. The more you as a founder, CEO or leader can remove the latter from the equation, the better off you and your team will be.

Building a great culture, hiring skilled individuals and forming an amazing team out of it allows you to make your own luck. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s within your control.

Investors Invest in People, Not Ideas

As much as you like your idea and believe that the market conditions are perfect, the truth is that most companies will change and adapt their product down the road. The founding vision of Slack was to build a gameInstagram started out as a Foursquare-like check-in app called ‘Burbn’ and you all know the story of Twitter being a side product of a podcast platform. What all those companies had in common was a strong team that was able to take new ideas and build new products until they were the success they are today. The people working at those companies were able to adapt and change and build a great product. Maybe your company won’t pivot completely, but you will learn, adapt and improve, as you gather feedback from your customers. And the more feedback you incorporate, the better you get.

The ability to do that, to listen to the small feedback between the lines, knowing when to stay stubborn and when to adapt is one of the most important and hardest to learn skills for a founder.

Great investors, angels and VCs, know that and despite the importance of a potential big market, an important enough to be solved problem, the team is the key reason why they will eventually invest.

Early On, Every Hire is Crucial

Summarizing a successful startup in one sentence is simple: Great people build great products, get great customers and eventually will build a great company. As simple as it sounds, doing it right is incredibly difficult. You will face a lot of challenges in the early days of your company and the more successful you are, the bigger your team gets, the harder it gets to keep your team members aligned and your company on track. The one thing that you should keep in mind is that at the end of the day, everything, good or bad is caused by the people in your team. Empowering your team and getting out of the way is key but it’s only possible if you hire the right people.

Small companies don’t have the luxury of making a lot of mistakes. You are always resource constrained, both money and people, and despite not having enough you have to build a great product, nail the distribution and find a viable business model. This can all work out great if you did your job well and found great co-workers, but it can also go sideways instantly if you did a poor job. Nothing is more dangerous for an early-stage startup than one bad hire, one person who isn’t a culture fit or who is simply not good enough at their job. Even if you together resolve the situation fast, you will get distracted, most probably won’t build a great product during that time and lose a lot of time.

Bad hiring is one of the most risky and costly mistakes you can make in a startup.

Great People Attract Great People

Nothing is more attractive for talented job seeker than a team full of really skilled co-workers. Despite all the potential problems of a bad hire, the huge upside if you do it right is tremendous. With every great person that you can convince to join your team, your team gets better and it will also get easier to attract the next person. Hiring is a self-fulfilling prophecy and therefore gets simpler over time. The hard part obviously is to get everything started. How to hire the first employee if you don’t have an amazing team that everybody is talking about?

Solving this chicken-egg problem is crucial for getting your company off the ground. The good news is that you already have a team, even before your first hire. You and your co-founder(s) are already a team (which is one of a countless long list of reasons why you shouldn’t found a company alone). You found your first follower, you did the hard first step already. Maybe, you even managed to get a small investment or you convinced somebody to be your advisor. You will have a team long before you have hired for first employee, although it might not feel like that.

Culture is More Than the Sum of Every Team Member

Even if you hire only smart individuals, despite their respective skill sets you won’t automatically create a high-performing team. Great teams are generally a group of amazing individuals mixed together in the right way. The glue between the outstanding senior engineer and the young up and coming designer, the magic that makes sales work well with product is having the right culture.

Culture is not about free food, nice X-mas parties or other perks. It’s about shared values and beliefs, the common ground of every discussion and the bigger reason why you are all working on the same idea.

Great culture makes you win, great culture will help tremendously to survive tough times. Having a great culture will simply make you feel that it’s easy to build a successful company.

The importance of culture heavily impacts your hiring. Every single person you bring on in the early days changes your culture, in a good or bad way. Figuring out if somebody is a culture fit, if somebody is the right person for your team instead of finding the best person is crucial. Although culture is defined by your team, by every single individual, you still have to work hard on it and you won’t get it automatically by hiring right.

Your job as a leader is to facilitate discussions, offer a vision and set the guard rails. Nothing defines culture more than actions and your team can’t take any actions if you don’t provide the guidance they need.

Cultural fit is really important for every new hire but it’s only working if your culture is great. That won’t be the case all the time. You will face times where your culture starts getting sideways, where you can’t be as proud of your company as you wish you could be. Especially in those moments it’s important that you critically challenge the status quo. What’s great, what’s broken? If your culture is broken and you’re blindly hiring with an emphasis of culture fit, your culture will actually get worse. You can’t use your culture as a safeguard if it’s broken.

As much as great people, a great culture attract more great people and can result in a better culture, as much as it can go into the opposite direction. Be aware of your own bias.

Hiring is a Skill and It Should Be Your Most Important One

Hiring is not magic, it’s not luck, it’s a skill. Some people are better with it from their first job on, others not. Maybe you are but if not, you can learn it and even if you do great right now you should still work hard every day to improve. The faster you figure out if somebody fits into your team, the faster you can evaluate the skills of an applicant, the better it’s for you and your company. Even more important in today’s hiring market, the better you are in convincing people to join your team, in selling your vision, the better people will eventually work for you. Again, it gets easier over time to more great people are working for you.

It’s important to understand that it’s not just about you interviewing a candidate. You have to design a hiring process that involves your team, that gives the candidate a lot of opportunity to evaluate you as well. Every growing company faced the same challenge and you can learn a lot from the best practises of the industry, from companies that did a great job with hiring and also from companies who failed. Luckily, now more than ever, startups are willing to share their journey starting with small insights and some tactical advice as far as being completely transparent like Buffer. Take the opportunity and learn from those companies and their failures and successes.

Don’t forget that you are always hiring. It doesn’t matter if you are doing a job interview in your office or if you are at a friends party. You are always leaving an impression, if you want or not. Maybe you aren’t looking for anybody right now but you surely will in the future. Or at your next job or company.

Making sure that you always have a big pool of great people to work with will set you up for success — and since it’s all about the people, it will make the difference between being successful or not. Always be hiring.

A shorter version of this post was originally published in Entrepreneur.com.

Building Your Team: Focus on People, Not Jobs

When building a startup, we put strategic forethought toward product development, marketing, sales and other core functions. But all too often when building a team, we wait to dedicate focused attention until we feel pain.

That pain leads to a public cry for help…a job description posted on our careers site and out in the world via job boards, social media and our networks. The description is packed with a wish list of skills we wanted on the team months ago and a list of objectives that we think we wanted done yesterday.

After posting, we spend hours (weeks, months…) in a mind-numbing cycle of looking for the rare needle in the haystack among an inconsistent flow of mediocre inbound applications. Maybe we get lucky and find someone great.

More often, we squint hard to convince ourselves that the best of the bunch is a good enough fit – that we are better off having someone working on the problem today rather than waiting for the perfect candidate – or we begrudgingly spend a staggering amount of money on an outside recruiter.

In order to break this cycle, we need to focus team building activities around people not jobs.

Jobs are ephemeral, particularly in a dynamic, high-growth startup environment. If the person you hire stays at your company through the vesting period associated with their initial option grant, they will likely have at least a few different formal job titles in addition to the near-constant iterations associated with evolving goals, responsibilities and company needs.

In contrast, people have relatively immutable intrinsic characteristics and accumulated experiences that they bring to your company. It is these characteristics and experiences that make your best hires truly game changing for the trajectory of your business.

You don’t have to wait for acute pain to strategically build your team with the right people.

To shift your approach to team building from a focus on jobs to a focus on people, take the following steps:

Determine Key Intrinsic Characteristics

What inherent qualities are most important for people to possess so that they can make an exceptionally positive impact for your customers and your culture?

Define Profiles

Rather than specific job descriptions, create broad profiles that describe distinct groups of people you need to scale your business. For example, you might define a single profile which encompases early-career marketing, product and operations roles which draw on a similar toolkit.

Prioritize Networking

Create and schedule space to consistently invest in meeting new people who fit the criteria you defined in the steps above. Aim high – strive to meet the people you would love to work with regardless of the context. Networking is like healthy eating, the long-term benefit is real but it doesn’t feel as alluring in the moment as ice cream.

Nurture New Relationships

An intentional investment in networking will yield new relationships. Keep conversations warm with periodic check-ins, ask for referrals and offer your own. Aligning on timing requires some serendipity, but luck smiles on the prepared.

Set Goals, Measure Results and Iterate

Like any other strategic focus area in your startup, you should set specific goals, gather feedback, measure results and use the insights you collect to iterate on your approach.

Upcoming posts will provide more detail on how to implement each of these steps in your organization.  We’d love to hear about the challenges you face in building your teams and the ways you’ve overcome those challenges – please share via comments.

Thanks to my co-author for this post, Kendra Haberkorn. Kendra has spent her career focused on the different elements of the employee experience at companies including Craftsy, where she led the People function, McKinsey & Company, Sports Authority, Accenture and now Guild Education. Please feel free to contact Kendra via LinkedIn.

Scaling a Startup Team

I’m the CEO and co-founder of Preply, a global marketplace for online tutoring. I’m lucky to have awesome co-founders, Dmytro (CTO) and Serge (Product). Together we started Preply in 2013 and had been bootstrapping until we joined the Techstars family in 2015. We then started growing our team.

Here are some helpful takeaways from our journey as you start to grow your startup team.   

Changing Roles of Co-Founders

Your role as a co-founder of the company is not static and will change over time. Here are a few stages you may experience:

  • Operator. You are doing things yourself, whether it is email marketing, coding, designing or supporting customers.
  • Early manager. You have your first people on board. While still doing a lot of things on your own, you start learning how to be a good manager.
  • Manager. You stopped doing most of the things and focus on being a good manager.
  • Executive. You manage other managers across your company. From this point, you don’t have control over execution; you have to rely on your managers.

Three observations:

  • The essential skill of being an entrepreneur is fast learning. It’s difficult to overestimate it.
  • When you stop managing operators, it’s the right time to start thinking about building the right culture. It will be one of the few ways to impact your company. Someone said: “Culture is management on a scale”. I cannot agree more on that.
  • Start preparing yourself and co-founders for management and executive roles earlier. In the end, it’s a difficult transition with entirely different skill sets. You have to learn how to hire, delegate, teach, develop, and build the right culture.

Hire Finance and HR Earlier

We hired Finance and HR functions early, and it helped us a lot. First of all, I freed myself up and spent much more time on building the right product and marketing. Thanks, Jens Lapinski (MD, Techstars Berlin 2015) for that advice.

Secondly, people I hired were much better than me in building the right finance, HR and hiring processes. That helped to make fewer mistakes and grow faster. Here’s a good piece of content by Christoph from Point Nine Capital about the right timing and importance of hiring HR.

Hire the Best

You can read about hiring the best people in a lot of books and blogs, and it’s imperative. One wrong hire can significantly lower your chances to be successful. At the same time, I believe that old school rule “hire slow, fire fast” no longer works.

That was a safe option, but in our competitive world, the ability to hire fast is crucial. So, you better learn how to do that properly.

Here are a couple of resources that helped me in my journey:

  • Hire for strength rather than lack of weakness: Hard thing about hard things.
  • It’s worth spending time understanding what the key questions are that you want to ask a person for them to make an immediate choice. Here’s a legendary blog post with a good list of questions for hiring a product manager by Ken Norton, a partner of Google Ventures.
  • Paramount book about hiring: Who: The A Method for Hiring.

Another moment worth mentioning is that you have to build the right expectations for your leaders and co-founders about future hirings. It should be apparent for everyone that the company will hire new experts, managers and executives as it grows.

People that can lead the company today are not the same people that can drive it tomorrow.

Also, your ability to hire the best is growing as your startup grows. The most important thing here is to make sure your current leaders will stay and learn from newcomers.

Additionally, I would encourage you to spend time meeting opinion leaders in different areas. They may help you with advice and their network, but also one day you may hire them. At Preply, we did a good job hiring the best people, because we were in touch with them when they decided to change their life.

Cross-functional Teams

In 2016, we had marketing, development and design departments. As we raised our seed round, Mariusz Gralewski and Arthur Kosten introduced me to the cross-functional approach.

A bit later, my co-founder Dmytro learned more about that at a Paris CTO meetup by Point Nine Capital (his event review here). We decided to test it, and the results were outstanding. It completely changed the dynamics inside the company.

In a cross-functional organization, you are building squads around specific metrics, not functions. For example, a team that is focusing on conversion rates may include:

  • Product manager
  • Product designer
  • Front-end engineer
  • Two full-stack engineers
  • Email marketer
  • Customer success manager

Such an independent team will move much faster in reaching their KPIs. Spotify did an excellent job explaining how such an approach works in their engineering culture: Video 1, Video 2.

If you are adopting such an approach, I would try to make sure that you have T-shaped PMs to lead squads. They would need to build excellent communication within the team, so everyone understands what, when and why.

The beautiful part here is that a cross-functional approach makes your life easier when it comes to scaling a team. Growing from five developers to twelve in a functional structure will give the CTO a hard time reorganizing everything and continue to distribute tasks from the product, marketing and sales teams.

With the cross-functional approach, PMs are responsible for managing. The CTO needs to be an excellent tech mentor and build the right tech culture.

I would compare the cross-functional approach with building a business accelerator. Every squad is an independent mini-startup, and your VP level people are mentors. As mentors, they will provide with the right focus, metrics and their expertise when it’s needed. The squads will then execute it independently.

Why You Should Hire on Characteristics and Train on Tactics

At any given point in time at a fast growing startup, you’re hiring across functions, levels and specific disciplines. It’s difficult to find someone who checks the boxes across the most important skills, let alone someone who has the combination of those talents plus the more intangible qualities or characteristics that have the potential to accelerate positive outcomes, specifically at the critical early stages.

We recommend you dare to hire based on characteristics and train on tactics – emphasizing intangibles over functional skills as you plan for and develop your talent priorities.

As we pick up the thread on strategically building your team with people, not jobs, we want to share insights on how you can determine the key characteristics that, when represented throughout your team, will contribute to alignment, momentum and ultimately long-term success.

Once you have the key characteristics codified, defining profiles, prioritizing networking, nurturing relationships and measuring results will come more easily.

Whereas company values are centered on beliefs and competencies around existing or developing strengths, characteristics are inherent qualities that individuals possess and exhibit in life and at work.

Startups need to determine which characteristics will be most important in differentiating and driving performance – now and in the future. Importantly, these characteristics should ring true regardless of the role, function, level or tenure of a team member.

Where should startups begin?

Leave Roles and Skills Off the Table

Think broadly about your team and what you need them to display day in and day out to give your startup the best chance for success. We find characteristics like intellectual curiosity, ownership and drive to be key differentiators across all disciplines and career stages.

Prioritize the List

There are a hundred things you could put on the list, but when assessing talent, you have to optimize for what is most impactful since it’s rare to find someone that will possess all of the characteristics and all the skills you need for a given role.

Clarify How You Believe these Qualities Manifest in an Individual’s Life and Career

As you recruit and evaluate potential team members, you’ll need to identify experiences or sources that are likely to correlate with individuals who possess the characteristics. Be creative and open-minded here. This is a unique opportunity to explore more diverse sources of talent. Because characteristics are inherent, you may discover and unlock new avenues or profiles that complement and enhance the existing makeup of your team.

Determine a Consistent, Structured and Focused Way to Evaluate Characteristics

Spend time building out a thoughtful line of questioning that helps you understand and gauge how a person has demonstrated these characteristics consistently and with tangible results.

Dare to Hire on Characteristics and Train on Tactics

If you find a person who has all the characteristics but has gaps on other dimensions, take a chance. Transforming inherent qualities is tough, while developing skills and expertise is achievable.

Dedicating time and effort early in the life of your startup toward creating a people-focused team building approach will help you successfully navigate the complexities of recruiting, performance and development as your business evolves and grows.

Thanks to my co-author for this post, Josh Scott. Josh co-founded and was the COO at Craftsy, an online education and eCommerce community for passionate makers. In this role, he hired hundreds of colleagues as the company scaled to serve over 10 million members. Now, Josh is a board member and/or advisor to companies including: Betabrand, Havenly, Guild Education, and Craftsy and is a Techstars Mentor. Please contact him via LinkedIn.

Over the last decade, Techstars has grown a worldwide network with 100 exits, 1000 companies in the portfolio and 10,000 jobs created by those companies. Want to be a part of it? Learn how.

Hacking Reference Checks

We all acknowledge the critical nature of thorough reference checking as it relates to hiring or investing in someone. However, given that most people are reticent to offer a negative reference, most of us struggle with extracting the type of valuable feedback we’re seeking in order to make better decisions.

Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared a hack for reference checking that I still use today. For me, it still delivers more signal than any other method I’ve come across. Here’s how it works:

Dear Samantha,

I’ve discovered that you worked with Daniel Jones at DKR a few years ago. I’m evaluating an investment in Daniel’s new startup and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share some insight with me about your experience working with him. However to be respectful of your time, I’m only asking you to follow up and reply to this email if your experience with him was exceptional. 

Thank you,

We all want to hire or invest in exceptional people. Well, anyone who’s had a terrific experience working with someone will be happy to reply to an email like this, right? Mediocre or less though and they’d probably rather go to the dentist. As you can see, this method allows people to gracefully opt out of those uncomfortable calls while at the same time, delivering the signal you’re looking for. The most important aspect of this approach though is to send at least 10 emails like this, even more if possible. The more data points, the better.

I’m always thrilled when I get a bunch of responses with people telling me that they’d be more than happy to tell me how great someone is and how I’d be foolish not to work with them. On the other hand, a handful of non-responses is a sure sign that I’ve got some more diligence to do.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. I’d also love to hear about any other methods people use to make better human capital decisions.

This post was originally posted on Mark’s blog, To Write is to Think.

These 4 Questions Will Tell You If You Found the Right Company Culture

Susan Zheng is the co-founder and CEO of Planted (NYC ’14), a platform that helps companies hire junior, non-technical talent.

Here’s a scenario: You’ve just spent countless hours on fine tuning and perfecting your resume (while consuming ungodly amounts of caffeine). It finally paid off and you got that interview! Hooray! Obviously, you are now preparing for all the questions that the interviewer may throw at you. But unfortunately there’s an essential part of interview prep that you might be forgetting.

When you go into an office for an interview, it’s really your first peek into the company’s culture. There are as many different office cultures as there are companies, and if you want to be happy with where you end up, you need to be sure that the company culture is the right fit for you. Here are some ways that you can use that first interview to gauge a company’s culture:

1. Did You Feel the Company’s Culture When You Walked In?

The elevator door opens and… Do you hear music? Are people talking, laughing, yelling, or congratulating the sales team on a job well-done? Does it smell like cake? An office, like a home, can have a very strong vibe that is instantly distinguishable as soon as you enter. For example, grandma’s house might have plastic on the furniture and it might smell faintly of cigarettes. Your uncle’s apartment may feel warm and “lived in” with worn out couches and Pringle crumbs on the floor. An office can embody all the same attributes of a home and can give off an instant cultural vibe. Here are some things to observe when you are visiting for the first time:

  • What does it sound like? Music playing is generally good, but the lack of music doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad. What you really should be listening for is conversation. When people are talking about work or fun (or fun things about work), it generally means that the environment is conducive to open collaboration.
  • Are there dogs or other pets? Not that you should only work in an office with dogs, but the presence of animals generally depicts a laid back and accepting culture. If dogs are important to you, we can suggest some startups with very pawesome dog-centric cultures.
  • What do people have on their desks? Are they super sterile, neat, and clean? Are they disheveled and messy? Do they have toys or other knick-knacks? Pictures of family and friends? You can tell a lot about a person’s personality from their desk, so make sure you take note.
  • Are people walking around and talking or is everyone plugged in, focused, and in the zone? Checking out this sort of behavior allows you to understand if work is more collaboratively focused or if people prefer to tackle projects on their own.

2. Did You Meet Nice People?

A company’s culture is ultimately decided by its leadership and carried out by its employees. If the leadership team has outlined a company culture around kindness and generosity, you may notice employees smiling at you, asking who you are there to see, and striking up a conversation with you while you wait for your interview. If everybody in the office ignores you as you walk in, the culture might be rather closed and very task-oriented. If nobody greets you, that also says something about the office culture… or about the way you smell. Either way, really pay attention to how people treat you and keep an eye out for collaboration, laughter, and camaraderie. The actions and behaviors of the employees are big indicators of the company’s culture, so pay attention!

3. How Was the Interview Structured?

The very process of being interviewed will shed lots of light on the company’s culture. While you are acing all the questions the interviewer has for you, try to remain aware of these things:

  • The organization of the interview process: If you knew who you would meet before showing up and they were able to meet with you on time, the company likely values a culture of planning. If people are running around, trying to find others to pull into the interview, it is likely the company values a culture that is very unstructured, flexible, or bootstrapped.
  • The questions being asked: If an interviewer is able to ask you questions that are deeper than your resume, chances are that it is not their first rodeo. These questions will be obvious indicators of the company culture. When they ask about hobbies, interests, travel, etc, they are sizing up your cultural fit in the organization. Likewise, they are indirectly telling you what their company culture values. If the questions they ask excite you, then it’s more likely than not a solid cultural fit. On the flip side, if those questions don’t appeal to you or you have trouble answering them, then you might want to land a few more interviews elsewhere.

4. Does It All Match Up?

Have you ever gone to an event only to find out that it was NOTHING like the Facebook invite said it would be? Your first interview is a great time to validate what the company’s website says about their culture. If the website says that the company is a team of dog lovers but you only see pictures of cats all over everyone’s desk and computers, then the website may have been wrong. Make sure to evaluate whether the company’s representation of themselves is in line with reality.


Interested in working for a startup? Check out these Techstars companies that are hiring


This post was originally published on the Planted blog.

How to Maintain Your Startup Culture As You Scale

Techstars’ VP of People, Sabrina McGrail, is responsible for all things talent, culture and human resources across the organization. Her focus is mainly on internal talent acquisition, retention and organizational development within Techstars. Below is a Q&A with Leanplum CEO and Co-Founder, Momchil Kyurkchiev (MK), and Dinna Davis (DD), Head of Global Talent. They discussed hiring for culture fit, how to recruit A-players and how that criteria has evolved from early startup days to the present.

Hiring for culture fit is invaluable at a young startup. Creating an inspired startup culture that is alive with authenticity and hard work begins with hiring people who share the same values and vision. Creating an engaged culture is all about recruiting engaged people, and potential employees should align with your culture’s priorities and values.

Leanplum (Seattle ’12) had 3x employee growth for three years in a row, but has maintained its commitment to culture even as they continue to scale.

When you first started out hiring people at Leanplum, what did you look for in a potential employee?

MK: When we founded Leanplum in 2012, we had a high bar for hiring smart engineers, but we were also looking for people who could get things done and who had a go-getter mentality. Being able to move fast with limited resources is even more important than strong technical skills for an early startup.

DD: We have a lot of incredibly smart people at Leanplum. Everyone is very open to sharing their experience and knowledge. It was important for candidates to have a strong technical foundation and to think outside the box to continue to contribute to that culture.

How did you identify A-players?

DD: We look for three things. The first is attitude. Employees should check their ego at the door and have a collaborative mentality. Second, they should be great communicators. They have to work in a team environment and must be able to articulate their decision process. The third thing we look for is a genuine interest in learning; do they actively research developing technology, are they interested in applying different perspectives, etc.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of an individual owning what they are really great at and contributing toward the growth of the company. But they should also be aware of what they don’t know and have the initiative to learn or seek out the answer.

What were you looking for as far as culture fit?

MK: We were (and still are) looking for people who are collaborative; who want to work on a team and work together with other people. We follow the “No Asshole Rule.” We look for people who are great to get along with and nice people to work with because we spend a lot of time together. We’ve always valued transparency, integrity and the ability to both work hard and play hard.

How has that criteria evolved to what you look for now?

MK: Culture is set in the beginning by founders and early employees, and I think you maintain the culture of the early days as you grow. The guidelines we set for culture haven’t changed since day one. You continue to find like-minded people as the company gets bigger.

DD: With all the growth that Leanplum has experienced in the last year, we have consistently maintained our amazing culture. It’s not so much changing our criteria, but being more mindful and continuing to focus on how our culture is aligned with an individual’s practice and perspective on teamwork, learning, communication and feedback.

Do you look for different things in potential employees? Ask different questions?

MK: The go-getter mentality and looking for people who can get things done has stayed the same, but I think we’ve gotten a lot better at finding the right people faster, and at recruiting for culture fit more effectively.

DD: We’ve learned to look at what resonates for each candidate — what’s important for them in their next role that they may not be receiving at their present company, as well as their current working relationships. We want to know about the type of company culture that they would thrive in.

How has this affected what you look for in more specialized roles as the company grows?

MK: In the beginning, we looked for generalists who could handle any kind of challenge that we threw at them. As we’ve grown, we have begun to look for more specialized roles, like growth marketing, B2B sales development, business development, etc., but the attitude of being up to the task and ready for anything has remained the same.

DD: I have always taken the humanistic approach and looking at the opportunity in a whole way. With any growing company, it’s important to learn what is important for the Co-Founders and Hiring Managers. But at the end of the day, my role is to connect with the individual and go deeper than the job description. If you take the time to learn and understand each individual candidate, interviewer and hiring manager, you are better able to determine if a candidate would be an amazing addition to the team.

How do you hire for culture fit?

MK: It’s tough to interview for a good culture fit. It’s easy for candidates to answer questions the right way or to create a great story about themselves. We’ve found that a great way to hire for culture is to experience it together through a trial period or by doing contract work initially. We also assess by strong references and try to leverage our network and rely on backchannel references whenever possible. It also helps if a person has previous startup experience.

DD: I look for personality and demeanor. This could be demonstrated by confidence, ease and professionalism in their communication, if they are thoughtful and mindful in their interaction and if they understand their audience. I gauge their level of passion about the role and if they are excited about what our company is building. If they have an inquisitive nature (i.e. are open to learning) and if they care about their coworkers, that’s a plus. I also see if they are proactive with feedback to see how they would be a team member.

Hiring, Culture & Recruiting: Tips for Growing Your Startup Part Three

At Techstars, we often hear from startup founders that hiring is one of the most challenging things to do right. We recently held an AMA on this topic (Ask Techstars: Hiring & Culture – Scaling Your Startup) with me (Sabrina McGrail, VP of People at Techstars); Emma Straight, Sr. Recruiter at Techstars; and Natalie Baumgartner, Founder & Chief Psychologist of RoundPegg, a company culture and engagement tool.

This post is the third in a series of three with Q&A excerpts from this AMA

While companies’ values can differ, have you seen any “value norms” or commonalities across companies who have a very healthy or sustainable culture?

Natalie: We see every combination that you can imagine. When we started Roundpegg, we thought we may see consistencies across an organization or a role, but the data does not support that concept. We know from research literature that there are not right or wrong cultures. What we know is that there is no certain type of culture that predicts high performance. What predicts this is culture alignment – you understand your core values, and everything you do, how you hire, develop, mentor, guide, engage your employees. When the values are aligned, those organizations are way more profitable. The alignment predicts these performances, not the type of culture.

Emma: What I have noticed in working for organizations, is that when the executive leadership has a good understanding of who their employees are, they value their employees and show it. Employees care more if they feel that they are valued too. This makes companies perform better, and that is true in life too.

Sabrina: Humility as an organization and being able to admit when you could have done something better is key. Being able to have these discussions and being comfortable with changing after hearing feedback is really valuable.

Any tips for looking for candidates/recruiting with zero budget to do so?

Emma: Networking is really important, just being out in your community. There are many events you can go to, but just walking around and going to coffee and talking to people and getting involved online is good. Networking as much as possible is key. LinkedIn is a great way to reach out too. Use the network to the best of its ability. Put out what you want specifically is important. Most people are not natural networkers so you have to lay it out to them. Be really appreciative as well, like buy people coffee if they send you a referral, etc.

Sabrina: This comes up a lot in program when we meet with companies. Networking is a key thing I talk with companies about. Understanding what your sell is as a business is key too – why should people leave their job and come work for you? You need passion for what you are doing and get the message right. Understanding your competition and the different companies in your ecosystem – get a better sense of how they are hiring because you are looking for the same people.

How do you ensure your idealistic management approach stays alive when new people coming on board?

Natalie: Having a foundational element early on, like, “this is how we do things here”, is much more straightforward because it is aligned with your culture. This way, you don’t have to have the conversation or reinvent the wheel each time because you have your houses in order and your foundation set. The other thing that I would mention too is don’t make it complicated, keep it really simple, like, “here is how we approach leading our people”, and make sure it is tied to your culture and provide a few bullet points.

Sabrina: Take advantage of the management talent that you do have, that you believe in, and highlight them the right way. Try to hire good managers early on and train your managers early on so that you have people that can then be trusted with challenging management conversations and help to develop a mentorship program from within. It’s not always an HR discussion because a lot of companies won’t have an HR department early on, so try to identify the best management talent that you have.

Emma: Make sure you have a few key managers at the beginning who have proven themselves as people managers. Be able to assess this early on, and make sure that they want to be people managers.

Best tip for hiring and building a team [rapid fire]?

Emma: Make sure that whoever you are talking to in whatever setting, you are putting your best foot forward. Be positive and appreciative. You do not want to make a bad impression because people talk and word spreads fast.

Sabrina: Figure out what is important to you and important to those around you. What do you care about and stand by it because people will tell you it’s wrong along the way.
Natalie: Do the work as an organization, understand what your values are and the glue that holds you and your team together.

Click here to listen a replay of this AMA.

Join us for our next Ask Me Anything session with David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Techstars – June 23rd at 10am PT! Ask anything about startups, fundraising, accelerators, and more! REGISTER.

Hiring, Culture & Recruiting: Tips for Growing Your Startup Part Two

At Techstars, we often hear from startup founders that hiring is one of the most challenging things to do right. We recently held an AMA on this topic (Ask Techstars: Hiring & Culture – Scaling Your Startup) with me (Sabrina McGrail, VP of People at Techstars); Emma Straight, Sr. Recruiter at Techstars; and Natalie Baumgartner, Founder & Chief Psychologist of RoundPegg, a company culture and engagement tool.

This post is the second in a series of three with Q&A excerpts from this AMA. Check it out!

How do you make remote employees feel part of the team?

Sabrina: We are actively trying to figure this out at Techstars; we are in 30 locations in 10 countries at this point so we are all over the place. When I chat with people on video calls and ask them how they are doing, I am always so grateful that they are saying they feel connected to the team. Sometimes it’s the simple things, like in the on-boarding process to always get on video calls versus calling someone over the phone. Have more tools where you can connect in real time with people. It does depend on your company and what is right for your company. I know a lot of companies use Slack heavily, (we use Slack), and we use Voxer, which is basically like a walkie talkie, but it really helps me feel connected to people on the fly at work. With time zones especially, and this is one that we have had trouble with since we are all over, before you set a meeting, make sure it is at a time when at least most people can attend. Record your meetings so you can send them out after the fact for people who weren’t able to attend. Find different ways to be considerate, it was a learning process for us and it still is every day. Take time to get feedback, especially from remote people, on what they thought of a meeting or if they feel the level of communication is where it needs to be. It’s a lot of little things stacked on top of each other.

Emma: I worked remotely for about five years for companies in the US; there were some things that really worked and some things that didn’t. The number one thing for me that really helped was that if there was any kind of company meeting, holiday party or anything like that, to get the invite to it. It really helps to feel like you are welcome at those events. Try to make sure  you have someone there as a point person to introduce you to everybody and make you feel a little more involved, while also making sure that everybody knew who you were. Those are really important things. I know there is a cost involved, but there are also cost savings with not having someone in a physical office, so that can kind of equal out in the end. Really getting together live and in person is essential, even once per year just to make that connection. I worked for a company in San Francisco and I was able to go out once a month. That helped tremendously to actually get to know people in person.

Natalie: We talk with organizations about this a lot at RoundPegg because, to your point, it is becoming more and more common that people have remote workforces. I was at an event not too long ago where the topic was around culture and disparate workforces. It is really important to not forget about your people that are remote and to really incorporate them and be mindful. It is so easy for that not to happen, not intentionally but just in the busyness of work and lives. Use culture to find out what people’s core values are to link them in. If the value is team orientation, give more opportunities to orient that person into the team. Culture is the glue that holds us together.

If a full time employee’s work doesn’t provide good ROI, or you realize that the person doesn’t fit well with the company’s culture, is simply hiring and firing legal?

Natalie: One of the things that is important to talk about when you bring someone on the team is where you see the synergies and where there might be some gaps so that the stage is set from the beginning. Culture does not have to be good or bad, it can just be a poor fit. So setting it up from the get go, such as a, “Here is where we stand, let’s just watch these things that may not work between us.” It’s just easier to have that tough conversation when it becomes really apparent that there is just not a fit – you’ve been in the conversation all the way along and so you can have that conversation on the fact that those things that you are not aligned on aren’t playing out that well. If it is handled that way, people will self select out. When it comes out of the blue is when there can be a problem, and perhaps they even feel like they are a great fit. Those separations are far more painful.

Sabrina: Those are really good points, especially setting expectations early on. It happens often where you’ll hire someone and they are great at 90% of the job description but the other 10% is something they are really going to need to work on. Setting the stage early on so that it’s part of the discussion is the key component to managing the relationship the right way. Make it a constant conversation and have regular one on ones to check in on progress on how those things are going. From the legal perspective, the US is at-will employment. Every country has different employment and labor laws, so if you are outside of the US those are things to look into. That being said, in the U.S. you can terminate someone without giving them notice or without performance discussions. It is not a best practice. From an employer and brand perspective, you want to make sure that you are doing what is right by the employee. When I have these conversations with people about performance, the best way to approach the situation is to consider what you would want if you were in that position. If you weren’t doing well or you weren’t fitting, wouldn’t you just want to at least have a direct, open discussion about the problem and try to at least feel heard throughout the process?

The goal is to make sure it is not a surprise, but it is not always perfect. Some people really feel rooted and aren’t understanding or are missing what you are saying to them. Just try to make sure you are being as direct as possible when things aren’t lining up and take a step back to see if there is anything that you or the environment is doing to make it really challenging for them. Be a little bit introspective as a manager in the process because it might be something that will come up more and more as the organization grows, so taking that step back is important as well.

Emma: I agree with all those points. Having the conversation early, setting expectations from the beginning, and also giving them a chance. Sometimes there is just a misalignment or miscommunication that they did not realize. The flip side of this is to try to invest in management training because there are so many poor managers. Either they never should have become a manager, or they just haven’t had any training to do so. That is a huge investment for a company. It is so valuable learning little tips along the way, how to communicate effectively, how to understand where someone else is coming from because they may be very different from you. RoundPegg offers the solution to learn how people work best to and almost learn their language, trying to get a midpoint between two people who may be very different.

What few things should candidates do to vet a startup before accepting a job? ex: culture, management style, mission.

Sabrina: Get an understanding of where they are at and where they come from – the history of the startup, the progress they have made, why they are there as founders, and walk into the interview with a set of questions for each person that you speak with that touches on something a little bit different to give you a good sense of the environment and what you are walking into. Questions like, what is your average work week? What is the pace like? What are communications like? More specific questions can include, how are we doing? What’s our runway? Dive into the details in the interview process and ask the same questions a few different times to different people to see if the stories align. You can also just look around the office to see who is working there too, is there any diversity there? Is it clearly just a group of guys that went to college together and are now building this thing? You have got to start somewhere so it’s not that, that is a terrible thing but if it is that way, maybe bring it up in the interview process. Just pay attention to your surroundings and how people are working together.

Natalie: If you ask an organization what their culture is like, it is important to note that we all have different understandings of what culture is and what that word even means, so maybe a better way to get more rigorous data would to be to ask them, how do you do things here? That is what we think about when we consider culture – how do you make decisions? What determines what gets prioritized? How do people communicate here? And what gets rewarded? That doesn’t mean just monetarily rewarded, but what gets encouraged and supported? If you ask about these specifically, you should be able to get a much better read on the culture. If you just ask what their culture is, you may just get answers about their off shoots of culture, answers like, we have a lot of fun here, we’re great, we love each other, we have been together forever, we have a keg, etc. These are things that come out of a culture but they are not really culture.

Emma: When you’re going into their office, really try to pay attention to everything. Look around, who’s working there? What is the vibe like? I had an interview once at a startup and one of the co-founders just kept yawning during my call interview and I was like, well this is not a good sign for so many reasons, but he’s exhausted. So I asked him what he likes about his day and it was a very lackluster answer. That was the person at the helm and running the organization, that behaviour and attitude is going to trickle down and that spoke to me. Also, ask what their retention rate is and if people are leaving very quickly because that could also be a sign. Try to talk to as many people as you can and try to get an authentic answer of what they’re liking and what they’re not liking. It’s always hard in an interview setting, but just pay attention and ask a lot of questions.

What pro-tips do you have for startups or scaling companies to best vet culture fit during the interview process?

Emma: We use RoundPegg, I think it helps. It should not be an indicator of who you should hire and who you shouldn’t hire, but it does help to assess who a person is, how they look at things and how they communicate. It also gives you an understanding of how to communicate more effectively with them. During the interview process, it is always hard because people are probably giving you the best side of themselves, so it is important to have more than one person interview them. Maybe take them outside the office setting, like go get a cup of coffee or take a walk to let them have their guard down a little bit. Also, try to ask other people that had contact with them – ask the receptionist how they acted with them. This is always important because a lot of people treat different levels of people differently. People on the interview team have to be really attentive to things they are feeling, noticing or seeing and how they are communicating via emails, how quickly they get back to you about scheduling an interview, how flexible they are about scheduling interviews, etc.

Natalie: Even if you aren’t using a piece of technology to evaluate culture and culture fit, just get clarity on what the three to five values are that are most important to you. A quick and easy way to do that is to jump on RoundPegg and make a profile for free. Print out your profile and sit down to find what the three values are that you have in common – what are the few that are most core to us as an organization? These are what you really want to be evaluating. However you gather that data, you need to understand the three to five values that are really inherent to what you are and what you want to build your company on, and then you need to be able to, in some way, figure out what is important to this individual that you are interviewing. This is difficult in the interview process because you are selling yourself. Have a list of strength based values and ask them what three they think are the most important to them and then talk about it and ask for examples. This way, you can get under the surface and gain a richer understanding of who someone really is. For example, RoundPegg’s value is being organized and it has been one of our values from the beginning and as we have grown and shifted. One of the questions that we ask is, “talk about a time when you worked in an organization where there was very little systems or processes in place and when it was a problem for you, as well as how you managed it.” That kind of behavioral interviewing question about culture can give you a lot of information.

Sabrina: What I try to do during screens (and it is a lot easier during the first screen than it is down the line) is try to understand their happy place and their unhappy place. I try to get really curious about it and use digging questions about interpersonal relationships, team dynamics, environment and pace. Who is the best manager you have had and tell me about that relationship? What is your least favorite work environment you have ever been in?

Click here to listen a replay of this AMA.

Join us for our next Ask Me Anything session with David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Techstars – June 23rd at 10am PT! Ask anything about startups, fundraising, accelerators, and more! REGISTER.

Hiring, Culture & Recruiting: Tips for Growing Your Startup

At Techstars, we often hear from startup founders that hiring is one of the most challenging things to do right. We recently held an AMA on this topic (Ask Techstars: Hiring & Culture – Scaling Your Startup) with Sabrina McGrail, VP of People at Techstars; Emma Straight, Sr. Recruiter at Techstars; and Natalie Baumgartner, Founder & Chief Psychologist of RoundPegg, a company culture and engagement tool.

This post is the first in a series of three with Q&A excerpts from this AMA. Check it out!

How can you keep a culture fun yet still ensure that teams get a lot of work done?

Natalie: I will say that the more you understand what is important to your people as an individual and as a collective, you can make sure you are giving them what they need to have fun and enjoy what they are doing. It makes them far more productive and engaged in their work. Food for thought around understanding what people value.

Sabrina: Fun is subjective. Understand what they want and the type of environment that is ideal for them. Do engagement surveys to see what people are looking for out of the next quarter and the next year, and take general surveys to find out what your employees think. Take the time to understand what the culture is and set expectations around that at the beginning of the hiring process.

Emma: There is this sense of camaraderie and doing fun things, happy hours, team building events and all that fun stuff and the line is crossed very easily to things that may be inappropriate. It is up to the executive staff to always set a really good example of what is appropriate and what is not, especially when you’re not in the office setting. If something goes too far, deal with the situation quickly and directly so that it sets the tone and an example of what is okay. For example, “That was great and really fun, but maybe that behavior was crossing the line.” Handling this directly is key so that the behavior does not continue.

When is a CTO a must-have as a founding member of a startup?

Sabrina: This is a challenging question. I know that when we look at companies that we are selecting, having a CTO or a strong technical hire is obviously really important. I think it depends on what you’re building a lot of the time. It is great to have the right person in early on, but you also want to take the time to find the right CTO. The person to fill this role is so important; if you are rushing to get someone in the door that is not strong enough, it does not benefit you. The CTO is critical to building the company, so I would say take your time to find the right person and supplement in whatever way that you can versus giving someone (who maybe should not be a CTO yet) a CTO title. Otherwise, you end up having a lot of really hard challenges and conversations down the line when you may need to hire over that person or find someone who is a stronger leader.

Emma: Yeah, and on that I would say also that it is a critical recruiting aspect to have a really strong CTO or leadership presence on the engineering team when you are hiring engineers. It is a great tool for us to be able to go to and say, “Hey, this person is really leading the charge and building a really great team around them.” But you have to be really careful that it’s the right person, otherwise it could really harm you much more so than not having anybody. It’s really an individual thing and depends on the company, the size of the company and what the product or service is.

Natalie: For me, my co-founder was a CTO previously so it was not something that we had to go out and look for, but I want to take this opportunity to have a public service address moment to piggyback on what Sabrina and Emma were saying in terms of fit. You can not underestimate the importance of culture fit in making a decision around filling a very fundamental position in an organization. In the early days of Roundpegg, we had someone who was functioning as our CTO, but we needed a lead engineer. During this time, we were actually in Techstars, so this is back in 2010 when we made our first hire. We hired a guy who was a wonderful engineer, a great developer and a great human being, but we used our own tool (Roundpegg) and he was a terrible culture fit. So, great person, great technical expertise, but not a good culture fit and we hired him anyway. Our rationale was that we were still in research and development and not sure if our product worked yet, but all of the culture fit pieces really ended up playing out and it was a challenge for all of us. It was not a great decision for him, not a great situation for us and it took us awhile to part ways because we really liked each other. Fit is important for any position and certainly for a position with that level of impact.

What are some ways you’ve seen companies making office/culture more welcoming to parents and families?

Emma: I will jump in since I’m a new mother. I have two young kids and it has been a transition in my personal life to wrap my head around what this looks like as a working parent. Where is the balance? How do I give my all to both work and personal life? It’s a daily struggle of mine, so I’m still learning as I’m going and I still would love any advice and suggestions from any parents. I think I got really lucky; Techstars hired me when I was 9 months pregnant, I worked one month and then I took off three months. I feel very fortunate and very lucky that I got that opportunity. I think giving leave and making sure people feel supported when they are not only out of the office but the transition to come back is really important, not only to feel welcomed but also to understand that it is something that they are probably trying to navigate around as well. They may not have all the answers, so just being supportive in the flexibility of hours or having a pumping room helps. There are a number of different things, and it has been more of a focus of conversations lately in the tech world, which I am really excited about. I’m a parent that does not want to be a stay at home parent, so it’s really nice to see that people are embracing the challenges that may be involved. We are very hardworking and time management is a necessity for parents, so we are able to work much more efficiently and produce better results than I think sometimes people who don’t have kids.

Natalie: It’s definitely a topic that I love and a topic that has been front and center for me as a co-founder. I have three children who are 7, 5 and 2 years old, and they were all born during the life of RoundPegg. We have photos of all of them sleeping under my desk or in boardroom meetings. When I think about the question, the first thing I’d say is that as founders or leaders of an organization, you have to understand what your values are and what the aspirational values are that you have for your company and how you want to drive your organization. For me, it would be critical to work for an organization that really values flexibility and incorporates the balance that is necessary for parents. That is not always going to be the case for every company and for every leadership team, so first you need to get clear on where your values sit on that kind of flexibility. I know plenty of organizations where that’s just not part of the core values and as long as you’re clear about that as an organization, people can then self select in or out. I wrote an article two years ago about being a founder and being a mom. I was encouraged by our PR firm to write this when we were in a PR meeting and I was nursing my baby. My main position is that to be welcoming, you have to be flexible and you have to be willing to get creative and get messy about how you structure your work day. My co-founders were incredibly supportive and I was really fortunate, even though they had to work with all the nuances of working around my schedule as a parent – they are wonderful and make that possible for me. But, it does require me to be creative. I have been at meetings where I have a newborn downstairs in the lobby with a nanny and I’m trying to run a meeting and then go down to feed her and go back up – my colleagues have helped with that too. My efficiency has really increased with being a mom.

Sabrina: Make it okay to be human at work – it is something that Techstars talks about a lot. Create a space as you’re building a company. Make sure, whether for you or your managers, that you’re having one on ones and you can really genuinely ask, how are you? Not just how are you doing at work, but how are you doing in life? We have some tools that we use at Techstars to make sure that we are having both sides of that conversation. Creating that space is really important because then you know where someone is coming from, we don’t leave ourselves when we walk through the office door, we are carrying everything that is going on outside of work with us. Create an environment that comes from having a discussion about your values and what kind of company that you want to build. Being able to say that you are having a really crazy day at home and I really need to work from home for the next two hours, is totally okay.   

Click here to listen a replay of this AMA.

Join us for our next Ask Me Anything session with David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Techstars – June 23rd at 10am PT! Ask anything about startups, fundraising, accelerators, and more! REGISTER.