4 Steps to Hire Candidates that Fit Your Core Values: An Interview With Allison Kopf & Brett Brohl

January through March is the busiest time of year for hiring so we want to help ensure that you have access to as many high-quality candidates as possible. To make that happen, we are asking you—members of the Techstars network—to #GiveFirst into the Techstars Talent Network and help other founders connect with top talent. Plus, more referrals going into the Network means a bigger pool of candidates who might be a good fit for your company! Learn more about the Season of Vouching. 

When hiring talent, founders often focus on a candidate’s skillset, experience, and overall ability to do a specific job. But finding the right talent takes a lot more than that. In fact, according to Allison Kopf, founder and CEO of Artemis, and Brett Brohl, Managing Director of Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, another factor plays a major role in the success or failure of a new hire. 

“In hiring, it’s important to know whether a candidate is qualified to do the job,” Allison said. “Obviously, you need to be able to walk away and trust this person to do the job without micromanaging them. But, at the same time, you also need to be asking if this person would do well in your team environment.” You don’t want your employees to just survive your company culture, you want them to thrive in it. 

“One of the quickest ways to kill a company is to start adding hires that don’t fit culturally,” Brett added. “You can’t just put butts in seats to fill a need. If they don’t align with your core values, they’re going to fail.”

Hiring people who’ll happily embrace your core values and fit well into your company culture demands a lot of forethought and careful work. More specifically, it requires you to define a clear set of core values with your team, and then meticulously evaluate candidates against those core values. 

Step 1: Define Core Values as a Team

The first and most important thing founders can do is create a set of core values. These can include things like “embracing creativity”, “responding with humility”, “acting with integrity”—or be something else entirely. 

The idea is to decide how you want your employees to work, interact with one another, and communicate with customers, and boil that down to a few core concepts. Done correctly, each of your values will also have a “why:” an underlying set of reasons that explain its worth and act as a call to action for the company. 

“Core values are more than just a set of high level ideas,” Allison said. “They’re highly nuanced. For example, one of our core values is: ‘default to curiosity.’ But it’s about a lot more than just defaulting to curiosity. That value is based on ideas like: ‘all questions are good questions’ and ‘curiosity is the key to empathy with each other and our customers’. It also encompasses concepts like: ‘ideas, tools and workflows can always improve’; and ‘the process is not as important as the destination.’”

Creating such a deeply nuanced set of core values takes more than one person or a small subset of people, though. It requires everyone to be involved in the process to one degree or another.   

“Our core values didn’t come from the top-down. They came from the company as a whole,” Allison said. “I felt it was most important to give people a voice in the company, because I wanted them to feel like they could make decisions, voice opinions, and have a directional say in where we were moving as a company. So while our mission has been set by me, the way we’re getting there is partly steered by the team itself.” 

How do you get from those many voices to a clear set of values? “For us, the path we took to create our core values was very straightforward,” Allison said. “It involved discussing the objective, brainstorming ideas, and narrowing down our options as a group. One of our designers actually led the process, so our core values came directly from the team, rather than being chosen by me or our CTO.” 

And this process has worked in an onward and upward way for Artemis. “Initially, we created a set of nine core values,” Allison said, “but we reevaluate them on an annual or biannual basis to make sure they still reflect what we’re trying to do. And we’re still doing this as a team, rather than from the top-down.”

Step 2: Setting Expectations During the Interview Process

While it’s vital to have a set of core values in place before you start hiring, it’s equally important to make sure candidates understand your value expectations from the get-go. Not only can it save you a lot of time in the interview process by enabling you to weed out candidates that don’t fit, but it can also spare you the sunk costs—financial and otherwise—of a bad hire.  

“One mistake founders often make is not setting expectations early,” Brett said. “They’ll evaluate skill sets during the interview process, but they won’t set expectations around their work culture and core values until after they’ve hired someone. That needs to happen a lot sooner. Your candidates should know exactly what they’re walking into during those interviews.” 

This can be difficult for founders to do, especially when they go through a period of rapid hiring. However, neglecting to discuss core values and culture fit can ultimately be devastating to your company. 

“When you need to hire fast, because you just raised a round of capital and you need to execute the plan you rolled out, it’s easy to ignore company culture or sacrifice value fit,” Brett said. “But that never ends well. Either you end up firing that person quickly, or they just become a drain on the entire organization.” 

Luckily, there are lots of ways founders can be transparent about their expectations. It may be as simple as discussing your core values in the first few minutes of an interview or asking candidates to read about your core values on your website. 

For Artemis, the simplest way to set expectations is emailing candidates the information prior to their first interview. “The first step in our hiring process is to send candidates our core value deck,” Allison said. “This gives them time to read over our core values and spend some time thinking about them, so that everyone is on the same page when they come in to interview.”

Step 3: Evaluate Culture & Core Value Fit

With expectations in place, the next step for founders is to take some time to directly evaluate candidates against the company’s core values. This is often done as an independent step in the interview process known as a core value screen. 

“We kick off the interview process with a core value screen, which is a formal interview where we ask a series of questions to see how candidates line up with our culture and values,” Allison said. “Ultimately, the goal is to have a conversation and get to know the candidate. So instead of just going through their resume, we ask things like: ‘What motivates you?’ What was the most successful moment of your last job and why? What makes you really excited to go to work?’ These questions are designed to help candidates open up, show off their personality and talk about things that excite them.”

While the answers to these questions can speak volumes about a candidate, this is one of those situations where actions truly speak louder than words. Anyone can say they value what you value, but few will truly embody it.  

For instance, say you’re evaluating candidates against a core value of curiosity. They may share examples of times when they showcased it at their last job, but how well are they really exhibiting it? Are they asking questions? Do they want to dig deeper into the topic? Does their body language show a genuine interest in the conversation? If not, they may not really value curiosity—at least not to the degree that your team does. 

This doesn’t mean you need to disqualify said candidate outright. It simply means you should look more closely at how they will mesh with your culture and core values. 

As Allison explains: “This is where founders sometimes mess up a little bit. They assume that they need to find somebody who matches every single one of their core values perfectly. But, in reality, it’s not so much about finding someone who has one-to-one identical qualities, but someone who fits culturally and is able to live up to your values.” 

Step 4: Know When to Walk Away

Ultimately, even the best plans can go awry. You will still interview candidates who are not a good fit. But this doesn’t mean your culture is bad or the candidate is bad. “There isn’t a right culture out there,” Brett said. “It’s what’s right for you and what’s right for the people that you’re hiring. It’s okay to walk away from the candidate because they’re not a good culture fit. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It just means they’re not a good fit for your company.” 

“The bottom line is, you need to be self aware as a company,” Brett added, “You need to know who you are, what you do, and what your values are, and then stick to it when you start hiring.”

People Ops Question: How do we compete for talent in such a competitive market?

By Sabrina Kelly, Techstars Vice President of Talent

At Techstars, we define our mission in People Ops as the following: “We are strategic partners in building Techstars business by maximizing the value of our most important asset—our people. We attract, retain, develop, and support Techstars employees globally and aim to uphold our culture and values, in a manner that is inclusive to all.” 

As VP of Talent, and former VP of People Ops, I hear a lot of questions from founders. This series aims to answer the most frequent questions. 

Q: How do we compete for talent in such a competitive market?

This is a big one and there’s no easy solution. My best advice is to be very thoughtful about what differentiates you as a company and when you think about recruiting, think about what gets you out of bed every morning. 

It takes a certain kind of person to join a startup—and they should know what they’re in for. It’s going to be fast-paced, generally super chaotic, likely not highly paid for long hours in comparison to established companies, but the right person will love it because they believe in the mission and the people working on it by their side. Hire those people, set those expectations, and don’t sacrifice on belief in the vision. 

In order to attract those people, you need to get aligned with your leadership team on what makes your company great and why the problem you’re solving is more interesting than the problem the other five startups sitting next to you at your coworking space are solving. Make sure that everyone on your interview panel is sending the very same message about who you are as a business, why it’s awesome, and what it is you care about in the people and the role you’re hiring for. 

Once you have that, get out there. As an early stage company, you can’t expect that candidates know you exist, so you can’t expect that the ‘post it and they shall come’ methodology is going to work. You need to get creative and quite frankly be a little scrappy to compete in your market. Attend events, promote your company through local startup marketing (e.g. Startup Digest), speak on Startup Week panels, ask everyone on your leadership team to dedicate one hour a week to making sure that talent in your market knows about you. Lastly, see my former post on your first recruiting hire. You’ll know it’s time when interviewing becomes your second job, and you know you have the runway for multiple hires over the next 12 months.  


Techstars Talent enables you to build highly successful teams! Check out what Techstars Talent can do for you. 

This piece was originally published on Techstars Stories.

Time to Get Creative: How Aggressive Targets Drive Innovation

By Henrique Dubugras, Brex CEO

True innovation is driven by aggressive targets. Not by slides and ball pits.

I am not talking about innovation of a product or idea. I am talking about a type of innovation that is often overlooked: innovation of internal processes. I never cease to be amazed by the number of problems that people are solving with and within technology. However, I am always surprised to see how many companies with very innovative product ideas still use outdated methods to conduct their daily operations.

How Not To Innovate

I’ll use recruiting and sales as two examples. Most companies still recruit through “spray and pray” LinkedIn mass messages that are often overlooked. For sales, they sell via online ads that don’t stand out. Then, they hope that ping pong tables and colorful bean bags will act as magic talismans that will enhance imagination and trigger innovation in the company. (I have nothing against ping pong or bean bags! They do help attract employees, but they don’t solve your problems). In contrast to all of these tactics, I have never seen so much creativity happen so fast than when we established our first quarterly targets. Because I like specific examples and think that you do too, I will tell you how this process worked in more detail for these two areas.

When we started Brex, we also started off with the obvious recruiting and sales tactics. LinkedIn and online ads were our tools for recruiting and inbound sales, respectively. We were still in our beta phase and there was no information about us online yet—which made these tasks that much harder. However, once we were able to get a potential customer on the phone or a prospect through the door, our conversion rates were very high. Our problem? Getting them to pay attention to us and take that call.

Our Famously Aggressive Quarterly Targets

Once the Brex team was large enough, we employed a tactic that we learned at our previous company, Pagar.me. We set our famously aggressive quarterly targets. These very high numbers set the bar high for individuals and teams, but we backed them up with industry benchmarks (to show that they were humanly possible) and with high compensation rewards (to show that they were worth it). Two weeks after the target setting meeting, the team realized that they would not hit the new targets if they stuck to old methods. Soon, creative solutions started popping out. My favorite ideas were handwritten letters for recruiting and a Brazilian chocolate campaign for sales.

Handwritten Recruiting

Instead of sending 5,000 Linkedin messages, the recruiting team selected 500 profiles that we thought would be an excellent fit, did some more extensive research on their backgrounds and wrote 500 handwritten letters that we had delivered over the course of a few weeks. The letters were personal and kind of mysterious. We were trying to get these candidates’ attention, and we definitely did. One thing that worked for us was to specifically target the candidates and messaging to South Americans, whom we thought were most likely to resonate with our story and background. The conversion into actual interviews was six times higher than when we were using LinkedIn only. It was a manual process, but we got invaluable talent that was crucial at that phase of our company, and continues to be today.

Chocolatey, Delicious Sales

Sales followed a similarly thoughtful strategy. Rather than just blast online ads for “corporate credit card,” which has $20+ CPC and is clearly too broad so it doesn’t convert, the sales team mapped the coworking spaces in downtown San Francisco, did some research on concentration of target leads and the hours of the week these spaces were the most crowded. For two weeks, they had boxes of artisan Brazilian chocolates delivered to companies in the coworking spaces and followed up with an email. Once again, unprecedented conversion rates. The cool thing about this campaign is that it didn’t just catch the attention of the companies that received the chocolate. It also sparked the curiosity of others in their coworking spaces who did not get one—which was great for driving word of mouth.

In my experience, aggressive targets forced us to innovative aggressively. The more creative our approaches to common challenges, the better the result. Stretched targets drive this. Innovation is born from necessity.


Is your startup ready to get creative? Apply to a Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator, and #domorefaster.

Interested in learning more about the Brex Corporate Card for Startups? Learn more here.

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.