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, 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.

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.

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. 

Recruiting: Find Your Next Employee At Startup Weekend

The traditional hiring process can be long and tedious and provide only a glimpse into a potential employee’s character. Recruiting new employees from Startup Weekend provides an opportunity for employers to locate quality candidates from a self-selected pool of individuals hungry for opportunity and often willing to start from the bottom. Whether you are participating in Startup Weekend as a registrant, coach, or volunteer; you will witness your potential employee’s expert skills in action as well as see how well they work in a group and how productive they are under pressure.

Fargo, North Dakota’s 2013 Startup Weekend gave startup Simply Made Apps the shot in the arm it needed to move to the next level and they wound up hiring two of their Startup Weekend team members into the company. Brooke Allen, a securities industry proprietary trader and hedge fund manager, took his top four candidates for assistant to Startup Weekend to see how they performed under pressure, then hired the best one. Allen advises to, “go beyond thinking of Startup Weekend as a place to launch a project but also a great place to troll for employees and jobs.” Locally, GCS has found an intern as a result of Startup Weekend Missoula 2013. GCS President and Founder, Alex Philp said, “GCS is honored to be a sponsor of Startup Weekend. Based upon our experience with Startup Weekend last year we see this as a great way of identifying Missoula’s best and brightest, supporting the launch of other high tech businesses, and helping to grow Missoula’s big data community.”

By engaging with coaches and teams of varying talents and backgrounds you can compare and calculate the benefits of various potential employees all weekend. Even though many of the participants have a goal of launching their own startup, other attendees go to Startup Weekend for the networking opportunities and to help out their team wherever needed. Whether you are in the market for a talented employee or your future co-founder, you are sure to find an abundance of prospects at Startup Weekend that, in an economy that is saturated with budding startups, have the talent and ambition that will make your company the 1 in 4 to succeed.



Guest Post by

Alex PhilpAlex Philp

Founder and VP of Business Development, Adelos Inc.

Alex Philp, Ph.D. is the founder of various advanced technology companies in Missoula, Montana, including GCS, Adelos and, most recently, TerraEchos. Currently serving as the Founder and President of GCS, Alex launched GCS as a spinout from NASA funded research and development in advanced geospatial information technology at The University of Montana. Dr. Philp received his Masters and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montana, combining interests in history, geography, ecology, and geospatial IT into comprehensive examinations of historical landscapes and how and why they change over time. Prior to attending the University of Montana where Alex currently serves as a Faculty Affiliate in the Dept. of Geography and the School of Business, he worked for the Lewis and Clark National Forest and as a Park Ranger in Glacier National Park. Alex’s undergraduate degrees were in Philosophy and History from Seattle University, graduating as a life long member of the National Jesuit Honor Society with a public commitment to scholarship, loyalty, and service. In addition to his service work in recognizing and rewarding excellence in student scholarship, Alex serves as a board member at Providence Western Montana Health Care System, The University of Montana School of Business Administration Advisory Board, and as an IBM Champion, evangelizing, lecturing, and speaking about advanced technology and interdisciplinary topics. Alex and his family reside in Missoula, Montana.