Working for a startup that failed taught Jimmye Ahn that companies need to invest in talent — but not in the typical, clichéd sense.
Ahn worked for Whittl, an appointment booking service that shutdown in September 2016. The startup didn’t have any of its roughly 30 employees in people operations. This experience taught her to “make sure you have someone at your startup who is truly invested and whose sole job is to really work for the employees of the company,” she said.
Just three months after Whittl closed, Ahn joined Crafty LLC, a Chicago-based food and beverage service for offices. She was the first employee aside from the firm’s four founders. As head of internal operations and people at Crafty, Ahn focuses on talent strategy and prioritizing the company’s front-line workers.
“I think talent strategy has everything to do with if a startup succeeds,” Ahn said.
Ahn continues to work for Crafty, which now has 40 employees, and she said her challenge now is to maintain enthusiasm in the long-run. “I want to keep that excitement going when it seems like times are tougher,” she said.
As startups grow, various aspects of talent strategy are easily forgotten. Here are some areas to keep top of mind:
Support the Staff
“One of the major things I think startups forget to do is to take care of the employees that they already have,” Ahn said. During periods of significant growth and frequent hiring, there can be a lot of forgotten time that leaders would have with current employees.
It’s therefore important to invest in the right tools and the right path for current employees who are looking to grow with the company and need a trajectory to follow. Even if a startup is in early stages and doesn’t know what the next year will look like, “for your current employees, they want to feel like they have goals that they’re going after,” Ahn said.
At Sprout Social, a social media management company based in Chicago, the talent leaders hire people only when it’s possible to support them, said Jim Conti, the company’s director of talent. “Sometimes, I think that especially in the startup space, that headcount growth can be perceived as successful growth of a business,” Conti said. Other metrics are likely more meaningful, he said.
To understand what success looks like for a startup, companies need to look at areas beyond the size of the company. Conti said Sprout Social celebrates its product releases and great customer experiences to communicate the company’s value.
This process of identifying measures of success can include talking with others who have been through similar startup situations to understand their trajectories. When Conti came on to Sprout in 2013, he reached out to people who worked at other Chicago-area companies’ early teams, including Groupon, to hear their experiences of growing. Then, knowing what they’re aiming for, talent leaders can focus on who they need to hire to realize those goals.
When seeking talent for a startup, it’s important to first look in the right places, Conti said. Take time to understand where to find the right people. For example, salespeople aren’t likely to be on Stack Overflow, a site for software developers.
Crafty’s Ahn added that startups need hires who can do a variety of tasks, who are also flexible and are smart. “When you’re hiring, you have to make sure you’re hiring unicorns,” Ahn said. Startup don’t necessarily know what their roles will look like six months or a year from now, so they need people who can adapt with the business.
It’s also important to hire people of a variety of backgrounds who have experiences different than the founders, Ahn said. Otherwise, the company will be full of people who all look that same and have similar skills. A diverse group will build a unique company culture.
Culture can be a strong differentiator for startups seeking talent, as they’re unlikely to have brand recognition or strong benefits offerings, Sprout Social’s Conti said. “Culture is going to be one of the things that you’re going to be able to offer that’s going to be truly unique to your organization,” he said.
Building a great company culture should start with a firm’s leaders, but “that feels a little tight in terms of having some flexibility for growth and scaling of the business,” Conti said. Instead, company culture comes from the employees, and this changes over time. Thus, talent leaders at Sprout Social think of cultural fit in terms of “culture add.” “We’re looking for folks who can build and transform this business and our team, and so the next iteration of what we’re doing, versus just sort of maintaining what has been before,” Conti said.
A strong culture draws people in. Rob Seay, HR director at Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform based in St. Louis, is the first HR leader at the five-year-old company. “Being the first HR resource to the organization, the company was at a very early stage of really trying to create an identity for itself,” Seay said.
He then got to work, helping create the employer brand, identifying and building on their culture, and then demonstrating it to the market. He began by working with Bonfyre’s leadership to define the mission statement of the company and created a strategy for going to market with it. “It really starts with the leaders in the organization and making sure that they’re really focused in on the things that are really important to them,” Seay said. He had employee statements added to the website, highlighting what they enjoy about Bonfyre. These efforts paid off, as the company became a finalist in St. Louis’ 2017 list of “Best Places to Work.”
The company now employs 36 people, and some were drawn to Bonfyre because of the award. Following the announcement, Seay said Bonfyre received applications from interested people, even though the company had no job postings. Being a finalist created awareness among local talent, helping with recruiting efforts.
After creating a strong employer brand, business leaders must work to preserve it. “All it takes sometimes is a few bad apples, so to speak,” Seay said, and a bad reputation can be difficult to overcome if not addressed early.
Crafty’s Ahn echoed those sentiments, saying that small environments can’t always afford toxic employees who can hurt morale. “Don’t be afraid of turnover,” Ahn said. “You don’t have to delay it, either. That is far better in the long run.”
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.