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Smart Startup Hiring: How to Grow a Small Team

Posted by Sarah Olbekson to Business

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Most of the articles I read about hiring start by saying something along the lines of “hiring is the most important part of building a strong business,” but I disagree.


Yes, hiring is an extremely important part of any business, for obvious reasons: you need to have good individuals in place to execute what an organization is trying to achieve and solve for roadblocks that are in its way. But the most important piece of that puzzle is the outcome or solution. Put another way, hiring is extremely important solely because it can directly affect whether or not a business achieves its greater mission.

With that greater picture perspective, hiring managers can be more strategic, and much more focused. Hiring is a fun aspect of any business, but without focus, it’s easy to get swept away by all the talented people out there and the plethora of ideas—especially if you work at a startup, trust me! That’s why being a goal-oriented individual and being good at hiring go hand in hand. With small teams, this long-term thinking is even more important and can make a hiring manager an asset rather than just a means to an end.

Working Backwards to Set Goals For Hiring

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As startups go, goals vary. Some are in the game to build an innovative tool or solution, get a mass following (and the huge valuation that comes with it) and sell high.


That’s not the case for inDinero, and our hiring goals reflect that. In short, inDinero’s big picture goal is to be a 40 year and beyond company. So, as we hire, we think long-term, much longer than one or two years for each individual teammate.


I find that hiring at startup is a bit like building a house from scratch (or so I imagine it would be). At this stage, you’re looking for the essentials to build your foundation, but those essentials can change slightly if you’re planning on living, getting married, starting a family, and growing old in that house as opposed to flipping it for a profit. Don’t get me wrong, both are fun and challenging, but they’re different.

 

The numbers are on your side. Get them and use them:

When planning which roles to hire, keep it simple by starting with the numbers. It’s easy to get carried away with the fact that there are so many directions and opportunities to grow within a startup team. That’s why being as formulaic and ROI-focused as possible is key.


Because of the service component included with inDinero’s accounting and tax offering, we have built out a hiring model that increases the number of client-facing and expert-level roles needed based on the number of businesses we are bringing on as clients (our recent sales numbers). From there we geek out a little and use an equation we built out that projects the number we need in each position based on the sales coming in. We are constantly adjusting it and trying to perfect it so we don’t over hire.


But as we’ve grown, in addition to filling the roles to keep up with demand, we can begin looking outside of that box toward more and more roles that will enhance inDinero’s status as a cutting-edge business software, distinguished company culture, and household brand name.


This doesn’t mean we have lost focus and are just looking for teammates that are “nice to haves”. As a company that stays so close to our numbers, inDinero will probably never do that. These roles, while maybe not accounting or tax-related, are absolutely essential to building a long-term company. Just look at the most recognizable companies out there. My guess is that Coca Cola’s blend master didn’t come up with “Open Happiness” or those damn good Polar Bear commercials that make us reach for a cold can of pop over a warm cup of cocoa at least once each Christmas.

 

Work with each team to customize your strategy:

One of the best parts of being a recruiter is getting to work closely with every department which is MUCH easier to do at a startup than a larger organization. This allows you to stay on top of each team’s achievements, plans, and roadblocks.


Even just listening in on meetings or having a quick weekly chat with each team lead can help you anticipate what skills or experiences they’ll need to hire for. This comprehensive context is key setting goals and success indicators based on the desired outcome of that hire. Getting to know each team dynamic also gives you something to pay attention to when defining whether candidates will be a good personality fit for the team they’re potentially joining.

 

And use that to define what you look for in candidates:

Start by picking three to five traits to look for in every candidate. At inDinero, we look for adaptability, work ethic, solution oriented, intelligence, and accountability. These traits speak to our core values and to the mentality required when working at a startup. I love the idea of finding candidates who, as individuals, work like a startup. These people are powerhouses who like to be a part of an organization where they get to make a direct impact.


You can also define what the persona could be like for each role you’re planning to hire. For example, inDinero employs accountants, CPAs, tax experts, etc. but we aren’t your average accounting and tax provider. What we look for in this role isn’t going to be totally identical to what someone at a Big Four firm might seek out. We want to fill those roles with experts who also really want to be in a client-facing role. They have outgoing personalities and have a desire to help and teach others. We also work with many different types of businesses and industries, so we look for experts from diverse backgrounds as a way to provide even more value to the companies we support.


The same goes for our client communications and sales/marketing teams. These team members must possess a thirst for knowledge and passion for helping solve business problems. In some ways, when hiring for these roles we look for undercover entrepreneurs, those who haven’t necessarily started their own business, but have the proven tenacity and out-of-the-box thinking to get exponential results.


Ultimately, people do well at startups if they are excited to help the business be successful, not just help their area or department be successful. Having someone who fits into that all for one, one for all environment and culture is so important. Many highly qualified individuals might get stopped in their tracks without the luxury of expendable resources at their fingertips. Instead, look for candidates who, like McGyver, will thrive in constrained situations. They’ll be up for the challenge and down to get scrappy!

 

Outlining Your Hiring Strategy

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Speaking of getting scrappy… we are recruiting in a time when unemployment is the lowest it has been in years, and I mean years. But while unemployment is lower, a study by CareerBuilder found that one in five employed U.S. citizens are still readily looking for new jobs.


Essentially, this means job seekers are out there, they just might not end up in your inbox as readily as they did in 2009 or 2010. As an internal hiring manager, this makes you feel less like the popular kid in class, and more like the president of the student body picklers club. We are constantly looking for the top candidates, finding new ways to reach candidates outside standard recruiting platforms and coming up with ways to keep candidates engaged once we do contact them.


#PROTIP: When your pipeline is slim, create a referral program and make it easy for employees to refer people. Reward and show appreciation for these referrals, it says a lot if an employee wants to refer others to work here.

  

Being Limited Doesn’t Mean Desperate

One of the most costly mistakes a business can make is hiring the wrong person. Hiring managers often make this mistake because they’re under pressure to fill a role in a tight timeline or frankly, sometimes the candidate is just a very skilled interviewer. (Some people just have a way of making a great first impression.)


However, there are definitely things you can do to prevent that from happening at your startup. One great tactic being the number of interviews you require for each role. Now, this number can vary based on the gravity the role carries—vetting the right c-suite or VP-level candidate can involve dozens of interviews and take months or upwards of a year to decide on.


For a while, I wondered what the perfect number of interviews were across the board was? Were we losing out on great candidates because of asking too much of them in the interview process? After researching a bit, I came across Jill Stillman’s (Inc.) conclusion in an article on The Muse:

“A single interviewer hired the wrong candidate 16% of the time. Make that three interviewers, and the wrong person gets selected in just 6% of cases. If it’s five people reviewing an application, it’s down to a minuscule 1% error rate.”


The takeaway? Get multiple opinions, especially from those that will work directly with this role. As the hiring manager, you can handle the screening and typically gage whether or not someone will fit the culture and have relatively appropriate experience and knowledge, but the decision shouldn’t be based on that alone.


Don’t overlook that screening interview, though! Have your list of specialized things to look out for with each role, and don’t pass along someone you’re lukewarm about. Instead, always keep the mentality that your reputation is at stake with each candidate you send through to the next round.

 

How Startup Hiring Managers Can Define Indicators for Success

Tracking your process is key. Build a recruiting dashboard that shows progress on hiring for each role and is updated weekly. If you’re using a recruiting platform (we’ve used Workable and Greenhouse), it should be easy to put together.


A few metrics I recommend keeping track of:

  • How long it takes to fill a position (time to fill):

By tracking progress from day one, we were able to build our own a formula that tells us how many hires we could make six weeks out based on the historical trends.

  • Employee retention or turnover rate:

We track employee happiness and retention always, that data and feedback from current staff are very helpful in future recruiting.  

  • Candidate experience:

Similarly, we do what we can to ensure a positive interview experience and keep our finger on the pulse of what candidates are feeling as they move through the process.


Your candidate process is something you should always be improving and refining. You want every candidate to have a good experience no matter the outcome. This is your duty to your startup. It’s likely your brand and reputation are still in development. Even if a candidate isn’t a great fit, you want them to come away still thinking your company would be a great place to work and even spark an interest in your offering. If you can do that, the entire organization will benefit from a growing audience of brand advocates (and you’ll maintain a larger talent pool for future hires or referrals).

 

Using feedback (in its rawest form) to refine:

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions, and the sooner companies embrace candid feedback from employees and candidates, the faster [they'll] earn their trust and support."
—Brian Halligan, HubSpot

As I previously touched on, the biggest hiring mistake I’ve made so far with inDinero was failing to think about the long-term fit and instead looking to hire someone that is right for right now. I know I’m not alone, and ultimately mistakes like that are irreversible. But honestly, with a history working at more established companies, I have to say that startups are much better at identifying the bad fits and cutting the fat. This is pretty intuitive, it’s a lot easier to sneak by in the bureaucracy at a larger corporation than it is when you share an office  


But startups shouldn’t ignore the tried and true system used by many enterprises known as the exit interview. While these meetings can be painful, they are absolutely crucial for avoiding repeating mistakes. Even when individuals aren’t necessarily completely honest or forthcoming with their answers, asking strategic questions will help you start to understand why the individuals you once considered good fits are leaving.


Aside from the obvious what did you like/dislike, why are you leaving, how can we improve, here are a few questions you can ask during exit interviews that might tell you more about how you can improve:

  • What did you wish you knew before accepting your role here?
  • Were you comfortable talking to your manager about work problems?
  • Did you feel that the work you were doing aligned with your personal goals and interests?
  • If you had a friend looking for a job, would you recommend us?

From there, bring this to your leadership team and the individual’s team leader to review and discuss improvements.

 

Don’t Get Complacent: Growing Doesn’t Mean Settling

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As your company expands, you may find yourself with more resources and hopefully a bigger, well-deserved budget, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to get stuck in your ways. If you’re in a fast-paced growth mode, changes that need to happen, need to happen quickly.


As inDinero gets bigger, we face new challenges and anticipation becomes important, but having startup roots means you still need to maintain an ability to pivot. While this isn’t something every company looks for, it is one thing that makes hiring fun and challenging at a startup!


In this case, your biggest asset as a recruiter is the fact that you’ve met with almost everyone. If for some reason you weren’t their first impression, you were the one who reviewed their resume or interview packet/responses. You have to constantly be assessing your current staff, know their strengths and then look for talent that has other strengths and will compliment your current staff.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw out a shameless plug to anyone who has read through this entire article: inDinero is hiring! So, check out our open positions and read more about our company culture on our careers page and shoot us an email at jobs@indinero.com if you’re looking for your next big professional adventure.


Download The Entreocracy Manifesto by Jessica Mah, CEO of inDinero
About the author
“Sarah

Sarah Olbekson

Sarah Olbekson is the Talent Acquisition Manager at inDinero. Sarah is passionate about building the most enthusiastic, diverse, and talented team in Portland.


Disclaimer: The inDinero blog provides general information about tax, accounting, and business-related topics. It is not intended to provide professional advice. Read more in our Terms of Use.