In the first half of FY 2015, VCs invested over $3.5 billion through more than 200 deals into startups at various stages of their existence, right from Angel round to series I. A combination of global economic factors, a huge consumer base, cheap telecommunications and a rich pool of ideators and IT engineers have given a strong fillip to people to increasingly choose entrepreneurship over employment and in the process also further creating employment opportunities. As more and more nascent startups find their footing and get funding, we are seeing a frenzied pace of growth from nascent to adolescent. Not all, however, manage this growth well and we’ve seen how quite a few falter and stumble.
One can appreciate that this phase of growth is quite challenging one and among other things given the sheer pace at which this needs to be done. Getting it right then is both a science and art. It is not just about increasing headcount, it is also about building the organization, bringing in quality talent, developing a common purpose and culture, and then driving performance. We’ve been going through a similar phase having grown from a few hundred to a thousand plus, tripling our size in under one year. This article shares some of the challenges, learnings and things we are still working on and learning as we go.
Always one person short
A startup is a place where you’ll always be one person short. There are just so many things to do. Hence, functional managers typically keep requesting for additional roles and additional headcount. When business is expanding (and funded), the temptation to go out and immediately hire is immense. But we took a call to always check for alternatives first, making the hiring manager think for options such as automation, role enhancement, empowerment etc. Ensuring due thought was given to “need” of the role/headcount, we then get the hiring managers spell out the “purpose” of the role in a Job Description (JD), making them clearly articulate what is the value add that this role brings to the organization, their expectations and the kind of profile that would be able to do justice to the role. It has been found that a thorough effort at this stage has had a positive impact on hiring cycle time and results in quicker conversions. These two steps have worked to ensure that talent growth is planned and aligned to long-term vision for the organization and not under short-term workload pressures.
Hire in hurry but not in a rush
Any manager can tell the cost of delayed hiring but the cost of a bad hire is something that the entire organization feels. But when you’ve got to triple the headcount, how do you ensure that there are no short cuts on quality and yet hiring speed is maintained. We used the bootstrap mode of RPOs while we built our HR team. A key to maintaining quality was investing time and energies explaining the JD to the recruiters (in-house or consultants) in detail, to provide them clarity on aspects such as where the role sits in the organization, what would be its challenges, what makes the role exciting, or what kind of profiles would most likely be able to do justice to this role. A recruiter who has clarity of these is an effective recruiter. As we built internal team strength, we also discovered another magic key to quality and speed both – employee referrals! It has been found by experience that quality of referral hires on an average has been delightfully good. For this reason, we have designed a very lucrative referral program, along with some governance to ensure a referral is someone the team knows personally and is not just any resume being forwarded. This has helped referrals as a part of our sourcing mix to be as high as 40 percent and something we are looking to drive up further.
The first impression
Getting the impression right on the day of the joining has a direct correlation on employee tenure and to a quite an extent also on performance. Startups being a high churn industry, retaining those who join are thus crucial for growth, otherwise all you get is a leaky bucket that empties as fast it fills. That is why employee onboarding has been one area where our HR team has spent and continues to spend the most of its energies in constantly evolving the on-boarding process. Our onboarding process gets activated much before a candidate joins with multiple personal interactions on call and email before joining to the joining day where they find all the little things pre-arranged for (from laptops and tabs that are ready to go to visiting cards and work stations all setup.). Other than that, based on role and grade, customized interaction programs jointly owned by HR and business are created to ensure that the newbie gets familiar with the relevant stakeholders.
Both as a responsibility towards the employees and also as a need of the hour, it is important to ensure that we help our talent to constantly reinvent themselves. For our frontline sales, the onboarding process itself gets extended into training and certification so that our people become quickly enabled and empowered to deliver on the ground. This also allows us to then reach out to sales talent pool outside our industry thus enabling us to get the best without being constrained by industry experience. Similarly, in other functions especially in Technology where we have campus hires, they get to learn new technologies as well as get cracking on Proof of Concept projects with project mentors to coach and guide them. There’s also a culture of sharing knowledge with the seniors holding open house sessions and sharing their experiences and knowledge. Most startups give stupendous salaries, it’s not a strong differentiator anymore. The value add in terms of the skill growth has helped us to have a different conversation with our potential talent pool, one that they find holds well when they check and validate from their friends working with us.
Honest Performance Conversations
Two things that are highly espoused as part of our culture are performance and transparency. We’ve found that what employees appreciate is an honest conversation. Hence, we are building systems and processes that drive that intent. Our goal setting exercise ensures that new joiners work with their managers within the first fortnight of joining and freeze upon expectations for the year. In frontline functions like sales, that are metrics driven, updates on performance are shared with the entire sales team fortnightly. This allows the members to not only see how they are faring but also how everyone else is doing. This kind of openness helps build trust and an atmosphere of honesty and transparency and both avoids bias as well as a perceived feeling of being biased against. For those performing well they also find that the organization rewards them handsomely with an incentive scheme that gets more aggressive at higher level. The Reward and Recognition program also aids in this with our ethos of public felicitation and recognition of those who perform. Who is getting recognized and what kind of performance and behaviors are getting recognized then become a transparent message to all. We’ve extended this transparent conversation even to team members’ families in the form of commendation letters.
Each startup also has its own unique story, something that connects with both customers and employees. Through various touch points, be it our careers page, our recruiters, social media, JDs, we constantly try and engage with the talent pool to ensure that they understand and get excited about our raison d'être, the kind of people we are and the kind of environment, work and culture they can expect to find once they join in. This avoids any surprises or heartburns post joining. While some of these may sound basic but we’ve found executing them well has the most impact.