For any startup, the first priority is acquiring the business, but equally important is having a great team to support you. Back in 2011, when I set up Pink Lemonade, it was just me with a trusted team of 4-5 people. Today, we have over 200 active clients and have expanded to a team of 85+, and yes, this includes Human Resources (HR)!
So why don’t most startups have a formal HR department from the very beginning? Because at its inception, the CEO/founder steps in to do what needs to be done. In fact in the nascent stages, all strategy-level HR decisions must be taken by the founders themselves. While a recruiting consultant may be appointed to assist with the hiring, the founders conduct the required interviews. Typically, we are all playing a double role, and we are happy to — after all, it is a leader’s responsibility to build her team ground up.
When does your startup need formal HR machinery?
When a company is still small, finding good talent is a big challenge. Hiring the right kind of people who fit the environment and goals of the organization is essential — and having HR in place streamlines this process. HR professionals are trained to see potential where others might not. We have learnt over the years that hiring is not as straightforward as picking the applicant with the highest qualification. Instead, At Pink Lemonade we value passion, a positive attitude, and a desire to learn. We are more than happy to invest in training someone who has the right attitude, in order to raise their aptitude.
On a strategic level, once you see traction of about 25-50 team members, you need to start borrowing ideas and methodologies from bigger organizations. After all, if you have grown to this level, your products and services are clearly ringing in the cash and you need to concentrate on keeping the business going. Around this time, startups also invariably expand rapidly — and often, middle management doesn’t have the chance to cope with their growing roles as leaders. It also implies that it gets that much harder to percolate your vision and purpose down to the very last employee. A core team must then be developed that can carry the founder’s vision forward — and an HR department, or a people team, is an intrinsic part of this process.
At Pink Lemonade, we began formulating policies and practices right at the start. But when the team grew to 60-70, we realized the need for the organization to be agile. We were growing in terms of the brands we were working with, and constantly evolving in terms of the numbers and skill sets. We were in search of fresh, young talent, and needed to run hiring initiatives and visit colleges to scout this talent. Also, we needed to ensure our unique work culture wasn’t diluted as we faced unprecedented growth. And that’s when we formally instituted an HR team.
It’s important to note here that we could afford to wait longer than usual to institute HR — because our leadership team was deeply involved in every employees’ experience. I, for one, made an earnest attempt to connect with every employee at a personal level through one-on-one meetings and lunch sessions. These were times my team freely expressed themselves and I ensured that every grievance was addressed in the best possible way. This is naturally not possible in every kind of startup – and that’s why I believe that HR should be instituted when the team size touches 30. This is the time they need to step in while the leaders focus on business development and growth.
Going above and beyond
Startups typically go beyond the traditional and as a creative communication agency focusing on digital media, we practice what we preach — we use social media to our advantage. The process of hiring has undergone a sea change: applicants will look up your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile before they decide to interview or join.
This becomes especially important because, In the creative space, we’re all hiring from within the same talent pool. And when you’re a small company, it’s that much harder to get talent to approach you. Here, HR plays a pivotal role in developing employer branding, showcasing the company as a great place to work by making sure our digital presence is relevant and engaging. Expressing our ethos on social media is important — it’s a great way to ensure that the right kind of applicants approach us.
Culture is everything
I have been part of the corporate world and I understand why talent migrates from these companies to startups. They are probably not making the switch for better pay — they’re doing it for a change of environment, culture, and pace. And that’s why we have taken great care to establish Pink Lemonade as a culture-rich organization – where there is a lot of learning, growth, and bonhomie. We want employees to thrive, feel valued, and become an integral part of our team — which we can’t do without personalized personnel management.
And it’s precisely for this reason that we implemented a system of rewards and recognition early on so that employees know we appreciate their hard work. This includes monthly awards for top performing teams and individuals, and also spot recognition for jobs well done. Pink Lemonade also encourages rest and relaxation. Right from the beginning, we instituted ‘Pink Holidays’, where employees are selected on rotation and are encouraged to spend this day at a spa, completely sponsored by the company. That’s not all, free massages on the last Wednesday of every month, office-sponsored holidays, team dinners, and quarterly movie nights are just a few other ways in which we make sure our employees get the downtime they deserve.
HR’s role in employee development
Compensation structure, gratuity, PPF, leave policies (maternal, paternal, and bereavement), pension policies, medical insurance, among many others must be put in place at the right time. Apart from the legal implications, it’s important that the team feels valued. All of this again is something that HR must handle.
At Pink Lemonade, HR is all that and more. It’s about encouraging a way of life that prioritizes personal and professional development. We believe knowledge is meant to be shared — and to facilitate this, our HR puts together a training session every week, as part of our ‘Learning Series’. An employee from any of our teams (copy, video, design, etc.), makes a quick presentation about an interesting aspect of their field. It breaks the monotony of a work week, gives people a glimpse into another world, and a chance to come away smarter. We also give our employees an outlet to showcase their talents through hobby classes — these can be anything from makeup to guitar lessons, and we compensate those who share their skills with us.
Remember, employee experience is everything, and this should be at the core of all HR activities. Start from your organization’s first impression — do applicants have to wait long for an interview? Is the induction done on time? Preempt grievances, identify problem areas, and keep employees happy — the key to a successful startup is simple. So if you’re waiting till attrition increases and the grievances pile up, then it’s probably already too late. I personally believe that prevention is better than cure – so show your employees you care, don’t wait too long to institute a people team.