Street Culture: HR Strategies for Startups

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She says it all the time: Hiring isn’t rocket science.

Actually, it’s pretty simple to create basic procedures that turn hiring into a standard company practice. Cat Hernandez, talent partner at investment firm Primary Venture Partners, said it starts with making sure that everyone in the company — everyone — is closely aligned with whatever the company is trying to achieve. Identifying those goals and communicating them sometimes takes more time and effort, but it’s essential to many other aspects of company operations and culture.

“My advice is to spend time on that foundational talent infrastructure before you start hiring 10 million people,” Hernandez said. “It’s really easy to dismiss that step when the business puts on pressure, but the initial investment can only help things that matter down the line like time to hire, candidate quality, and offer acceptance metrics.”

Primary is the leading investor for the New York City-based real estate company TheSquareFoot, which helps businesses find local office space via its SaaS technology. Primary knows that supporting startups as they build initial teams will improve their long-term success. Hernandez helps TheSquareFoot hire the right people, forecast for needs, and build great company culture.

“For a company of fewer than 15 employees, it’s always going to be a balance between seniority and an ‘in-the-weeds’-type of person with domain expertise,” she said. “It’s sometimes hard to find the right balance. For example, if you’re hiring for a head of marketing who can be strategic, but also run campaigns, write content, and manage Marketo early on, that’s certainly more specific. But the need for that type of person isn’t unique to the TheSquareFoot; the same goes for a lot of startups.”

A process and infrastructure will help find that balance. Hiring managers should create feedback forms, make sure interviewers are trained, and provide timing guides to help those involved with the hiring process have more meaningful conversations with candidates.

“I spent the first couple weeks at Primary getting to know the portfolio companies well, especially those I’m working closely with,” Hernandez said. “The key to success is continuing to build a strong, standardized framework that works for a larger subset of our investments. It’s everything from creating templates for job descriptions, sample hiring guides, etc. We have 20-plus companies in our portfolio and that number will only continue to grow, so this initial work is important for future success.”

For small companies that are always fine-tuning their products and still assigning responsibilities, the human resources department isn’t always a priority. Michael Mire, CRO and co-founder of local search optimization software company SweetIQ, said that when he was starting out, there were just too many different moving parts: figuring out standard pay grades, policies, procedures, codes of conduct, vacation guidelines, and everything else.

“HR was an under-appreciated department,” Mire said. “That’s one of the things that as an entrepreneur, I didn’t give much thought to before we got to the level we’ve reached today. Overall, it makes a huge difference in the operation of the company as well as in extending the overall culture.”

As SweetIQ started adding people, the lines of communication broke down in places, and that affected hiring processes. Hernandez said it’s important to take extra time in the beginning to identify what’s needed, why it’s needed, and what skills the right person for the job should have.

“Everyone always wants to do, do, do, but if you don’t have the right structures in place, if no one’s thought about why you’re hiring​ and how that aligns with the business​, those things can get in the way of ​successfully filling a position​,” she added. “If people don’t know what they’re looking for, they often spend a lot of time interviewing the wrong kinds of candidates or being too married to their initial profile criteria. If you do a little bit of that work ahead of time, hiring actually becomes a seamless exercise.”

For Signpost, the five-year-old CRM and marketing automation software company, the process to standardize hiring is gaining momentum. This summer, Signpost hired Cassandra Pratt as its head of talent — a position that was created after the team realized they needed someone to oversee recruiting and hiring processes on multiple levels.

“The main thing I’m focusing on right now is looking at our pipeline, how we interview, how many people apply, and how many we hire, breaking those numbers down by office and then, depending on where we see variances, cleaning that up,” Pratt said. “We want to make sure that we’re targeting the right audience, that our roles are getting in front of the right people, that the best and broadest audience is seeing our jobs.”

Signpost is growing fast: This year, the company hired its 300th employee. It brought on a new vice president of finance, a senior vice president of business development for the New York office, and a new head of training. Andrea Kayal, vice president of marketing, said the company plans to double its year-over-year revenue in 2016. Signpost is currently hiring for more than a dozen positions, and Pratt’s team has already hired five people in the three weeks she has been on the job.

“One of the key tasks I’m almost done with is coming up with a funnel of what we need to start with, what will really make an impact, and then drilling down to the details,” Pratt said. “Doing a lot of iterations is helpful. Hiring has huge impact on what we do, so therefore it affects every other part of HR. We’re making sure we hire quality people who fit our culture and their role, and then once they come on board, we have a higher rate of promotions and career development for them. That’s great for retention and employee engagement.”

April Nowicki is a contributor to Street Fight.