5 Things I Learned Running HR for a Tech Startup
Startups: the ideal place to land if you like kegerators, free food, and a dress code that requires no more effort than jeans and t-shirt. On the work side, agile teams, direct and constant access to leadership, and ideas that launch at the speed of light – life at a startup certainly has its perks. Startups are where dreams flourish, questioning is ideally encouraged, and more than 3 years of tenure is celebrated due to its rarity.
I’ve spent the majority of my career in organizations that may not necessarily call themselves a startup, but they certainly had startup qualities in terms of their growth stage and ability to capture market share. I loved the fast pace of these environments, as well as the ability to build and implement ideas and see quick and meaningful results. Before I gave into my entrepreneurial spirit, I was the head of HR for a tech company in Chicago. I joined a few months before we received a chunky round of VC funding, the bulk of which went to improving our technology and rapidly growing headcount.
Over the course of one year, we built out an entirely new C-level team, moved into an amazing new office, and almost tripled in size. We managed to do this fairly seamlessly, maintaining our culture and learning as we scaled. With my talent-focused colleagues on the ITA Talent Advisory Board to keep me sane, I was able to learn a ton and grow both personally and professionally. Below is a quick summary of my key learnings in hopes that I can pay it forward to others on the verge of explosive growth.  Sharing is caring, y’all.
5 Things I Learned Running HR for a Tech Startup

1. Hire leaders who have done it before

Find people who have worked in a startup environment, worked at the c-level, or worked among employees on the front line. Startups are different from the more traditional corporate world (that’s the point, right?) in just about every way. They aren’t for everybody. If your leaders are accustomed to leading a team of 50 and using an admin for everything, they are in for a rude awakening.
Startup leaders are doers and employees like the fact that they can build personal relationships with folks that have a C in their title. While it’s an interesting branding technique to say that you hired someone from XYZ billion dollar company, they may not have the right tools or desire to get their hands dirty and lead while doing.

2. Be as transparent as possible

Employees put in long hours and make many sacrifices in order to push your business forward. Be upfront and honest with them about wins, struggles, and expectations. They will surprise you with ideas and methods that you may not have considered. They have a different perspective and in many cases, chose the startup route so that their ideas can be heard. Don’t deny them that ability.

3. Get to know your employees

Listen to their ideas. Help them work through the small challenges. Ask them what they love about their job and what they would change. Sometimes culture can take a hit in light of a recent change or shift. Make sure that it doesn’t affect your retention by giving your employees a chance to vent, question, and understand.  If they feel like you truly have their back, they will weather the storm with you.

4. Not everyone is ready for constant change

Strategies shift quickly at a startup. Employees will pour their heart and soul into something that ultimately won’t make it to market. Make sure that you set up the changing culture from the start and properly praise efforts when things go south. Some folks are initially attracted to startups solely due to the employee perks. It’s up to the leaders and the recruiters to set expectations around continuous change so that they don’t hire people who crave security and who will jump ship at the first sign of high waves.

5. Have fun

Richard Branson is right, “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”
Startups can require hard work and long hours. Those long hours are partly due to the fact that people are surrounded by brilliant minds and comfy chairs. With free beer on hand, there isn’t a strong push of folks departing at 5:01. Enjoy your colleagues, celebrate your growth, and do great work together.
While my time working directly for a startup is behind me, I feel incredibly lucky that I get to help many startups do the thing that I love most: build.
Related Post: 4 Ways to Get Capital for Your New Business

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