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The 8 biggest staffing worries keeping start-up CEOs awake at night

Be it hiring, firing, managing or training, there’s a lot more to building a strong start-up team than you may think - as these successful founders divulge…

As the saying goes ‘No [wo]man is an island’ and the same applies to start-up founders; the team you build around you will influence the chances of your business succeeding.

However, the process of attracting, maintaining, and developing talent can be a challenge.

In a survey by Startups.co.uk and business broadband and phone provider Plusnet of some 850 start-up and small business owners, 18% said they were plagued by staff worries and were especially concerned about losing good people.

An additional 14% admitted to not feeling like “a good enough” leader for their team.

These thoughts were echoed in a lunchtime discussion we held to support the Plusnet Pioneers programme where entrepreneurs behind nine successful UK start-ups openly and honestly shared their biggest staffing issues and what those issues have taught them.

1. Hiring

Gem Misa, Cauli Rice:

“We still haven’t got over the hurdle of hiring. We’re very nervous. The weight of responsibility of a permanent salary is really daunting for me because we are still a very new business and still growing.

“My husband and I are co-founders in the business and the two of us use an outsourcing model (which we oversee and manage). We have key roles that we outsource to trusted partners in: financials, logistics, and sales. We try to run these as tight teams that we have weekly updates with and aggressive targets to reach. On the plus side, performance is always at the forefront of these partnerships, and if the teams don’t perform they get dropped. The flexibility also of not having these teams as part of our fixed overheads helps keep a start-up like ours lean and nimble on our feet. One negative some people might see in this model is that outsourced teams are not as cohesive as having a single team under one roof.

“[Outsourcing] does work cost-wise and it has a lot of flexibility which I like but I don’t know if it’s the right way to go when everyone else has teams. We do feel like we should expand our team and I think what we’re waiting for – we’ve just launched with a big retailer in the States – is to know if our team should specialise in being a marketing team that manages UK and US or should we just focus on an operational team in the UK?”

Nelson Sivalingam, Hownow/Wonderush:

“I think hiring and managing people is easily the hardest thing and I think, in hindsight, I would keep the team as small as possible for as long as I can. The more people you get, the more you find yourself in a managerial role.

“When I’m in the office I spend most of my time responding to questions that I’m being asked by the team. It’s only when I’m sat at home that I do my own work and so that becomes really difficult.”

2. Leadership

Luke Barlow, Netduma:

“What worries me is management. Every person that works for us is different and prefers a different management style – what works for one doesn’t work for the other. My background is in head office retail and there it’s very driven but now we’re in the start-up world you have to get a different mix of people in.

“One of the biggest challenges I’m facing comes down to being a leader; are you a hands-on leader or do you just let your team crack on with what they do?”

Andy Logan, Vape Emporium:

“I’ve had management people who are the wrong person, the wrong fit. I think the most important thing with recruiting for me is to get the top guy right. He or she has got to be switched on enough, right for the business and right for the team and then they’ll take the work of your shoulders.

“If you’ve got a good guy who’s heading up that area or that team, then you can leave it to them, right?”

3. Communication and collaboration

Barlow:

I think every mistake in our HR admin part of the business has been communication. We started remotely and used Skype to talk to staff and that made it difficult, once we moved into our own office it was like a lightbulb moment.

“We’ve cracked it [team communication] now I think. Every morning we have a wall with loads of post-it notes and tasks and they can be taken down when they’re completed or deferred. Just simple things like that work so everyone knows what everyone else is working on and there can be cross-overs so one [member of the team] can say to the other ‘I think I can help you with that’.”

Tushar Agarwal, Hubble:

“Trello is the same idea as the post-it notes but virtually, you can allocate all the jobs that need to be done. It’s really intuitive; you can assign tasks.”

 

 

 

Pip Murray, Pip & Nut:

“We use Asana for project management but these things only work if everyone is [using the tool]. You have to get the whole team to use it and tell them they have to use it, otherwise it’s an annoying additional communication tool.

 

 

Agarwal:

“One of the biggest problems we had was the lack of communication between different departments. Myself and my co-founder were one the ones trying to do this communication between the teams and it just wasn’t working.

“Just before Christmas we brought in this initiative called ‘Extreme Empowerment” so we’ve actually created multi-disciplinary teams each with the name of that specific metric we want to hit and the teams will determine how they’re going to achieve those targets and KPIs.

“The immediate thing I saw last week was just the conversations happening between our developers and our sales team. They sit in the same office and knew each other vaguely but never really talked to each other and now the two guys are like ‘Hey, how do you do that repetitive task every day? I can create you something in a few minutes that will have that sorted’.”

4. Training and mentoring

Murray:

“A lot of the time I don’t have the answers, so I think as a founder there’s quite a lot of pressure to make sure that your team is growing – they need to learn and grow themselves.

“We don’t necessarily have huge budgets for training, or to hire above like director level. I think one of the hardest things for young people in my team is that they’re relatively inexperienced and they don’t have people above to learn from necessarily. One of my team objectives is for them to go out and meet other people in their industry, say one or two people every six months and try and build up their network of people.

“That’s how I learn – by meeting other founders and getting one or two key bits of advice from those meetings.”

5. Keeping staff motivated

Mike Bandar, Turn Partners:

“What really keeps me up at night is, firstly, are we challenging our guys enough? If we get generalists that are amazing and entrepreneurial, is the business growing enough for them?

“When the business is growing, can I find the right position for them?”

 

 

Logan:

“It’s finding out about your employee once you’ve employed them and trying to channel their skillsets. I’ve found that you hire someone for one specific role and you get to know them and they have a load of skillsets and hobbies. I then need to reallocate them and give them a chance to give back to the business by doing something they enjoy. It’s a win/win really.”

 

Bandar:

It’s hard to fill everyone’s hobbies! I sit down with the team every Friday and we look at what’s happened this week, what’s happening next week and everyone finishes with ‘Why am I coming in next week?’. That has always worked well for us in terms of building relationships and supporting people.

“We use those conversations to anchor the ‘How can we better utilise you?’ discussion”

 

6. Maintaining company culture as the business grows

Murray:

“I’ve found that the [biggest start-up] challenge is that in the first couple of years you hire relatively junior people as that’s all you can afford. We’ve got some relatively inexperienced people to manage a large retail account but when do you train them or when do you bring someone in to work above them?

“How does that change company culture? If someone has been there from day one and built your business with you, you’re demoting them.”

Agarwal:

We’ve just done that and we found the same problem. We’ve just taken on two or three people who had several years more experience than my co-founder and I and we’re hiring above staff that have been with us since the start.

“The way that we communicated this was that these are teammates with vast experience to learn from, because even us as founders we’re going to learn from them, as they are the experts. [We told our team] that they will help you grow professionally, and actually they’re better at training you then we are because they’ve seen it all before at another company, and we’re first time founders.”

7. Raising issues with staff

Sivalingam:

“When you’re in a small team, how do you find that balance between being someone’s buddy and – when you need to review performance – putting them in their place or motivating them? I find it a difficult one.

“I spend more time with these guys [my employees] then I do with my family and friends outside of work, so I don’t want to spend most of my life with people I feel restricted around. I want to have that relationship and also remember that we’re here to run a business and hit key metrics.

“For me, it’s the question of how much of it is my fault? The fact an [employee has] missed their metrics, how much am I to blame for this? How can I be angry at you when I’m not able to figure it ? It’s quite easy for [an employee] to ask you ‘Okay I didn’t hit the metric so what do you suggest I do’ and then I’ll be like ‘I don’t know, I hired you to tell me that!”

Bandar:

“I have Friday chats and it’s more like a signposting that we’re going to talk about this. If you have key times set in stone and objectives, then you can’t be subjective about it. You can’t be personal.

“If you’ve got a sales guy and they haven’t made their sales targets for the last three months, you can be like ‘Dude, what’s going on?’ It’s a process of how we can do it together.”

 

Murray:

“Sales teams are the hardest because sometimes they don’t win that account and there’s 101 excuses that they can give as to why they didn’t hit their metric. Arguably were their metrics too high in the first place? We’ve worked on the metrics together and I think it’s that age-old thing that you’ve created it together but actually you’ve got no idea either.”

 

 

Agarwal:

There’s a management philosophy going around called radical candour; being really direct with people and using that to get more efficiency from the start. When that’s read correctly I think that means not beating about the bush but I think it only works if the person you’re talking to believes you care about them, personally and professionally.

“I’m not going to say I’m best friends with everyone in my company but for many that have been there since the start I’ve got the ability to be more direct about what I think is going wrong and them really appreciating that and it’s really worked. However, it’s really hard and I’m still trying to find the balance.”

Daniel van Binsbergen, Lexoo:

“Like Mike, I’ve started doing these 30 minute Friday meetings which takes half a day out of my time. It’s a big investment but before we would just have this communal monthly meeting where, when the subject was something that if other employees didn’t care about, they just wouldn’t pay attention.

“I thought I’d invest more of my time and know exactly what everyone is working on. I agree their priority list for the next week – especially for the younger people in my team – then I go through their to-do list for the following week so that they know exactly what’s going to happen on Monday. Everyone creates one slide of what they’ve done this week and what they’re going to achieve next week.

“If you need to correct, then it’s much more viable in an environment like that then what I used to do in a communal meeting when I’d be like ‘Oh you know what, I don’t think that’s right’ because that makes people feel bad.”

8. Job roles

Sivalingam:

“In a small team – I think there’s a tipping point of about 15 people – job titles are restrictive.

“Say you’ve got a team of less than 10 people and someone on your team says they will only do one thing, well that’s not going to work. We’ve got to spread our resources and do as much as possible.

“We see ourselves as a group of capable people who have come together to achieve ‘x’, and so if you can bring ‘x’ y’ ‘z’ to the table then bring that to the table. People have a lot more to offer; by giving them a job title and saying ‘this is your job description’ you’re actually restricting them.”

Views were expressed at a roundtable discussion held as part of the Plusnet Pioneers programme, a stimulating series of events, content, and mentoring created by business broadband provider Plusnet to help small businesses looking to grow. To find out more about Plusnet Pioneers and to book a free place at one of our exclusive events, go to www.startups.co.uk/plusnet-pioneers

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