Grow Talent; Don't Buy It
Even with significant growth, it took us nine years to hire our first senior-level person, and that turned out to be a disaster. In our tenth year, we hired our second senior-level person. So far, so good.
But in general, we’ve made a habit of developing our employees, all of whom start at $9 to $11 an hour working in our warehouse. The alternative is to hire people at $20 to $25 that already have the experience we need, but also come with bad habits and hangups.
We do this partly because we couldn’t afford it any other way, and partly because it’s so rewarding to watch a person’s skill set change over the years. We've ended up with some pretty darned loyal and dynamic employees that are doing excellent jobs at things we could never, ever have expected.
When Monika interviewed with us two years ago, she was convinced that she would be the best customer service person we’d ever had. After all, she had been working customer service phone lines at a large company for years, and was an amazing knitter (ours is a yarn shop). It was the perfect combo!
Unfortunately, neither of us had realized that working the phone lines in a cubicle at a large company would be so very, very different from answering the phone in a fast-growing, unstructured, chaotic environment like ours. The only instructions we gave her were, “Answer the phone, be nice to people, and just remember that we are always wrong and the customer is always right.”
After six months, Monika waved the white flag. She was miserable. But we didn’t want to lose her. She was a hard worker, reliable, smart, and dedicated. Plus, we really liked her. We shifted things around a bit and created a new position for her: receiving shipments and shipping out backorders.
A few months later, Doug and I decided that we wanted to sell fabric as well as yarn. We invested in some fabric inventory and Doug updated the web site, but otherwise we had no specific plans for how we’d handle this new type of business. Monika jumped in and agreed to build the business within a business. A year later, she had done an amazing job. She had created structure and process, but the fabric business was picking up and we realized that we needed our “fabric lead” to also handle customer service fabric questions. Uh oh. Now what?
Around the same time, Doug hired our first senior level programmer to help him. That’s the disaster I referred to above. So he switched gears, and decided to hire a few interns that he could train to do things his way. (Doug was a successful software architect in San Francisco, so his way is often the best way. Just don’t tell him I said that!) We hired one candidate from the local university and then asked each of our 40 employees if they had any desire to be a computer programmer. Guess who said yes? Monika, for one.
Now we have a stronger and happier development team than we could ever have imagined. The ironic part is that the intern that we hired from the university is gone. Monika’s happiness, on the other hand, is palpable. She claims that she’ll work for us for the rest of her life.
I guess this is why people create gardens. Growing your own vegetables must be so much more rewarding than buying them. I feel the same way about employees.
LAURA ZANDER is co-founder and co-owner of Jimmy Beans Wool, a market leading yarn and fabric retailer that’s earned a spot on the Inc. 5000 for the last four years in a row (and counting). She and her husband, Doug, were both dot-com software engineers in Silicon Valley before moving to the Lake Tahoe area and opening their shop in 2002.
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