Rapid growth can be great for your balance sheet... but terrible for your company's culture.
The following is from Amit Sharma, the founder and CEO of Narvar, a retail tech startup. Prior to founding Narvar he held executive roles at Walmart and Apple -- so yeah, he knows a little about the ins and outs of company culture.
As a scrappy start up in a new and rapidly-evolving space, I found myself with a (great) problem, one many successful startup founders face.
One burning question would determine our future success: How could we grow the talent at a company of between 35 and 40 employees, headed by a team with lots of entrepreneurial spirit, while not making serious hiring mistakes along the way?
Fortunately, we have a commitment to execution and a desire to protect what makes our company a great place to work . As a result, Narvar has experienced significant growth in the last twelve months, tripling revenue and adding more than 100 new customers. And having grown our business in North America, we recently expanded our sights with the acquisition of India-based GoPigeon.
We've learned a tremendous amount along the way about how to grow quickly in a competitive industry while still staying true to the culture and values of our company.
The following are lessons we experienced on the roads towards scaling and growth -- which I hope can also help guide you on your journey towards hiring success.
1. Begin with some soul-searching.
Every startup will hit an inflection point where you realize purely organic culture does not scale as easily as the rest of the organization. Often, leadership teams don't put much thought into how the company scales and grows in line with its core cultural values.
We knew we had to be able to articulate that in order to succeed. Over the course of two months it became clear that we define ourselves as a group of really humble people -- which became the core value "Be Humble."
We also knew we are collaborative folks who may win together... but may also fail together. But what we always strive for is embodied in our second value: "Do Great Things Together."
Next, as Narvar was in a space that was not yet well-defined, we knew it was hard to predict what would happen next in the industry. We needed to be really open to change and innovation.
For example, we worked on a chatbot integrated with Facebook Messenger within mere weeks of Facebook opening the API. We could never have considered that a possibility when the company was first founded. We call this value "Embracing Ambiguity."
Lastly, we added an aspirational value that we call "Take Smart Leaps." We don't want to shy away from experimenting -- we want to empower people to innovate and help us stay on the cutting edge in our space.
2. Rebuild and define with core values in mind.
As Narvar grew from 35 employees in mid-2016 to nearly 100 in 2017, we knew we couldn't just keep hiring -- we needed to understand what did and did not work within the context of the core values we had defined.
Many startups, for example, hire people early on who are not quite right. We did have to make some difficult decisions and part ways with certain people so we could define what we were looking for and start rebuilding.
It took some time, but it paid dividends as we focused on whether potential employees fit our culture and values.
There have certainly been challenges along the way. For one, we were not a long-established brand, so a high-touch, educational approach to candidates has been necessary, especially in key roles where the candidate did not necessarily know who we are.
But the fact that we remain lean works in our favor, giving us room for opportunistic hires. Our VCs, board members and friends of Narvar keep an eye out for talented recruits.
Also, we have a lot of folks who have worked in other growing startups -- some of which have not scaled well -- so we can collectively learn from everyone's experience.
3. Slow things down.
Around four to five months ago we weren't sure what the right fit would be for our product management teams. There were definitely disagreements about which direction to go in with our hiring and team structure -- the engineering team, the product team and the executive leadership had strong opinions that were not in sync.
So we slowed things down. We began a process of careful analysis and discussion, incorporating post-interview debriefs with different groups. We began each session with an open mind to ensure their opinions were given room to be understood by the different internal segments.
The engineering team, for instance, really wanted product management candidates to complete technical take-home tasks. Others, however, did not agree with approach.
Ultimately, we decided to assess thought processes on-site with scenarios and case studies. By working slowly to understand different points of view, and with a lot of patience, over the next two to three months we got the hires we wanted.
4. Look for cues about the culture fit.
Of course there is no way to 100 percent guarantee that a new employee will fit into your company's culture.
But, you can get a lot of signals throughout the interview process. This includes interactions between the candidate and whomever coordinates and with them, such as the office manager who receives them or the CEO's assistant who sets up a meeting. You can look for for cues in those interactions, including how they treat people when they are in your office.
Also look at at past experiences, and environments they have worked in. Or try to glean information from outside the interview room, including casual lunches and chats.
5. Grow fast, but don't settle.
When you're in a competitive space, you regularly rate yourself against competition that seeks employees from the same talent pool.
While a good benefits package is needed, your main offerings can be the culture and the stability of your workplace. In the current market, we've seen many other companies announce layoffs or find their funding isn't sound. To counter this, make candidates aware of validators of your stability, such as the company's steady revenue stream or its pragmatic VCs.
The bottom line is that when a company is growing so fast, engineering teams and executives are under pressure to bring in new resources. There is always the tendency for hiring managers to take in people that appear sufficient technically but may not be a good team fit.
At Narvar, we understand that sometimes you have to say no to compromise. We don't want to settle.
Communication of core values is key
Many startups struggle with issues like communication and transparency because everyone is so busy doing their jobs.
But a strong focus on streamlining communication - particularly on a company's core values - is essential. Place culture and values at the center of the hiring assessment methodology, and everything else will flow from that.