Like many entrepreneurs, Nicole Sahin, the founder and CEO of Globalization Partners, says that she saw a huge opportunity when she started her company. But she still wasn't prepared for the super-fast growth that hit her Boston-based global professional employer organization (PEO) just a few years after launch.
While a big part of Globalization Partners' mission is to help companies grow faster by speeding up the hiring and onboarding process for international hires, Sahin discovered she couldn't hire fast enough, either. Here's what she's learned about getting the right people on her team sooner rather than later, and why, as she now puts it, "You always need more people than you think."
A Small Team Is Efficient, But Full of Risk
In 2014, after about two years in business, Sahin hired her first employee. By 2015, Globalization Partners had three employees, and one of them was about to go on maternity leave. "When one person does everything it's really easy to keep things organized," says Sahin. "It feels really efficient, but it's not scalable."
Sahin hired someone to fill in, but the new person quickly left, saying Sahin was asking her to do the work of three people. Sahin realized she was right: Her pregnant employee was working 50-60 hours a week, but the company was growing fast. The job needed to be split in two right away, but before her pregnant employee returned from leave, the job would be big enough for three.
By then, it was April, and the baby was due in May. "We had one month to get three people on board and trained," says Sahin. "I can't even tell you the stress and anxiety."
She found three new hires, and then Sahin, the mother-to-be, and another employee met the newcomers in San Diego to train them. At the end of the training, "We were jumping up and down on the beach saying, 'We did it!'" says Sahin. "And then I'm like, 'You're eight-and-a-half months pregnant, stop jumping!'"
When Growth Hits, Triple the Size of Your Staff. At Least.
In 2015, after three years, Globalization Partners had $17.7 million in sales--and it still had only seven employees. That may sound lean and mean, but in truth, Sahin was barely holding it together, relying on everyone to work long hours and cover too many job functions.
"I should have realized sooner that if my company was that profitable, that quickly, I needed to invest sooner," she says now.
To scale, Sahin knew she needed better information technology, but wasn't sure she could build it fast enough. She knew she needed more employees, but not how many or which skills they needed. In 2016, worried that her customer service or IT would falter, she asked her sales team to stop selling for six weeks. Despite the pause, Globalization Partners brought in $40 million that year, enough to land the company at number six on last year's Inc 5000.
The number one thing Sahin says she's learned about growth is that "you need more people than you think. You go from having six or seven people, where each runs a department, to where you actually need 30 to 35 people to run the company," she says. "There's not enough time to split those six jobs into different roles, and you've got the same six people trying to do everything and manage and train people." Her team now includes 36 people, giving her some leeway. She says the company's net promoter score is 92.
Find the Senior Person Who Can Buckle Down
Sahin recalls that building out her finance team was especially vexing. Her advisors told her she needed to hire a controller. "We had one person doing all our bookkeeping, all our billing, and she was great at it," says Sahin. She hired a controller, who had a reaction that Sahin had seen before. "They walked in the door and were overwhelmed," says Sahin.
The next replacement fared similarly. Sahin thinks the problem was that senior people, especially from big companies, aren't used to doing what she calls the "nitty-gritty" work. Plus, as tempting as it is to look at a former CFO's experience and figure he or she can fix things at your company, in reality, "most people don't want to work backward," says Sahin.
Sahin ended up hiring an accountant with international experience, just to get through the day-to-day. Someone to handle billing was next. Eventually, Sahin found a person with a controller background to come in on an hourly basis, and she eventually grew into the controller role.
Now Sahin says she really looks for candidates that have worked at startups. At big companies, she says, people have checklists (even just mental checklists), and if they check the boxes, they've done their jobs. At a startup, she says, you might have a list, but it's going to change three times before noon.
Try Before You Buy
Sahin says she had been so desperate to get the high-level finance position filled that she says she ignored her intuition, which was telling her that maybe neither of these people would be a great fit. Neither of the job candidates were working when they interviewed with Globalization Partners; in retrospect, she thinks either of them might have taken hourly work as a consultant rather than a full-time gig. That that might have worked out better. Says Sahin: "At a startup, everyone has to be an entrepreneur, even the accountants."