How to build a startup team from scratch – advice from an experienced HR manager

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Are you hiring new people and thinking of employing an HR specialist on full-time? According to one of the most experienced Czech HR managers Rostya Gordon-Smith, you should only consider this in case your company has around 100 employees. Until you reach this point, focus on other priorities.

I have a brilliant startup idea, but I need to find a business partner. What type of person should I look for?

At first, I would think twice if I really needed a business partner. I have often seen that people, especially women, were afraid to do business on their own, they found a business partner, but it didn’t work out well. However, if you are 100% sure that you need one, you should look for someone who complements you. If you are a visionary, hire someone who will make sure that things are getting done. And also, make sure that the other person shares your company vision and has same expectations.

Why are same expectations so important?

For if each of you has different goals, sooner or later, you’ll get into trouble. I’ve seen a company that was co-founded by two people out of which the first one wanted to build a huge company and then sell it, whereas the second one wanted to give the company to its children. Since they didn’t make it clear in the beginning, later they got into a conflict. That’s why I think it’s essential to agree on a few key points – where the company is heading, how the business will evolve and what will be necessary for the idea to be implemented.

Where would you try to find a person who both complements you and has the same goals?

I’d search among people that I know well and trust. That is in my family, my network and among my colleagues. I’d even go to a business conference or a meetup to meet similarly-minded people. However, visionaries are usually afraid that once they share their idea, someone will steal it, which is true.

Do you want to find a great business partner? Get inspired from our interview with Huntergames.

Let’s say that I’ve already found a great business partner and we’ve been working on the project for a couple of months now. We are thinking of hiring new people. How would you proceed?

I’d first determine who I really needed to hire – it’s usually a COO, a marketing and finance experts – and then decide whether I’ll need to hire the person on full-time, part-time or as a contractor.

If I decided that I wanted to hire someone on full-time, what should I require from them during the job interview?

I’d look for people who’ll fit in the team, who’ll contribute with something, who’ll cooperate with others and who like the culture and vibe of startups. Working in a startup is difficult; it requires enthusiasm and it’s usually not well-paid. On the other side, one has the chance to work on something meaningful. People who look for certainty won’t feel well in a startup. I’d recommend to do psychological tests and not rely on what people tell during the job interview. I personally care for character more than for qualification.

Is it good to hire young people or people of different ages?

The ideal state is having a mixed team of young and old employees; however, it usually doesn’t work or at least not for a long time. My son, who owns a startup called Agritecture, hired a lady who used to work in the public sector in New York and who has a great network. She has a family, works part-time from home and only comes to the office once a week. On one side, the cooperation works well because she brings in important contacts, but on the other side, when she is with younger people, she tends to say that this and that won’t work. If you do, however, manage to find someone senior, who is energetic, willing to experiment and is financially independent, you’d better hire them. For example, I wouldn’t hesitate hiring women after maternity leave who were active, learned new things and developed themselves.

What if I don’t have enough money, but I still need help from experts?

In that case you should find an active investor who’ll also be your mentor and who’ll connect you with his own network. What also works is having a network of subject-matter experts whom you’ll pay a monthly rate and come to them for help if you’re in trouble. You can also hire freelancers. The only problem with them is that they learn your know-how and can disclose it in the market. That’s why you need to be careful what type of work you give them and you should always sign a contract with them regarding intellectual property.

Why it is important to have a good network and how to ensure legally that your intellectual property stays in your company is what you will learn from an interview with Přemysl Líbal.

Who should be responsible for recruitment in a startup?

It’s usually founders who hire new people. They might not be qualified for the job, but they have a company vision and thus a strong gut feeling as for what type of people they want to work with. However, I believe that the whole team should take part in the process as they’ll be eventually the ones who’ll work with the new person.

In what phase should startups hire an HR specialist?

Hiring someone on full-time will only pay off when the company has around 100 employees. Until then it’s not bad when you don’t need one because managers take care of their employees and of hiring new employees themselves. This creates a culture of responsibility of leaders. Until the company grows bigger, it’s highly sufficient to have an HR specialist who’ll come to the company once a week and do what’s necessary. Ideally startups should have two types of HR specialists –  a hard and soft one. The hard ones are people who ensure that from a legal standpoint everything is alright, including contracts, trainings, medical checkups, and registration of foreigners, etc. Soft HR are people who train founders in leadership skills and strategy.

We’re talking about must-haves of employees and contractors, but what should be the company founders like?

Well, every good founder should work on their leadership skills. He/she should learn how to give feedback, delegate work and encourage employees. And most importantly he/she should be consistent so that people know what they can expect from him/her. The worst type of leaders are those who are friends with you one day and then don’t talk to you the next day.

How can founders develop their leadership skills?

They should first measure their leadership profile. That’s what the company QED GROUP, which examines how you behave in different situations, does. This test measures your ability to lead people in various situations. After you go through the test, I’d recommend you find a coach or a mentor who you’ll consult regularly.  

Is it possible to learn leadership skills in workshops or seminars?

When I say that the most effective trainings take place inside the company, I speak against myself, but I really think it’s much better to invite someone for two hours to show you how to communicate well than learn theory. That’s true for founders as well as employees. If employees need to learn hard skills, you can also have someone come and do an internal workshop. As for soft skills, you can best learn them when you give each other feedback. What works well is meeting your co-workers every week and talking about what worked and what didn’t.

Giving feedback is a very delicate issue. Can you explain what a good feedback should be like?

A good feedback is when you say: “When we were at the client’s place last Friday, I really liked how you showed your knowledge and how you reacted promptly. What I’d like that you don’t do next time is interrupt me while I’m speaking. Let’s discuss who will say what and when.” The word “but” or the fact that the person did everything wrong should never be mentioned in a feedback.

On the contrary I heard that feedback should be like a sandwich – praise, constructive criticism and praise. What do you think about that?

Somebody wrote a book about sandwich feedback and suddenly everybody started using it. That person made a lot of money, but it’s the biggest nonsense that I’ve heard because there is the word “but”. “Jim, you can pitch really well, but your rhetoric isn’t perfect. But you’re really good, so you’ll improve.” That’s not feedback. It’s much better to say, “Jim, you can write well. I really like your style. I’d just wish that you wrote shorter articles.” And you should also add, “What can I do for you to succeed?”

When young people start business, they don’t have much experience and that’s why they try to find expertise in various business books. How can you say which books are good and which are complete nonsense?

When I see how much gets written about communication, strategy and HR, I always remember about what my grandfather and grandmother, who owned a fashion parlor, used to say. “Fashion is like a barrel into which people stuck things. When it gets full, it is turned upside down and people start pulling things from it again.” People who write books about leadership need to make money, like each one of us. Therefore, whenever a new, seemingly interesting, book, appears, I read it and think critically about whether it’s relevant for me, my industry and my organization.

Rostya Gordon-Smith is a Czech entrepreneur. For the past 20 years she’s been dedicated to management and development of organizations, people and teams. Throughout her career she’s held top positions in multinational corporations and travelled the world. In 2001, she ranked among 50 best HR managers in the world and in 2006, she was selected one of the 20 most influential Czech women. She founded a consulting company People Impact and a movement Minerva 21, which supports education, club activities, mentoring and networking – Exchange4U –across the whole country. Rostya is married, has 4 children and 11 grandchildren.