In this guest article by Claire McGregor, co-founder of start-up, Appbot, Claire discusses her belief that it’s one thing to hire the right people, another to build a happy team.
When I was 21 someone I knew at the time once asked me “what’s the meaning of life?”. I surprised myself by answering without really thinking about it: “that depends on what makes you happy”.
I found myself pondering this offhand remark made (way too many) years ago again when Stu and I were asked to write about our company culture a few days ago. Why? Because having worked in and on so many startups in the past 8 years it seems to me there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of “great culture”.
Your company’s definition of “great culture” depends entirely on what makes you (in the plural sense) happy. Additionally, your internal definition of “great culture” will define your internal definition of “the right fit” — individuals who will slot well into your team.
Hiring individuals vs hiring team members
Immediately prior to founding Appbot with Stu I worked for a startup in the agritech space. It’s fair to say I was an awful “fit” there. I need to feel and be part of a team. I derive satisfaction and joy from defining a goal and smashing it. The defining part is important to me — I find it hard to feel ownership of other people’s goals and am most productive if I’m part of the process of figuring out what I should be working on in the context of the whole business.
The founders of this company liked to do things more or less the opposite way.
To be clear, that’s fine — it’s their business and it worked for many of their employees. One of many things I learnt through that experience was that they hired me as an individual, not as part of the team. As an individual I ticked all their boxes, since most of their boxes related to experience and not philosophy or personality. As a team member, I was like a square peg in a round hole.
Admitting that I was a horrible fit in that role and making the decision to resign was hard — I’m not someone who likes to quit. When we started Appbot I wanted to make sure no-one we hired felt that way.
Key ingredients for “great culture” IMHO
One of the things I’m most proud of about Appbot thus far is how much fun we all have. We actually prefer to work in the same physical space. I’ve worked with awesome teams a couple of times before, but even in those instances I looked forward to work-from-home days. Now I feel a bit disappointed when I wake up and realise I’m not going to the office today.
Personally, I think that 90% of “great culture” is about how the team fits together
– Claire McGregor
Personally, I think that 90% of “great culture” is about how the team fits together (I’ll cover the other 10% later). Before I share the building blocks of hiring a team member and not just an individual, as I understand them, let me share the Bot definition of great culture. It’s pretty simple:
Our team wants to build products that companies depend on to improve their apps and, therefore, their businesses… and we want to have fun doing it.
Fun is pretty vague, so let me break that down a bit:
- we have similar senses of humour
- we like food & eating (especially dessert that gets delivered by Uber)
- we have an unhealthy appreciation of gifs (like this)
- we don’t like politics
- we are transparent and inclusive
- we like to celebrate every success
So how do we find people that fit in well with us?
Hire within our network
It’s not always possible, but it’s awesome if you can do it. If someone in the team knows someone else well and loved working with them in the past, it’s likely to work out. I talked about this in depth in another post — it’s a really important one for me.
Start out with contract work
If you’re looking at hiring someone you don’t have a history with, start on contract and see how it feels. Nothing tells you what someone will be like to work with like working with them 😉
Talk openly about our financials and goals
Hiring employees who are too risk averse in the early stages is dangerous. Their natural tendency to seek security will mean they’re always outside their comfort zone. Worse, they have the potential to spread their insecurity amongst the team. Stu and I don’t try to hide it when things are tough, which is counter-intuitive, but everyone finds this motivating rather than terrifying.
When you have someone new in the team, make a conscious effort to be yourselves. See how the newcomer relates to you. Take note of whether they laugh at the same stuff, and whether they participate in the group dynamic. Be suspicious of anyone who doesn’t like dessert 😉
Get everyone’s feedback before making a hire
At the first startup I was involved with I was one of the founding hires. In the couple of years that followed the first 6 or 7 hires, myself included, were involved in the interviewing process of every new hire. At the time I couldn’t figure out why, but now I know: they were hiring team members, not individuals. This is important when the team is small, but obviously only scales so far. As you grow this will naturally become departmental, and that’s OK.
The other 10% — our version
Hiring for a good team fit is a big thing, but it’s not the only thing. Here is my list of things we’ve found valuable in building a culture that makes it more fun to come to work than stay home.
Pick up the cheque (within reason)
We may be bootstrapped, but we don’t take frugality too far. We buy everyone tasty lunches on Friday and we invest in decent equipment. We have a decent, though not decadent, workspace.
Joining gifts: enter the Cubebot
Our version of this is pretty simple. We mark the occasion by buying everyone a Cubebot when they join, in the colour of their choice. These Cubebots get up to all sorts of shenanigans, and provide a lot of chuckles. We also get everyone hoodies, and we don’t give hoodies to people outside the team (we give away t-shirts to customers and advocates instead).
Flexibility & responsibility
We don’t have a clock in/clock out mentality. We don’t care if people have breaks to deal with personal stuff during the workday, we don’t mind if someone needs to work remotely, we do whatever we can to be supportive of personal stuff like new babies, even though we don’t have a paid parental leave policy yet. As a result, everyone takes ownership of their job, and stuff gets done even if it happens in the middle of the night.
Every win counts. On the startup rollercoaster you take the high fives wherever you can get them, because something super tough is often lurking just around the corner. Celebrate big and often, even when the wins are teeny.
Good co-founder relationship
No-one likes it when their parents are fighting, right? Having an co-founder who is likeminded on culture is key. Finding the right co-founder is a topic in itself, and I wrote something about that here recently.
Get to know your team
Find out what matters to them, and their likes and dislikes. If you’re going to buy presents, make sure they’re going to be enjoyed. Work out what kind of team lunches will fly. Possibly more importantly, build trust in both directions — that makes flexiblity and transparency possible.
It’s a moving target…
Be prepared to flex a bit as people come and go. As the team changes, so must the culture.
Will these things work for your company? I honestly don’t know. Creating an environment that works as well for your company as ours does for Appbot depends completely on you and your team…
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so how do you create a culture that works for you?
About Claire McGregor
Claire is a startup doer, digital marketing ninja, growth hacker & caffeine/beach addict. She is co-founder & Success Bot at Appbot, the start-up which helps app developers create apps people love by allowing creators to visualize and then improve user sentiment.