I wanted my second post to be about People. This is a topic close to my heart as I feel it really makes or breaks startups. A company can pivot its ideas, raise more funding, even change its CEO, but what is downright impossible to do is to overhaul the entire Team. And as a result, hiring right from the start is extremely important. While every company has its own issues in building up the right team, I feel there are a few problems specific to Asia.
Asia usually sees first time entrepreneurs. We are a young population, and the founders tend to be relatively inexperienced compared to their global counterparts. When the founders try to hire experienced folks, its difficult to build trust and confidence on both sides. Another common trait I have seen, even in some of our own portfolio founders, is the tendency to go frugal when thinking about employee salaries. Building a strong team is the top priority at an early stage venture and I encourage my portfolio founders to spend on hiring the right talent.
As the founders tend to be new to building teams, the hiring prospects are also unlikely to come from startup backgrounds, especially at the senior management levels, because of the simple reason that there are not enough late stage startups in this region to create a good talent supply. The pace, nimbleness, and freedom in a startup is likely new to these experienced hands and requires some adjustments. The work in itself, including the customers, sales techniques, marketing channels, etc are all very different from whatever they have been used to in their previous jobs.
Imagine a person working in a corporate setting, getting a fat pay cheque for a stable job, working in a “corner office” overlooking the Marina Bay. Great benefits included. It is very difficult for a startup to switch them away from their cushy jobs. Startups are getting “sexier” by the day, but I know most of my business school batch-mates from Singapore still prefer a stable corporate role rather than a challenging startup role.
In such a case, what can you as a founder do to hire right? While I am not an HR manager, here are some soft skills and a short list of hacks you can use, compiled from my own experience of hiring for my startup as well as watching our portfolio companies execute every day.
- Be passionate — Your passion should cover for the years of experience you might be lacking. If you have been living and breathing the problem you are trying to solve every day for even a year, you’ll definitely come out confident when hiring that key personnel who’ll make your company shine.
- Onboard better — This will help your new employee gain understanding of the business. For the key senior hires, spend time with them personally to make sure they inculcate the same values that you have towards your customers and your company. For the junior hires, ensure that the senior management has a good on-boarding playbook to run by.
- Focus on Growth — Most employees in a startup have their personal growths as the biggest motivation for going through the daily grind. Sell this growth to them. While having the interviews, understand what is their career vision and align their role within the company accordingly. Set their career path in front of their eyes and touch base on it regularly through 1:1 meetings.
Now for the Hacks.
- ESOP — This is an easy one which every good founder already knows about. Offer senior employees stock options, and not only does it give them a high-risk-high-return option, but also makes sure they have their skin in the game and are incentivised by the growth of the company. The biggest mistake I made when hiring for my own startup was to be stingy with the ESOPs, I could have done a much better job here.
- PR boosts Hiring — That latest funding announcement you need to make? The panel you are about to sit on? The AMA on Tech In Asia? Make sure you sync all of these PR spikes for your company with your hiring activity. Include open position links in all your articles, talk about job openings shamelessly in events when sitting on the panel, and always have updated LinkedIn company profiles.
- Events — This is something a portfolio company of ours did very well in Singapore and I speak from their experience. Attend niche events in sectors such as tech, marketing, sales, etc that are happening in your region. It doesn’t need to be even about startups. Hang out and network pre or post event and spend time talking to people about what you do. You might just be able to find the right person who will be as excited about your business as you are.
Keep this in mind as you go about building your companies and even when pitching to investors. I definitely look for signs and hints of these skills and abilities when entrepreneurs pitch to me, and I am sure so do all other investors.