Last week, one of our bigger and storied competitor approached key people in our team offering them a 30% salary increment and weighty designations. The interview of the potential recruits was planned to be conducted by the CEO. When the team circled back with this news, I was annoyed and amused at the same time. Annoyed because competition instead of trying to beat us out in the market – was taking a lame way of stealing our team. Amused because they didn’t do much research about Stylofie and its work culture – they thought that if they make a lucrative offer, our employees will cross over. Stupid thinking!
And then I thought of doing the next best thing – of sharing our secret sauce around hiring and building culture. Perhaps our competition can try ‘n replicate some of this, because even if you steal our people, how will you retain them, without our culture.
Let’s start from the beginning then. It’s almost 11 months since we got our first employee on board at Stylofie. Amongst the 3 co-founders, hiring is my primary responsibility. First off the bat, hiring is a time consuming process (almost 30% of my time goes into it), but it is one heck of an investment – with enormous payback. Culture building on the other hand is a collective responsibility and all the 3 co-founders take lead in shaping it. So here are a few of our learning’s along the way:
The biggest 6 letter qualification (Spoiler alert – it ain’t IITIIM)
When i used to work at Genpact, I had a boss with a terrific knack for identifying talented people. One day I asked her, what is it that one thing that she looks for in her hires? Her answer – Hunger! That has become my hiring criteria as well. Hunger is manifested in several ways – in the person’s attitude, actions and ambition. Hungry people will go to any lengths professionally to achieve their goals – they are driven by passion and a desire to create an impact. We see it on a daily basis, at work. Ivy League college education, Great middle class upbringing or blue chip work-ex – none of it frankly matters if the person isn’t Hungry. At start-ups we need more hungry people than big companies to be successful. The key for leaders and managers of hungry people in their teams is to feed this hunger continuously with even more challenging and fulfilling tasks/goals. As Steve Jobs once said, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”- that’s what we look for, when we hire.
Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast
Clayton Christensen, in his book – How will you measure your life? – says that “Strategy in a company or in life is not defined by what you say you will do, but actually gets created through the hundreds of everyday decisions about where we spend our resources”. At Stylofie, we massively believe in empowerment. Our customer delight team that deals with customer issues on a day to day basis are empowered to take decisions and sometimes they even overrule us, the founders. This team has given refunds, complimentary service and passed on candid feedback to service providers – based on what customers tell them. We trust all our team members to do the right things for the customer and even if it costs the company money, they are empowered to go ahead and do it. The trust factor is not limited to only customer issues; it is also applicable for employees as well. For example at Stylofie we don’t have a leave policy! Employees can and do take as many leaves as they want and whenever they require it– we don’t keep a score. Supervisors don’t have to worry about leave management – our team talks with each other and plans their leaves so that it has minimal impact on business. That in my view is the biggest proof of walking our talk on trust & empowerment – values that we hold dear at Stylofie.
Zero tolerance on integrity issues, cutting slack for poor performance
As the chief hiring manager for our start-up, i have found that whenever we have hired in a hurry, we have repented. We recently fired a person for integrity violations – it took us 3 days to figure out the culprit and all of 30 mins to fire him. This person we had hired a few months back from a well known food start-up – we were under pressure to launch a new service line and he seemed to fit the bill and most importantly was immediately available – no notice period. Oh boy! It was lucrative, we hired him in a hurry and now we repent later. Not because we fired him, but because we hired a low integrity person in the first place and exposed ourselves to a risk.
On the other hand we also have hired people, who initially had a tough time adjusting to a start-up’s ambiguousness and work demands. We have cut slack for such team mates – because we hired them in the first place and owed it to them to make it work. We have a small team and sometimes if we have 1 or 2 non performers it begins to tell on the overall performance of the organization. We have been lenient and have worked with such employees on performance improvement. Some were able to cross the chasm and today are star performers while others we had to let go. The toughest thing for us founders is to fire people for their non performance – it is sometimes subjective and has often given me sleepless nights. At times, the person on the other side could be at the start of their careers and getting fired could leave permanent scars.
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There are 2 types of candidates we never hire in our start up – folks who demand a JD and those who don’t research about us. A start-up by very definition has multiple roles to be done, with a minimal set of resources. We look for folks who can roll up their sleeve and do anything – while many bring an anchor skill like BD or customer service, they are not afraid to do jobs outside their comfort zone. When we fired the person on pt 3, we had the business head of that service line take customer calls – that’s the kind of dexterity in skill set and flexibility in attitude, we need to be successful. Our customer delight officers have been in markets and societies doing App downloads, our data entry guy has done customer service calls and our BD folks have taken turns doing data entry. That’s how we have overcome crisis in resourcing and have punched more than our weight – by working together and watching each other’s back as a team.
The team that eats together-stays together
We have a unique culture in our office- that we started in the 2nd month of our existence. At lunch time, everyone in office shares their lunch with each other. Whether it’s the founders, employees, intern or a contract worker – we have a daily potluck where we literally dip our fingers into each other’s lunch, crack jokes (our CEO is very good at it) and take an update on what’s happening with our families and personal lives. I think it’s a unique tradition that we have managed to build and it will continue till we exist. It is one more manifestation of our egalitarian culture. No amount of team bonding sessions or off-sites can even come close to the joie-de-vivre of the Stylofie team that we experience on a daily basis – by eating together. On some days when our BD team is out making sales calls, the customer delight team office delays their lunch hours voluntarily, so that they can eat together. Try beating that kind of camaraderie.
Startups of all shapes and sizes often go through teething employee troubles – we have been lucky on that front. Our voluntary attrition has been 0% since the day we began and all the founders take huge pride in it. Great teams or cultures aren’t built in a day – it takes lots of cohesiveness in thought and actions to build it, one brick at a time. Sorry competitors, unlike market share where u can spend money and buy it, it takes a different kind of emotional investment to get your employees mind and heart share. That’s what Stylofie has done, so far. Go beat that!