This post is part of a series where we’re taking you through what we believe to be the best tips on growing a team. It’s based on experiences from our combined 15 years working with recruitment but most importantly on how we grew the Platypus team from 2 people in February 2019 to 19 people 18 months later.
Check out the other posts in the series:
- Our basic principles for recruiting
- How to attract talent when you’re a startup with nothing to offer
- Why unplanned opportunities should be part of your recruitment plan
CTO of Platypus, Louise Kümmel, and frontend lead, Mads Thines, spent years learning to guess each other’s thoughts before they both joined Platypus and forced everybody else to listen to their lame jokes.
# 1: The benefits of building a team on established relationships
By a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, having a tech team that knew each other extremely well, saved us about six months in building our product.
Why? Because they could skip all the getting-to-know-each-other and get straight to work. They spoke the same language (no pun intended) and knew exactly what their individual strengths were. They were plug and play.
Louise, our CTO, was one of our first, key hires. She was crucial for moving Platypus from our MVP – the barely standing on its own, first version of our product – to where we are today: Going to market with a solid product. We were lucky that Louise is so incredibly badass, that she was able to persuade two of her former colleagues to eventually join us.
Creating a tech team that could build the actual Platypus product was always urgent and time-sensitive. The longer it would take to build the product, the longer it would take for us to start building revenue.
That made our strategies on setting this particular team slightly different from how we approach recruiting in general. (You can read about why we usually never hire for now, or even for the next six months, here and here.)
Jumping at the chance to take on people that we knew would be plug and play was not only a welcome alternative to doing time-consuming sourcing or job postings but also made a lot of sense for this particular purpose.
When the overall objective is to build something fast these are the obvious advantages to jump at the chance of hiring an ex-colleague:
1. Increases confidence for the newcomer
Finding a place in the social hierarchy and learning the unspoken rules of the organisation is a huge part of onboarding. Having an established role within the team gives the newcomer a solid foundation for settling in. Similarly, they already know how their skills match those of their former colleagues making task managing that much easier. All of the things you usually have to struggle to establish are already in place.
2. It’s your ideal candidate
From a recruitment point-of-view employee referrals, in general, make life a lot easier. It’s cheaper, saves you time, and gives you access to candidates that would otherwise be unapproachable.
A recruiter’s job is often leveraging expectations of the hiring manager: You can get one must-have, but the rest of the list is nice-to-have. The ex-colleague is the odd chance to hire that person who is exactly what the hiring manager had in mind.
3. Complementarity guaranteed
Not surprising, the retention rate of referrals is significantly higher than by any other method. This makes sense, and for the ex-colleague even more because you have all the information about this candidate that you could need.
Especially when it comes to building a fast-moving team, knowing that team members are complementary is super valuable. They have already stress-tested each other and know that they can work together.
# 2: Pitfalls of building a team of ex-colleagues
Getting your hands on an ex-colleague candidate is great for many things, but it also comes with some risks.
You might be building the initial team on a couple of ex-colleagues, as we did, but eventually, the team will have to grow. This flips the script on what was initially a strength.
These are the pitfalls that we have made sure to take into account and tackle head-on:
1. Risk of building an echo chamber
It’s always comforting to know someone so well, that you don’t have to explain yourself. Also when it comes to co-workers. You are so aligned in terms of communication, quality standards, etc. that you can more or less avoid conflict. But conflict isn’t always bad.
Positive conflict is about challenging perspectives and exploring possibilities. Basically, it’s about avoiding creating an echo chamber.
You get this not through social or cultural “fitting” that ensures smooth sailing, but by being very aware of creating an inclusive culture with room for disagreement.
2. Makes it harder for whoever will follow
One of the biggest risks you face when basing your team on an already tight-knitted core is rebuilding the former team culture and enforcing an exclusive social code or even clique. The more established the social code, the harder for later-joining team members to impact culture and find their role. This places a great responsibility on deliberately breaking those social codes and allowing for all team members to impact culture.
3. It might not even work in a completely different setup
What worked in the past has no guarantee of working in the future. Basically, you are relying on a false sense of security by thinking that what was a dream-team under completely different circumstances, will pan out the same way now.
It’s a bit like basing your hiring decision on references: Just because someone was a success in a former setup doesn’t mean that they will be a success with you. You will have a completely different company culture and offer different terms.
You need to look at the reality of the current setup and whether the odds are that this candidate will in fact thrive with what you have to offer.
There are obvious advantages to expanding your team with a tried and trusted employee ex-colleague - especially when the priority is getting things moving fast. These are some of the things that you do however need to keep in mind when recruiting by this method:
- Ask the hard questions: Is this really the best candidate or are you biased by the personal recommendation? Will this candidate be able to be a success in your setup?
- Have a constant awareness of social dynamics and culture: Are you allowing favoritism? Is the culture inclusive enough to allow a difference of input and perspective?
- Focus on culture adds not culture fits as you move forward. You may need to adjust the balance of the team culture.
We will be sharing more advice on recruiting and team building such as using traditional sourcing, what to learn from an exit etc. in this series of posts on recruitment. Stay tuned! And check out the other posts in the series:
Our basic principles for recruiting
How to attract talent when you’re a startup with nothing to offer
Why unplanned opportunities should be part of your recruitment plan