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Discover & Learn

The February tech meet-up played out a bit differently this month. With the Meet your Neighbor segment kicking off the night, networking started early. Given the collective focus on the importance of people above all else, it was a fitting start to another insightful evening led by tech insiders.

There is no formula to follow, or line to tow, when presenters take the stage at TechTO. There’s usually a wide range of subject matter covered and themes explored — and sometimes, some opposing thoughts on building, raising and growing. This month, however, one discussion point threaded throughout: the critical importance of attracting, having & keeping great people.

Each of the TechTO’s February presenters, coming from different perspectives and experiences, offered unique insight into why hiring good people needs to be a priority, with tips on how to find them, and how to keep them happy.

People Before Product

Lucas Siow, CEO and Co-Founder of ProteinQure reveleaed that the hardest part about building a startup is building a team. “The rest of the startup building process becomes easier, once you have a good team in place,” he said. “For most founders, we tend to focus on the product. But as the company grows, your job is to build the company. That takes hiring.”

ProteinQure, which uses machine learning and quantum computing to design new drugs made out of proteins, offered three key aspects to building a team.

  1. Source. Siow shared that a big hiring issue when starting out is that you are trying to compete with established startups and big companies that have a lot to offer. “How many people here have heard of ProteinQure?” Siow asked. A mistake early on, he revealed, is that they didn’t announce their fundraising and therefore didn’t get their name out there. “If people don’t know about you, they’re not going to apply.”
  2. Evaluate. When hiring, Siow and team use quantitative measurements, including proxies to measure things such as intellectual curiosity (How many new skills have you taught yourself? How many seminars did you attend last year?”). By using a rubric, they can take bias out of the hiring equation.
  3. Close. “Candidates evaluate you, as much as you evaluate them,” Siow said. You need to sell the team and the company and know what matters most to the candidate. Because most candidates want a team they can learn from and a career with growth opportunities, ProteinQure incorporates a lunch with candidates into their on-site interviews. And, every time they make an offer, they make an investor available to the candidate to help sell the uniqueness of the opportunity.

Encourage Job Ownership

Nadya Khoja, Head of Marketing at Venngage, focused on the challenge of motivation. “One of the biggest struggles startups have is finding the right motivated people early on,” she said.

She revealed that Dan Pink’s Ted Talk on the Puzzle of Motivation made her think about how every single person is complex in what they want, and therefore require a customized approach to being motivated based on three core principles: Autonomy, mastery and purpose.

“The first few people in your company are intrinsically motivated,” Khoja said. “But as your company grows, it’s harder to find intrinsically motivated people — most people are fueled by external factors, such as money, esteem and security. But if you have a company built on extrinsically motivated people, pain points start to surface.” As Khoja learned last year, “Just doubling the size of your team isn’t going to double your revenue.”

The key is to train growth mindedness early on, Khola explained, so that employees are continually motivated, and your company can grow at a positive rate without having the pain points follow. And to train growth mindedness, you need to encourage job ownership.

“Ownership is one of the main things you should focus on,” Khoja explained. “Ownership ties everything together.”

A key way to do this is to set specific yet broad goals that stretch and challenge your staff. Break big goals into smaller tasks, and provide the What and the Why, but not the How. “If you don’t provide the how, you encourage people to solve problems on their own,” and you create ownership of the solution.

Be Vulnerable Together

Noah Dolgoy, CEO of Tread starred in the Raise of the Month segment.

A construction technology company, Tread raised a large round in November of 2019. Describing how they raised, Dolgoy revealed how every founder, investor and company are different. “No guide will have all the answers. You can’t do it in four quick tips.”

And the thing that no one talks about when raising, he said? That the real work happens after the round.

Once you’ve raised, the first step is to take a minute to breathe, Dolgoy said. “Take stock of your situation. Remember, you’re not that special. It’s just capital.” After the raise, you need to ask whether you’re actually prepared to deliver on your promises, and rebuild your plans accordingly. “You need to figure out what is real and what you think you might be able to do.”

Then, the scarcity mindset ends. Your company is no longer guarding water, as you’re suddenly being asked to make 5-year strategic plans. The growth mindset begins, and you’ve got to leverage ideas to create solutions — it’s time to make big bets, make investments, and dive into experiments.

“The CEO is obsolete. You have a new job and you’re probably garbage at it. Now your new job is as an executor, operator and manager. If you’re unprepared for it, you need to change. Fast. ‘It’s OK because we’re a startup’ doesn’t fly anymore.”

So how do people fit into all of this?

“Supporting your people is key to it all,” Dolgoy said. “Every member of the team will be uncomfortable, and that’s good! This new reality gives everyone the opportunity to self-reflect. Roles might change, so be vulnerable together. Try to get in front of issues – their reality is changing too – and the team is the most important thing to every organization.”

Dolgoy discussed the importance of aligning the team, working to a common goal, pointing at the elephant (your discomfort) and strengthening yourself as a team. He also encouraged the addition of experts to supplement your veterans. “It will feel anti-startup, but it’s necessary,” he said.

Don’t be a Hero. Hire.

Karn Saroya, Co-Founder and CEO of Cover chatted next about how to scale your company, and your executive team.

“The number one reason for failure is founder-employee conflict,” Saroya said. When something isn’t working, he said, “Don’t be a hero. Hire.”

And when hiring, you can’t settle. Rather, you need to find best-in-class people, and ask them for best-in-class people. “While this is hard for an early-stage startup, your job is to continuously upgrade your team over time.”

When it comes to hiring execs and other senior people, “This is the number one factor that predicts success as soon as you reach product to market fit. I can’t overstate it enough,” said Saroya.

He cautioned that it’s a long process, and encouraged founders to stay ahead of the need with a few tips:

  • Use executive recruiters. Hiring executives can take a year or longer.
  • When it comes to assessing execs, if you don’t believe they can grow your business by 10X, you shouldn’t hire them.
  • You’re unlikely to get it right the first time. You’ll get the benefit of the doubt if you can correct quickly and get people who aren’t a fit out the door as soon as possible.
  • Empower your executives. Tell them, “You have permission to do this. We hired you because we trust you. These are your goals and you are accountable for them. Go do it.”

Build a culture of problem solving

Dan Park, CEO of Clutch rounded out the night, speaking about managing hypergrowth. Before running Clutch, Park ran Uber Eats in Canada.

“There is a common misconception that growth should look like a chart that’s up and to the right,” Park said. But he explained that this is rarely the case. Growth is painful and awkward, and everything breaks as you double.

And because it can be so painful and messy, you need a team that loves what they’re doing.

“You have to empower your people,” Park said. “You are the chief problem solving officer. The most important thing is to build a culture of problem solving.” In doing so, your people are highly aligned and highly autonomous. “Everyone knows they need to cross the river, and they have the autonomy to figure it out.”

For a successful team — one that will rally behind you and your company, you need to find people who are excited about solving the problems you have. “ If you’ve got interesting problems to solve, you get interesting people who want to solve them.”

And they tell two people about your company, and they tell two people, and they tell two people. And over time, you’ve got a strong, engaged, fulfilled team ready to tackle the problems of the day.

TechTO reconvenes March 9th with another room packed full of interesting people, looking to solve problems and grow businesses. Don’t miss it!