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think like a startup

We can learn a lot from startups. Nimble and without long established hierarchies that can strangle innovation, startups move quickly to take advantage of new opportunities.

In this six-part series, Report on Small Business talks with Canadian startup founders and leaders to learn how they think about their businesses. The lessons are of interest to established small businesses, large companies, non-profits and government departments, as well as other startups. In this article, we look at ways to recruit, inspire and retain the best talent.

Mikael Cho, founder of creative talent site Crew

The best people aren’t motivated solely by money and can work anywhere. In order for them to be interested in your company, they must first align with your purpose. If they don’t care about what your company does, it won’t matter how much you pay them. Next, you need have a culture that fosters the creative spirit and self-improvement. Great people need to have the power to make decisions and make significant contributions. They also want to work with other great people so they can get better at what they do. Good people want to be part of a team where they aren’t the smartest person in the room. A team’s strength is only equal to its weakest person.

Too many meetings, not enough power to make decisions and a lack of freedom to manage oneself are all things that can get in the way of people doing their best work. And anything that gets in the way of people doing their best work will prevent you from working with the best people.

When it comes to money, pay people well so they don’t have to think about it. Don’t low-ball. We pay above market rate and we don’t negotiate salaries. Instead, we use a formula so every person we hire sees how we came up with every salary . We also give every teammate equity ownership. I think of my teammates as a co-owner. When we go out to dinner as a team and someone says, “thank you” to me, I say, “thank you” right back. “You’re an owner too.”

Denzil D’Sa, founding partner of cross-platform messaging platform PPLCONNECT

One of our biggest priorities is finding the best talent and keeping them happy and motivated. It all starts with hiring the right people who share the same goals we do to do amazing things. At PPLCONNECT, we want people who aren’t afraid to try new things, and challenge themselves and people around them to solve problems in new ways. The first interview we have is entirely dedicated to assessing if the recruit shares these same values. We try to learn about what motivates them, what is an ideal job, who they like to work with.

If the fit seems right, then we line up a second interview to assess the candidate’s technical skills and domain of expertise. Once we hire someone, our focus shifts towards making sure we have a clear yearly plan for each employee, broken into quarterly objectives. This plan is built with each team member, to fit with their personal and professional goals as well as the company’s. The plan includes areas to master, develop and learn, with projects and professional tools completely personalized to each employee. We then make it a point to check back in every two weeks to discuss how we are doing against each milestone. We have found this to be a very valuable engagement tool, which manages for different types of individuals and also ensures we all stay focused on the big picture.

Rachel Pautler, co-founder and CEO of Suncayr, a marker with ink that changes colour when you need to reapply sunscreen

The first place we look for talent is within our own networks. Often we need technical talent in the form of chemists and engineers, rather than developers. This is a little harder to find in Canadian startup ecosystems, so we've had to do a lot of our recruiting directly from universities. We've taken advantage of the University of Waterloo's co-op program in order to help with this.

We aim to get our employees motivated from day one by giving them large projects that will have a significant impact on the entire company. We have a pretty open and horizontal management structure, so we encourage everyone to ask for help whenever they need it, and to both give and receive feedback on a regular basis. We offer flexible hours and organize company social activities to help our employees find work-life balance.

Jeff Booth, president and CEO of BuildDirect, an online seller of home renovation materials

It’s simple: smart people attract smart people. This is why employee referrals are so important when trying to acquire top talent. Once you have them, retaining and motivating starts with open and honest communication, my door is always open. Listening to one another, discussing ideas and sharing thoughts is a very important part of maintaining our amazing culture as we work towards our end goals. I am never the smartest person in the room and I like that.

A healthy work-life balance is a top priority for me and I lead by example. I work hard and love what I do but will always find time for my family and friends. I truly believe that the energy you bring as a leader transcends the organization. It’s just so crucial to be yourself and be authentic. Ask anyone, I’m the same person at home as I am at work.

Kirk Simpson, CEO and co-founder of accounting and invoicing software Wave

Hiring a customer support person is very different from hiring an engineer, so we thought, ‘Why not let teams design their own hiring processes?’ Once Wave hit a certain size, we empowered the teams to develop their own best-of-breed hiring process based on their own experiences and previous history. They know the intricacies of their jobs better than an HR team ever will, and they’re going to have to work with the new person in the future, so it just makes sense. This has been very effective for us.

When it comes to motivating a team, you need credibility. Simply put: I don’t believe in asking of others what I am not committed to doing myself.

Mallorie Brodie, co-founder of Bridgit, a platform for organizing construction projects

Because everyone is busy all the time, we have to very consciously ensure that our team is taking the time they need to unwind. In order to help this, we have put in place a very flexible vacation and remote work policy. This has allowed our team to have more control over their schedules so they can remain happy both inside and outside of Bridgit.

Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of video and marketing platform Vidyard

We take experience very seriously at Vidyard, and that all starts with the experience our employees have during their recruitment process to daily interactions with each other, our executive team, and our partners and customers. We’ve created a radically transparent and inclusive environment where we thrive on collaboration and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. We have a weekly company stand-up to discuss the business’ performance and hot topics, and daily catered lunch so that the teams can network / interact with groups they might not always encounter during down time in a very social environment. This goes a long way in attracting the right talent and ensuring our teams align when we need to rally around a cause.

We also treat our employees as owners because: A) they are; and B) we expect them to make the best possible decisions for the business. If they don’t have access to the same information that I do, how can I realistically expect them to be able to make the same game-time decisions?

The Think like a Startup series runs on Mondays and Thursdays in October on Report on Small Business.