Building a Great Team

About a month ago we hired our 5th full-time employee at Snappa. I was feeling a little introspective that day and posted the following tweet.

In the early days of Snappa it was just Marc and I. At that point, we weren’t thinking at all about building a team. Our main focus was simply to make a full-time living off of our SaaS app.

But 6 months after launching, feature requests were piling up so we hired our first developer. A year later, I couldn’t find enough time in the day to execute on all the marketing tasks I wanted to plus answer support tickets at the same time. So, we hired someone to help out with marketing and support.

Fast forward to now and we’ve built out a full team and one that I’m super proud of. There’s no question we wouldn’t have grown to $1M in ARR had it not been for the team we have to help us execute our vision.

Not only that, but we’ve developed such great chemistry and it’s truly a joy to work with everyone. The camaraderie amongst all of us is something I don’t take for granted because I know just how non-existent it is in most corporate environments.

Going back to my previous tweet, Ben Orenstein replied to it and asked me the following question:

He got me thinking about all the lessons I’ve learned over the past several years. I replied with some high level thoughts but I thought I’d expand on them in this article.

I don’t claim to be an expert but if I had to distill everything I’ve learned in a few tips, here’s what I’d say.

1. Establish a Great Culture

Culture is one of those things that everyone admits is important yet it’s not something that is easily defined. Some people refer to culture as the 3-5 core values that hang on the wall while others define culture as the personality of the company.

I view culture broadly as the general attitude and guiding principles of the company. For bootstrapped startups, culture is likely to be  heavily influenced by the founders and early employees. When you’re not doubling headcount every 6 – 12 months, it’s much easier to maintain a strong culture and hire people who fit the mold.

Since Marc and I spent our early careers working in corporate jobs, we know how demoralizing it can be to work in a crappy environment. When you’re surrounded by bureaucracy and your work is not fulfilling, you’re unlikely to give it your all.

As we thought about our own culture, these were some of the things that we wanted to work towards:

  • Fully remote
  • A fun and relaxed work environment
  • A great place to learn
  • High quality standards
  • Full autonomy with no micromanaging
  • Limited distractions and no useless meetings

Our goal was to create a culture that would attract talented individuals that were fun to work with and give them the time and space needed to do their best work.

2. Hire the Right People

When it came time to hire, we wanted to attract ambitious individuals who were hungry to learn and grow with the company. Although skillsets are very important, we prioritized culture fit and character above all else. With a small team, just one bad apple can ruin the culture.

Now that we’ve been through the hiring process several times, we’ve refined our process and figured out what works for us.

Here’s the general structure that we now follow.

Phase 1: Initial Screening

During the screening phase, we’re evaluating candidates based on their application. This generally consists of a resume, cover letter, and portfolio (if applicable).

In most cases, we’ll also include a filter question or two. For example, when we posted a job for a customer success role, we included the following question as part of their job application:

Using our knowledge base as a guide (https://kb.snappa.com), how would you respond to the following support ticket: “I just created a Facebook cover photo and I want to convert it to a Twitter header. How do I do that?”

Please write your answer as if you were replying directly to the customer. Assume the customer’s name is Mary Smith.

You’d be amazed how a simple question like this can do such a great job of filtering out candidates.

Once we’ve screened out the candidates who don’t meet the job requirements or didn’t do a great job on the filter question(s), we’ll then start evaluating the rest of the applications.

Generally, we typically weight things in the following order:

Portfolio / Side Projects > Cover Letter > Resume

Portfolios and side projects provide some great insights into how talented a candidate really is and how much they actually enjoy their craft. If someone is just looking to collect a paycheck, they probably won’t have much of a portfolio and they likely won’t have any side projects that they’ve worked on.

Cover letters can also be a great tool for evaluating candidates. Generally, we’re looking for how well they’re able to communicate, why they think they’re a good fit, and why they’re interested in working for us.

Finally, we’ll look at their resume just to get a sense of their past work experience and anything else that may be relevant to the job.

All in all, we’re trying to gather as much evidence as possible to determine if the candidate seems capable and whether or not they seem like a good fit for our company.

Phase 2: Interviews

Once we’ve gone through all the job applications and narrowed it down to the most promising candidates, we go ahead and schedule interviews.

For us, the main goal of the interview phase is to evaluate whether or not the candidate will be a good culture fit.

Here are a some of the things we’re trying to evaluate at this stage:

  • Would this person do well working remotely?
  • Is this person a self starter and can they work autonomously?
  • Would this person be enjoyable to work with?
  • Do they set high standards for themselves?
  • Are they comfortable working in a startup environment wearing many hats?
  • Did they do their homework on our company?
  • Are they actually excited to work here?

There’s a bit more beyond that but you get the idea…

Although the focus is mainly on culture fit, we’ll also ask a variety of technical questions to make sure the candidate actually knows their stuff.

If we determine that the candidate has the right attitude, knowledge, and fits well within our culture, we’ll move them on to the last phase.

Phase 3: Sample Project

No matter how much time you spend evaluating a candidate, you’ll never know if they’ll succeed until they actually start working for you. The goal of the sample project is to minimize the unknowns as much as possible.

By giving the candidate a task that is similar to what they’ll actually be doing, it’s one of the best ways to know whether or not they actually have the necessary skills to succeed.

For our first three hires (two developers and a marketer), we gave each of them a sample project that took about 1.5-3 hours to complete. Having them successfully complete the sample project gave us further confidence that they could do the job. I’m happy to say that all of our first three hires are still with us today.

However, for some strange reason, we didn’t give a sample project when we made our 4th hire. When the candidate started working for us, we realized fairly quickly that we had made a mistake. The worst part of it all is that a sample project would have brought the candidate’s deficiencies to the forefront and we wouldn’t have gone ahead with the hire. It was the only hire that hasn’t worked out for us and I take full responsibility for that.

Once we realized how important sample projects are, we decided to make them a bit longer and compensate candidates for their time. This way we can assign lengthier sample projects and not feel guilty about wasting their time if they don’t get the job.

Generally, we’re usually left with 3-4 candidates at the sample project phase so it doesn’t cost us that much money. The way I see it, the cost of compensating candidates for sample projects is much cheaper than the cost of making a bad hire.

In some cases, we may even work with someone as a contractor first before bringing them on full-time. In the case of our graphic designer, she initially worked with us as a part-time contractor to help us with some much needed design work. Once we saw how incredibly talented she was and how well she fit the culture, we ended up offering her a full-time position and she’s been crushing it ever since she’s come on board.

Making the Final Decision

Once we’ve interviewed all the candidates and reviewed the sample projects, we’ll go ahead and make a final decision.

At this point, I default to one of my favourite rules: If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.

Remember that candidate we hired without giving a sample project? Well, I’d be lying if I said this candidate was a “hell yes.” Rather, we felt this person was the best candidate amongst everyone else that applied thus we extended the offer.

Looking back, we should have started over from scratch if an obvious choice didn’t emerge. Since then, our next two hires were a definitive “hell yes” and they’ve both worked out extremely well.

Side Note: At the time we made that bad hire, we were still hiring locally which limited the talent pool. Once we started opening up positions to anyone across the country, a much bigger talent pool emerged.

3. Empower Your Team

Once you’ve got your team in place, my final piece of advice would be to empower them and give them full autonomy (within boundaries of course).

If you’re hiring the very best people at your company, you should trust them to do a great job. That doesn’t mean you’re not there to train them and offer support when needed, but you should give them the time and space required to do their best work.

Just recently, one of our employees DM’d me on Slack to tell me that they appreciate the culture we’ve created and that they feel a mutual trust and respect at the company. I don’t share this to make myself seem like manager of the year. I’m simply sharing this because once employees start feeling respected and valued for their skillsets, they’re much more more likely to stay motivated and take pride in their work.

As a founder,  you’ll likely have to get your hands dirty in the beginning and handle many tasks yourself. However, if you want to grow to a meaningful sized business, you’ll probably need to transition to more of a leadership role and leverage your team as much as possible.

Wrapping up

Over the years I’ve learned quite a bit about culture, hiring, and team building.

Although I’m bound to make more mistakes in the future and refine my approach to all of this, I hope that my experience offers some useful information that can help you build a great team.

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