Tips, Tricks, and Tough Lessons Learned. 👇
As a founder, you’re naturally scrappy. You’ve probably done everything (from the financials to the hiring and product decisions) yourself. But lately, something feels different. Maybe you’re months behind on hiring the key people that you need, or your current team members are asking for career plans.You know you want to be a great place to work, but you don’t think you’re big enough to hire HR. What next? In this guide, I’ll walk you through some of my favourite tools and tricks to build a solid HR foundation on your own — no hire required. I’ll also tell you exactly when it’s time to give up the solo act and bring in a professional.
PS: Note that this guide focuses on Canadian startups, but should be generally applicable anywhere.
PPS: Keep reading for a special announcement!
Maybe you’re running payroll yourself, or, as more than one CEO has confessed to me, keeping all your contracts in a box. You’re furiously googling safety policies and laws on paying out vacation. Or, maybe you’re not doing any of this at all, and are praying nothing bad will happen (because it hasn’t yet, right?). You don’t run the rest of your business based on chance, so why put your head in the sand?
When to get HR:
HR software is generally easy to set up, but it does require you to have an idea of the guidelines you want it to handle. It also requires you to keep its information current and relevant. When the record upkeep becomes too time consuming and when you want customized programs and policies, hire a pro. If you’re getting tapped on the shoulder too often with questions about benefits, it’s time.
You’ve secured funding and defined your product roadmap. You figure you’ll hire a few developers, maybe a designer and product manager. You post some jobs on your website, but somehow the applications aren’t rolling in. Your managers are too busy doing manager stuff, and the process with the candidates you do have takes forever.
When to get HR:
If you still aren’t getting the right candidates, or if your managers are too busy to do all of this effectively, level up. Recruiting is a lot of work, and you’ll need to move quickly. A pro can also help you develop a better interview process, a full compensation strategy, and help you craft the hiring plan you’ll need to achieve your product goals.
In the early days, it’s likely that no one thought about reporting structures. You were proud of being flat. It posed no problem- issues could be worked out easily with a chat across the table. Suddenly, you’re hearing that people want growth plans and career paths . Your leadership team is overwhelmed and can no longer manage 10+ people each while executing and playing visionary. The right thing to do is to get more people into management, but your top performers have no experience with that. How can you help them?
Don’t be afraid to ditch the flat structure. Well-trained, empathetic managers are key to driving performance. If you’re in Toronto, UpSpark’s tech lead training is a great place to send newly promoted engineering managers. For startup focused manager training in all disciplines, Melissa and Johnathan of Raw Signal are the go-to’s. In the meantime, Google’s re:Work guides on management and countless books are there for inspiration. How about a manager book club?
When to get HR:
When those managers need an ongoing partner and guidance. When people are asking for defined career paths and formal feedback, like reviews. In my experience, this is all likely to happen around a headcount of 50, or shortly after leaving the “flat” zone.
You’ve read about the scandals, and they terrify you. You don’t have a harassment policy, but you don’t think it will happen at your company. You want to be inclusive, but aren’t sure how to get more diverse candidates to apply.
My advice is to make sure you have an inclusive culture first, before diving into recruiting. In fact, I wrote a whole post on it. Here’s more on how:
When to get HR:
This is a tricky area, and one where I really recommend at least having an occasional onsite professional (like a part time contractor) on hand. Some people will never be comfortable talking to you or their manager about tough issues. If you do have absolutely any harassment complaint arise, seek help immediately. Ideally, have a professional assess and strategize your policies, processes, and benefits before anything goes wrong.
You used to have the pulse on everything- now you’re not so sure. Maybe because you’re so busy or because you’re “the boss”, you feel like people come to you less and less. It’s lonely at the top, and you’re worried about missing key information.
When to get HR:
The tough thing about asking people how they feel and want they want is that you have to follow up. If it surfaces that everyone wants 360 reviews or a formal mentorship program, you’ll need the time and expertise to carry that out. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing their trust. Why should they give you feedback when nothing’s ever done about it? If it’s more work than you can handle, bring in professional help.
With so many great tools available, bootstrapping your startup’s HR has never been easier. If you have the time and the will, you can begin to build bedrock on your own. However, for those without the luxury of time, or reaching the next step in their growth, it won’t be enough. Companies need someone experienced that they can trust, and who understands the unique challenges of a startup’s culture.
Bright + Early is a modern HR consultancy that’s laser focused on helping early to midstage startups, part time. We use design thinking and an iterative, inclusivity-focused approach to do work that grows people, teams and companies. No culture compromise required. If you’ve realized you need a little bit of help (or a lot of it), let’s talk about working together. 🚀
*Illustration by Laura Callaghan
Side note: For any readers who are already HR pros, I’m looking for my replacement to lead the People Operations team at Wealthsimple. This is a really exciting opportunity to take a company beyond the stage I describe above: specifically, from a midsize company to a global one. It’s a VP level role working with an absolute rocketship of a team. If you’re experienced with and passionate about taking companies from 200 to infinity, contact me directly.
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