Scaling businesses is hard, really hard. It is my experiences as a solar entrepreneur which lead me back to my former career in recruitment and founding the Hyperion Cleantech Group. Looking back now there are many lessons I learnt from those painful years building my solar start-up from two co-founders to 52 employees. Perhaps the biggest lesson came when I encountered the strangers in the kitchen. More on them later.
You know as well as I do that the success of your business is dependent on the quality of the people you hire, and the ones you fire, and how quickly you can do both. Yes, there are myriad challenges to growing a start-up, raising money, managing cash, working long hours, managing personal relationships, managing founder tensions, managing your sanity, and so much more, but the biggest frustration for me, and now for most of my clients, is hiring and retaining great people, whilst building and maintaining the culture you first set out to live by.
Before I co-founded my solar and renewable technology installation business, I had spent many successful years in recruitment and executive search. So I figured building our team would be the least of our problems. How wrong I was. The speed of everything else going on in the business, the focus on generating cash and revenue, the multiple hats we all wear in those early days (I even used to go on site surveys, I’ve been on more commercial rooftops than I care to remember) meant that we regularly dropped the ball on the hiring front. Most times we started the hiring process too late, it always takes longer than you expect. We did build a great team, but many people that we hired we shouldn’t have, many we fired we took too long over firing, and keeping on top of our culture was hardest of all.
Hiring and Firing
I hated the corporate environments I’d spent my early career in, and I hated the hire and fire recruitment companies I’d worked for. My co-founder and I wanted to build something different, and I’m sure that resonates with you. We were and are good people, we wanted to be good employers, to be a great place to work, a place people were excited to come to work and proud to tell their friends. We achieved much of that, it was a great place to work, we had a purpose, a mission, we had fun, we had perks and good pay, and we did recruit 52 people in three years, whilst going through triple digit financial growth. It was fun. A roller-coaster, the Solar-coaster of the early 2010’s.
The trouble is, in all start-ups and for all founders, balance is hard to achieve. I certainly found it so. We were good at the ‘nice stuff’ but were far too nice in many ways. We cut too much slack for those that didn’t deserve it. We compromised on many hires, we took too long over some obvious fires. We put some ‘bums on seats’ because we were stretched. The danger when you are too nice is that the C-players we hired took advantage, and the A-Players had to pick up the slack, and lost some love for the company and probably for us founders too. You can’t succeed with C-players in your business, they will kill you with and through indifference.
I learned so much about building teams from this experience, many entrepreneurs have a mantra of hire slow and fire fast. On balance I agree, that doesn’t mean be a ruthless hire/fire company, it just means be careful who you hire, and when you make hiring mistakes, as we all do, deal with it quickly.
Culture and the strangers in the kitchen
When we started our business we had a very strong ethical set of values we believed in as founders. Delivering outstanding value and service, treating customers, employees, and suppliers with respect, doing the right thing, even when it cost us money. I still have a letter from a customer praising the way we put right a mistake we had made, sharing his thoughts on how you can tell more about a business by how they deal with errors than how they deal with things when they go well. All those values were core to who we were, and who we wanted to be as a business. But company culture is tough! I knew we’d lost some control over our culture when I met the four strangers in the company kitchen.
They didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know who they were. The problem was they were my employees! Ok, to be fair to myself, at that time I was Sales and Marketing Director, not CEO, and they were installation engineers. But still they were my employees, representing my company, and we were still only around 40 people. That in itself was a lesson, but the real lesson came from listening to them, not knowing who I was they carried on their conversation, bitching and moaning about colleagues, the company and customers and some projects we were working on, that I had sold! I knew right there and then we had a big culture and hiring problem.
Putting things right
The ‘team’ was nothing of the sort. We had a mix of white and blue collar employees. Some worked in the office, many onsite. Some in sales, some in operations, some in finance, some in engineering and installations. As we’d grown so fast many people didn’t know each other, what each other did, how interdependent we all were, and importantly, not everyone understood our core values and objectives.
We organised a day to get everyone into the office/warehouse. The head of each department shared what they did, why, the challenges they faced, and introduced each member of their team to share a few words about what they individually did. As founders we shared our original mission, why we started the business, and the values we held dear. It was a great day. Of course, one day doesn’t and didn’t solve all the problems, but it was a great catalyst and a drawing in the sand of playing (without realising it) fast and loose with our culture and hiring.
Always be learning
That of course wasn’t the end of the story. Like the majority of start-ups in disruptive sectors we encountered choppy waters, from frequent policy changes and legislation to manufacturing faults with suppliers and bad debts. We had to go into layoffs, not hiring. But that’s another story.
I learned so much from that journey, eight years in all. So much that I now try to implement into my existing businesses, and of course share with clients, and the many start-ups I speak with through mentoring with cleantech accelerators.
At the Hyperion Cleantech Group our culture is front and centre, we even created a company Manifesto some years ago, that we live by every day. We have an amazing team. We could have grown more quickly perhaps, but we’ve doubled our turnover since 2019, and that includes that good old Covid year of 2020. I learn from my team and my clients every day.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing cleantech companies scale and seeing the part my team and I play in that journey.
We all know that life in a start-up isn’t linear, it’s chaotic, fast and furious. And whilst one size certainly does not fit all, there are fundamental truths and processes that any and all start-ups can apply to be better at hiring and retaining key talent and building a high performing team and culture. I run a hiring workshop for a number of accelerators, and I’m in the process of turning that into a book or manual to share into the community.
In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to send them my way, I’ll help if I can. I don’t have all the answers, but we have helped over 100 cleantech start-up/scale-ups to hire and retain talent, many of whom you will know.
My biggest piece of advice for any founder or founding team, is to somehow, by hook or crook, go missing half a day a week, or a day every fortnight, seek the helicopter view. Take a step out of your own head, get into an objective mind set, and ask some tough questions, particularly around your team, each member, and your culture. Bad apples and bad cultures will kill your dreams. Don’t tolerate either.