Building a team: Taking inventory

You’ve done good. There is more work you can comfortably handle and it’s time to expand. It’s time to make your first hire. This is your first step in building and managing a team. Being a first-time manager is hard, but the challenge gets even bigger when you need to build a team from scratch. If you need to fund your team as a bootstrapped business, you kick things up another notch on the difficulty scale.

The primary reason for hiring is expanding your capacity so you can take on more work. This seems rather simple, but what is it you actually do all day? If you are a self-starter you probably grossly underestimate the different types of work you do on a regular basis. This is especially true if you are in the professional services industry. Spoiler alert: you are not going to be able to hire another “you”.

Pruning your product portfolio

Before you start thinking about writing a job description you need to have a hard look at your product portfolio. Why? Because its variety is inversely correlated to making your first hires a success. A lot of young professional services companies offer a huge breadth of products. This might make sense intuitively; its founder(s) or early employees are often subject experts and are able to think on their feet. If you offer a wide range of services, you’re able to service a wider range of clients, which seems like a huge plus.

This is where things start to backfire. It is immensely difficult to attract candidates with such a high level of experience and skill. Especially as a small business in an average location. You can improve your luck by allowing remote work, or paying two times market rate, but you are seriously limiting your growth potential by doing so. Don’t get me wrong; this can be a viable strategy. I interned at a boutique IT consultancy firm and was amazed by the collective level of knowledge and experience, but this was only possible by maintaining close ties to academia. Certainly not a HR sourcing strategy you can roll out overnight.

Even if you think you have a well-concentrated product portfolio, have another hard look. We are in the business of creating corporate website and applications. Ten years ago you would hire a web designer and be done. Right now we have at least five different roles to complete such a project (user researcher, interaction designer, visual designer, frontend developer and backend developer) and that does not even include project management nor sales. Over the past years we trimmed a lot of our offering to reduce our operational complexity, but are still doing a large variety of work with a team of just nine people.

You’re not that special

If you offer specialized, professional services you’re probably of the conviction that your work can not be standardized. Taking this position can be highly detrimental to your ability to scale your business, as it simply more difficult to find and train employees to master a wide variety of capabilities. The Phoenix Project gives a great rundown of the parallels between the manufacturing process and project-based work. Things aren’t that different if you step back and change your perspective.

While this process may seem odd at first, you can certainly find parts of your process that can be standardized or documented. This might not be your primary work process, but there are plenty of auxiliary processes which are good candidates. You can start with simple document templates and continue with step-by-step guides for more elaborate deliverables. Not only will these efforts allow you to scale up, standardisation will also improve the quality, consistency and transferability of your products or artifacts.

Divide and conquer

In an ideal scenario you could assign every single team member to every type of work and get quality results. Productivity would be through the roof and your scheduling headaches non-existent. This scenario only holds true in utopia. Instead we look to hire team members that fulfil one or more roles. Ideally we would hire a developer that is able to deliver great quality frontend, backend and mobile code, has great social skills, and is self managing. This type of employee is great when you work in a smaller organization as they are able to wear many hats. They are also incredibly hard to find.

I personally made the mistake of looking for this type of candidate for too long. This can be attributed to both the variety of our product portfolio and a desire to retain a certain flexibility in the work we do. Having single-role team members does have additional benefits next to having a larger talent pool. It’s easier to keep skills up-to-date and there is much more clarity internally with regards to work allocation. This certainly does not fully negate the effect of the new bottleneck you just created, but does alleviate some of the issues and sets you up for the long term.

Ultimately you should strive to create roles within your company that allow an average, competent candidate to become productive within a few weeks, not months or years. You should not be looking to hire unicorns; there are simply too few to go around. What you can do this adjust the complexity of the work.