Start-up HR. How to build the people strategy you’ve always wanted

The number of UK start-ups have risen to set new records in recent years - and the entrepreneurial wave shows no sign of declining with around 650,000 UK start-ups annually over the past 2 years.

LinkedIn profiled the most sought after UK start-ups of 2018 and, from an HR perspective, it makes interesting reading. Many of those formed for just a few years already employ several hundred people and have ambitious growth plans. 

All of them will have set-up a people function from scratch, creating the engaging workplaces and culture that will attract and retain the talent they need.

Virgin territory

For good reason I know why this can feel like virgin territory. I was there at the very beginning of Virgin Mobile, a start-up in the late 90’s and I’m now working as the People Director for new sustainable energy provider, Pure Planet. 

In truth there’s nothing like a start-up when it comes to challenges and opportunities. To get the people strategy and culture right and really get a chance to do things differently. 

A people strategy from the start

I was recently asked what I’m enjoying most about Pure Planet - and that’s being one of the first people on-board. It’s given me a degree of freedom to build the kind of people strategy and culture that we think is right for the business. 

This is all the more special when I reflect on other businesses that I’ve seen grow, some of which started without any form of HR or people strategy. When they later tried to retro-fit HR and decide what culture they wanted to ‘be’ they were already late to the party. It’s much harder to do this kind of thing further down the line.

My start-up HR tips

So, for early stage start-ups and those yet to launch - here are a few of my tips:

1) What kind of culture do you want?

What do you want your people to say about working for you? Do you want to be known for being an agile, flexible business where people are trusted to work responsibly and have a voice, or is it going to be a culture of rules, regulations and micro-management? Cultures can be left to happen or, they can evolve into what you consciously plan to create.

As with all start-ups, people and culture issues have to compete for attention. Founders can be forgiven for being embroiled in their grand plans and rarely do they have any prior HR or people experience. But, at the very least, employment law applies, no matter how small or how busy they might be. Neglecting people issues rarely makes for a happy camp.

So, what kind of people strategy and management style do you want to shape? It’s a conversation you should have, and early on.

2) Treat your people strategy like product development

If you developed a product that didn’t meet the needs of your customers, no one would buy it. And yet organisations are great at setting inflexible rules and regulations that frustrate their employees, not appreciating that everyone has the option to work elsewhere.

So, in a start-up, it’s an opportunity to think like a marketer. To understand the kind of people you want to attract and to build the culture both they - and you - would aspire to. 

One of key things we want people to feel at Pure Planet is that we treat everyone equally and that they are very much apart of the team, that they belong. We sat down as a team and thought about how we wanted to reflect this. For example everyone gets the same benefits, everyone gets share options and we took the decision to treat all new parents equally. We are the first energy supplier in Britain to have an equal parental policy regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent. It was our desire to be more progressive from the start - so we are.

3) Founders - lead your people well

Good leadership is important in any business but probably none more so than a start-up. Leaders and founders set the agenda and are the embodiment of the business’s values. In a start-up these values need to be clear and well defined - and, most importantly, lived for real. 

From day one the Pure Planet founders recognised that great ideas come from those who share their passion. They built involvement by actively seeking feedback and are inquisitive, relaxed and transparent in their communication - with everyone. They are also highly visible and accessible in the business. Their approach to leadership has had a huge influence on the emergence of the Pure Planet culture, and the commitment and engagement it inspires.

4) Build your culture - and recruit to fit

The culture of a start-up is often born with the founders, from day one. That culture can remain in place many years later - think of Virgin and Apple where the presence of Richard Branson and Steve Jobs is still huge. The people that a start-up hires will help shape that culture - so it will make life a whole lot better if you hire people who fit that culture from the outset.

During the start-up phase at Virgin Mobile and now at Pure Planet, we recruit for culture fit as that’s the hard part. If they have the right skills too that’s great - but character, creativity, curiosity and therefore a best-fit compatibility with our culture, always carries more weight.

5) Let your people make that difference

A question I hear a lot at Pure Planet interviews is ‘how can I make a difference’? As a sustainable energy provider it’s natural that we attract people who want to work for a socially responsible organisation - but we are far from alone in this. The millennial generation is known to value corporate social responsibility above remuneration.

So, if you find people joining you who want to make a difference, and especially if that’s been a part of your messaging - then let them. Don’t oversell an opportunity, only to crush expectations by delivering a role - and employee experience - that’s less than it was made out to be.

6) Don’t forget on-boarding 

In the mayhem of a start-up it’s easy to think that having taken on a new recruit, they too should find the pressure part of the learning experience. While there’s no disguising the start-up environment, your new employees still need to feel guided and welcomed rather than just being left to ‘hit the ground running’.

This can be a particular problem where there’s no HR team and a senior manager is left to look after the new recruit. They might have good intentions but they stand a good chance of falling by the wayside. So it’s worth finding someone, as soon as you can, who can look after your new hires to give them the guidance and reassurance they’ll need. They joined you for the excitement of something new - don’t give them reasons to regret it.

In conclusion

A start-up is an opportunity to shape a new kind of people strategy like no other. But it’s not a given that it will always result in a culture that represents the founding vision for the business. It takes thoughtful planning and commitment from leaders, and the time invested at the outset will pay back in terms of the engagement, productivity and retention of the people you hire.

So take advantage of the opportunity to build your people strategy in a new way - the way you really want to. It’s an opportunity to create some bold policies but you’ll still need to have the HR essentials in place - along with the support of engaging founders and leaders that play their part in building a business for the long run.