Advice, Community, Mentors

[Updated] How to hire for cultural fit.

Company culture is all the rage in PDX startup land. It’s incorporated into hiring processes and strategic planning meetings. There are even full time jobs dedicated to ensuring the success of a company’s culture. When you’ve got an intimate staff size that’s in the single or double digits, every new employee makes a difference, shifts the vibe, rocks the boat, changes at least one person’s job duties—all of these hopefully for the better.

Considering the high cost of turnover and awkwardness of employee relations issues, it makes perfect sense why startups place equal if not higher value on a culture vs skillset match. After all, a defining trait of working at a startup is that we hang out with our coworkers both in and out of the office – so these new hires had better be people we love.

The challenge is how do we ensure that we’re hiring someone who has mad job related skills AND will slide seamlessly into our group of crazies. Below are three steps for assessing culture fit and determining just who might be wo/man enough to join your nerd herd.

1) Start with identifying the culture.

Culture means the feel of a business vs the hard facts. Having a solid definition of what it feels like to work there is the first step in making good hires.

How I describe startup culture to friends, family, future coworkers:

  • The 3 C’s. Creativity, curiosity, crazy are required.
  • The 3 I’s. The recipe for a solid foundation is information + innovation = invention.
  • Lovers of ambiguity, hard/unforeseen problems, voicing opinions, post midnight emails work here. Their talent is vast and uncontained. They are inspirational. And they are all hilarious.
  • Recognition for both successes and failures happens on the regular.
  • There may not be a 401k, a career ladder, or even a job description. But employees can wear flip flops, bring their cats to work, come into and leave the office when they feel like it, and the startling abundance of free food and drink correlates directly to the free yoga and exercise options that are part of the total compensation package. Think perks vs benefits.

It’s important to figure out what your culture really is so that you can talk through it with prospective employees. Nothing in place? Start with polling your staff, your execs, people in the community who know you. Ask them how they’d describe the people they work with and the overall vibe. Ask about the perks vs benefits. Ask about what landed them there and why they stay.

2) Follow it up with identifying the true job need.

The focus here is to be adding new positions gracefully, thoughtfully, sustainably—not just because “holy shit we need an Ops guy Dev Ops Hero NOW” that may not be needed in one month. This is important in terms of presenting an accurate portrayal of not only the job you’re interviewing someone for, but a *culture of transparency.

Prep internal constituents:

In order to keep a culture chill. Be as open as possible about the process to alleviate confusion around a hire. Be certain on the full time/part time/permanent/temporary status of a needed position. Talk it over with staff so they’re in the loop on what potential new person may be coming on, and what this will mean for a person/team job-wise. Even the tiniest of heads up can head off staff revolt. This is particularly important for those who will be meeting prospective candidates. The goal is for employees to feel well informed and fully comfortable talking about this new opportunity with the interviewee across the table vs “yeah, I guess we need a front-end dude dude/dudette, that’s what they told me this morning.” Current staff contributes to a big cultural first impression.

External constituents:

Let’s be honest, startup jobs ebb and flow constantly. Re-orgs, or shit—just ‘orgs’—happen all the time. It’s our hiring responsibility to convey the job needed at the time of the interview, discuss potential evolutions of said job, address stability as best we can, and simply put: be transparent.

By disclosing everything we know about an open position at that very moment with staff and candidates, we fill in all of the blanks. This way staff is onboard and willing to participate in the process if necessary, and candidates don’t have to piece together the details of the job, which can breed confusion about the culture. And in some cases even result in declining an offer.

*If being transparent about the job/culture is a challenge – be open about the lack of transparency. No surprises. And then work on improving transparency. That may very well be my next blog post topic…

3) Assessing potential new coworkers.

Ask good questions. Listen listen listen, way more than you talk. It’s amazing what people will say if you just… listen. Have a short list of broad ideas on what you hope they’ll say. Have an even shorter list of dealbreakers. Notice how you feel about each answer, take the occasional note, but see if you can get a good read on your intuitive response to what a candidate is saying and how they are saying it.

A few culture-related questions:

  • Motivation: why are you here? what motivates you outside of cold hard cash? have you ever felt unmotivated – what happened, how did you respond, who besides you was a factor, and what did you learn? what has been your greatest nonverbal reward?
  • Victories and losses: what are some of your greatest triumphs and greatest challenges that you’ve had in your career? how do you know when you’ve nailed it or blown it completely? at what point do you ask for help? what is your recovery process? what is your celebration process?
  • Playing well with others: how would your best and most challenging boss, coworker describe you? list a few characteristics that you need from a boss/coworker that would be a dealbreaker? who have been some of your most inspirational bosses/coworkers, and why? how/when do you know it’s appropriate to speak up, or tag in and help a coworker?
  • The job: what excites you about this opportunity, what made you apply? do any of the responsibilities make you feel anxious, and if so, what would you need in order to feel confident about your ability to handle the job? how does this role compare or contrast to what you’re currently doing, and on that note, what is motivating you to consider new opportunities?
  • Logistics: what would we learn about you in a few months that we wouldn’t know about you on day 1? what is your preferred communication style, favorite color, most influential person in your life? are you a morning person vs night owl? how do you kill time when stranded at an airport?
  • Questions for you: ask them to ask you anything. Hope that they will have something to ask, be ok with if it they don’t. If you’re comfortable with it, share your contact information so that they may follow up with you directly if questions arise post interview.

Making the decision…

Keep it simple. Just like culture is a feel, a candidate will leave you with the same. A feel, a gut vibe response. Remember that they are sizing up potential culture fit as much as you are, so all you can do is present a clear picture of what it looks like at your company and hope for a good match instead of forcing it to fill a role. Take the extra time to ask non job specific questions. Read the resume, check the references. When it comes to give the thumbs up/down, don’t second guess yourself and don’t get bogged down in analyzing or quantifying specifics. *Pay attention and give voice to your gut vibe – it’s (almost) always right. No arguing.

*This applies not only to hiring but to all life decisions.

Update:
Note from the Editor: This post has been edited to suit all audiences, as was the author’s original intent. We believe in the importance of fostering and promoting diversity and inclusion not only at PIE, but in the greater Portland startup community—beards or no beards.

-Kirsten Golden, Program Manager

Advice, Community, Mentors

Top 10 Countdown of Things a Start-Up Company Should Not do Without (A humorous look at our all too often serious offices)

10. Big Screen TV – I have no freaking idea why the first thing that every startup buys is a big screen Samsung 55” TV, but its kind of a thing. Video games, Olympics, Hockey, World cup and the occasional video-conference, I’m hoping someone enlightens me on my deathbed.

9. Plants – These things provide atmosphere, both literally and figuratively. They are a familiar object that you can rest your computer-fogged eyes on and gain a sense of relaxation. From desktop units to floor models, a plant invites you to mentally unwind without leaving the confines of your space. PS – they also function somewhat as pets, only with slightly less maintenance.

8. Recycling Area – This is a big thing with me, there, I said it. We live in a world that can’t take much more abuse and separating your cans, glass, plastic and paper seems like such a small way to try and give back. It can be as simple as a couple of boxes with proper markings on them. Keep your glass separate and your mixed in the other, your ratio should be 1:1 for mixed and regular garbage. Anything more on the mixed recycling side and you are a SUPERSTAR!

7. Games – We all know that startups are hard. They require intense focus, long hours and stress, lots of stress. Putting some sort of gaming activity in your office will reap many benefits, exercise is great for boosting brain cells, coordination, and requisite co-worker ribbing. Depending on your space constrictions I would rate them thusly:

Ping Pong table

Foosball table

Pogo Stick

Darts

I also recommend an engineer gets up at least once an hour for 10 minutes, but to each their own.

 6. Keg or beer fridge – I’m sure I’ll get some flack for this but I truly believe beer to be an office staple; much like coffee but that’s a different bullet point. In my 30+ years as an Office Manager/EA I’ve found that standing around enjoying a malt-based beverage in the company of your peers opens more doors than closes them. Socializing while sharing a beer is one of the more civilized ways to end the day with a new co-worker or your boss. In the event of a larger social gathering I do provide non-alcoholic beverages for visitors. We also stock the office with flavored sparkling seltzers, and milk, so get off me.

5. Bike Racks – Portland is the No. 1# bike commuter city on the West Coast. Also, there’s that ‘it’s good for Mother Nature’ thing. Seriously though, bike racks come in as many shapes/configurations as there are bikers, so you should be sure to find something that suits your space. Get a black rug to put underneath them and possibly a runner for the space to the rack – they can get pretty grungy during the winter months.

4. Couch – Often looked upon as a non-necessity, this unit can function as a impromptu meeting area for three or less people (or possibly more if you’ve worked together for a while), wool-gathering (creative replenishment) space, visiting employee seating area, exercise bench and last but not least, napping space.   You don’t need anything fancy, but buy the best you can afford, its going to be around for a long, long time and your employees will get very, very attached to it. Emotionally. For reals.

3. Snacks – I make it a point to stock the following in every company I serve: Protein related items for that last code push that has to be done tonight – (think: String cheese, Clif bars, yoghurt in fat & nonfat forms, various nuts and occasionally jerky). Breakfast cereals for when people forget to eat. (Plus it’s a secret homage to Jerry Seinfeld). Potato chips in varying flavors for salty goodness. And, fresh fruit, organic if you can swing it financially but oranges and apples are great no matter what. Anecdotal item: I also used to stock a large jar of frosted animal cookies at my last gig but the employees would drop them on the carpet making a nasty mess and so I removed them the list. There were ransom notes and a small riot. It still haunts me to this very day.

2. Desks – I could go on and on about this subject but I’ll keep it short. IKEA is the bomb, a nice 30 x 60 top with four legs will see you through many a project. HOWEVER, you should plan for a standup space where employees can take their laptops and stand for a bit. New Relic has Standtopia, Simple has built-ins, it’s healthy, it’s a fact – do it. I can put you in touch with a very nice company in Arizona that will sell you a crank standup base for a mere $480 dollars if you want to splurge and outfit your crew with their very own adjustables, slap an IKEA top on that baby and BOOM! happy ergonomically-balanced employee. DM me on Twitter, it’s OK, I promise.

And the #1 thing you cannot live without:

1. Coffee – This is the lifeblood of your company, choose wisely. Luckily here in Portland we have many options, dark roast, breakfast roast, organic coffee, vegan coffee, not too mention the means of extracting said brew from the bean itself. A startup needs lots of this juice and I recommend a Capresso grinder and a Bunn 10-cup high velocity brewer drip system with a thermal pot and a Chemex. I also recommend Happy Cup Buzz, it’s a great coffee bean and supports a great organization AND they’re local. This should cover all your caffeine needs, from group to nuts.

And there you have it, armed with this list you can rest assured you have all the necessary tools to start rocking it at the office!

This message brought to you by iBarbStark*, Office Manager of Cozy Services Ltd.

*I ain’t no Rick Turoczy but I ain’t chopped liver, either.

 

Alumni, Community

Build the Best Rainbow


Hi there,

Mara here from Switchboard. There are six days left to apply to PIE. I’m going to tell you why you should.

So before we get started I want you to go and visit another three incubators’ websites. Just the first three that pop into your head. Go on. Take a look around. Check out the photos. Watch the videos. I want you to ask yourself this question: what is the culture of this incubator? Go ahead. I’ll wait here.

Are you back? Hi again.

Now please watch this video about PIE.

Here’s the thing: the word incubator is problematic. It implies that you are going to enter into an isolation tank of like-minded, ambitious entrepreneurs. You’ll sleep under your desk, subsist on ramen, and meet all day with people in t-shirts and blazers. A white board and marker will be the most creative tools at your disposal. Here’s the other thing:  companies are shaped by the culture of their incubator. Just like an artist (we’ll get to that part in a minute), the technology you create is a reflection of the ecosystem you are in. If you are in a sensory deprived cubicle tethered to your laptop mindlessly inhaling processed noodles in an office of people doing the same what you create will be informed by that environment. And until I discovered PIE, that environment looked bleak, homogenous, and unstimulating.

If you want a sense of why I thought this this was the work I was doing prior to starting Switchboard, and this was the view from my front yard. Yeah. An isolation tank of geeks was my worst nightmare. I resigned myself to the fact that technology was completely incompatible with humanity, beauty, and delight.

And then I discovered PIE. PIE is the most creative incubator in the most creative company in the most creative building in the most creative city in the world.

There I said it.

So why is creativity important? Because creating technology is an act of art. As Paul Graham put it: “What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things.”And every act of art is about stealing. Austin Kleon, the authority on creativity and stealing, said it best: “You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.” So look for the incubator that will help you become the best thief, and steal from the most creative people, with the most diverse resources, so you can make the best thing.

What do I mean by resources? Well, there’s all the stuff you already know. You will get money. You will get desks in a beautiful light-filled office. You will have access to generous, big-hearted, life-changing mentors. You’ll share the experience with other visionary companies. There’s free beer and lunch. Program directors Kirsten, Rick, and Renny will light the path with a disarmingly effective combination of competence, empathy, ball-busting, and sardonic wit. But if you look around, as I did, you will also get a schmorgasboard of an ecosystem. And you can gorge yourself.

I want to share with you 20 parts of my ecosystem and the profound impact they had on the technology we built. Here, I’ve even made you a map. As you can see, 99% of this ecosystem is within a five minute walk of PIE’s office.

1. Our team is made up of whip-smart students funneled from nearby Reed College and Portland State University. The city is bursting with young, hungry, diverse, creative talent.

2. We are reminded, every day, that the work comes first, that the person with the best story wins, and to fail harder. These messages are written in the walls of the Wieden+Kennedy.

3. In this building there is a drawer of glitter and a letterpress in the basement. They emit a sonar of inspiration.

4. On the roof deck there is a hammock. In the summer there are parties and sometimes a chest freezer of popsicles appears. On clear days there is a direct view of Mt.Hood.

5. This is John Jay. His office faces 12th street. I’ve seen his light on at 1 AM. If you are working half as hard as John works you might be on the right track.

6. Wieden+Kennedy commissions artists to make art in their lobby. When I’m sick of staring at my computer I can watch people live paint. Wat.

7. When I’m tired, I can take a nap in the nap room. Or get a massage.

8. When I’m lethargic I hoola-hoop to Snoop Dog on the basketball court. Sometimes I’m joined by random children. This weekend we watched Drunken Master in the office.

9. There is also a human sized nest.

10. This one time, Pink Martini performed in the lobby amidst 6,000 balloons. I could go on. Let’s leave the building, shall we?

11. A few blocks away is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, Powell’s. I’ve spent entire days reading on the floor.

12. Around the corner you’ll find Maurice, a pastry luncheonette started with a Kickstarter campaign. I go here to be reminded of what can be made on a shoestring.

13. I’ve been schooled in the art of customer service at Nong’s, a Thai chicken food cart. Nong is the local entrepreneur I admire the most.

14. Thank you cards are our most important business expense. We buy them at Oblation and Blick Art Supply.

15. Observing the operations at the Ace Hotel, Stumptown, Heart Coffee, Canoe, Multnomah Whiskey Library, Blue Star Donuts and Tilt has taught me so much about marketing, workflow, and customer experience.

16. I could go on about the city’s cultural offerings: Creative Mornings, ADX, XOXO, TechFest Northwest, DesignWeek, the Yale Union, the Portland Art Museum.  Have I mentioned the nature? And then there are the artists and makers. The number of people doing awesome things here is startling. It’s like a 21st-century Florence. It’s intimate, scrappy, collaborative, boot-strappy and on the brink.

17. When I started PIE I didn’t know how to breathe or turn my mind off. I learned both through a daily practice at YoYo Yogi.

18. There is an abundance of crappily written but useful business books. There is no need to buy them. I check them out from the Multnomah Public Library.

19. Then there is Peter.  He sells the Street Roots newspaper in front of the nearby Whole Foods. He’s my Patron Saint of Perseverance.

20. When I forget what matters in the world, what really matters, I stand in front of these doors.

So, look. Perhaps making software in an acultural vacuum is your jam. This factory farm incubator model is the rule, not the exception. Switchboard would never have grown, let alone flourished, out of this arid soil.

I’m writing this love letter to the handful of people reading this who dream of something else (this is sounding eerily familiar..it’s different, I promise). You’re a resilient, resourceful, rule-bending scamp who thrives on making something from nothing. You’re more interested in building the world’s best rainbow, not discovering the pot of gold at the end. You can stop looking. We’re waiting for you. Join us.

Mara Zepeda and Sean Lerner co-founded Switchboard and met on Twitter