Assembling the SCALE Team

by Claire Mula

It is highly likely the initial team you assemble will not be the exact same people or roles as your startup team. How do you assemble the SCALE Team?

Wise founders know that you need incredible talent at all levels of the organization to successfully scale a business. However, all scale-ups were startups at some point – high on purpose and innovation, but low on cash and staff. At some point, you need to not just hire people or a team, but assemble the SCALE Team.

It is highly likely the initial team you assemble will not be the exact same people or roles as your startup team. Like you, I started my venture with just two co-founders. Our first hire was a part-time Intern. This quickly turned into two Interns and a Head of Development who also worked part-time. We did everything else aside from hands-on coding which was outsourced.

After 9 months our first full-time hires were mid-level sales and marketing staff, the former from software sales and later from the gaming industry who turned out to be a real gem. As we moved beyond bootstrapping and friends funding to Seed, we brought development in-house and hired our first full-time Head of Development and team. As founders, we were still very operational and in the weeds, executing on multiple roles including sales, product, marketing, sales, PR as well as corporate, finance, investor relations, HR, legal and regulatory. Not to mention board management and strategy.

Rapid recruiting

Four to five years later, we had compiled what I would consider our A-Team. This was made possible not only by increasing customer sales and revenue but also from access to funding. To hire quickly, we contracted a recruitment firm (insourced), who worked on-site with us 2-3 days a week. Responsible for resume and initial telephone screening to put in place functional heads with more expertise than we had in each field. So how did we find the A-Team? Finding talent wasn’t easy. The region lacked experienced people in senior leadership roles and what we were doing was so innovative there wasn’t anyone who had experience doing the same thing before.

Fish where the fish are…

Verne Harnish, author of Scaling Up says “you have to fish where the fish are” and he’s right. Often they are NOT actively looking to move jobs or do not exist in your industry. In which case, look to the next closest industry that may have similar competencies or skills similar to those you need. For example, if you are looking for great salespeople to sell to mid-size manufacturers and they don’t exist in your industry, look to other industries that have been selling to that customer and understand that customers’ needs for years. I looked to the online gaming industry and found a rock start marketer to help us launch a mobile application because most marketers had never done that before.

Build your Brand

When you are a startup, there is a hierarchy of places you can look for good people. Starting from what’s low cost or free to what costs more money. For example, having inbound job postings on your website, staff or network referrals, and presenting at industry events or university campuses.

When you are in scaleup mode, sometimes even using paid options like advertising on LinkedIn, job boards, or using recruiters, you simply can’t find great people when you need them. This is where great branding is your superpower and having invested time in PR, events that drive recognition and great early employee experiences will help you out-compete.

A strong purpose and brand are important to attract talent. Invest time in building your brand. Ask your Head of Engineering to address meetups, attend hackathons and offer to provide case studies or presentations to senior classes at universities. Read industry and startup publications, and attend industry events where people with startup mindsets, who like to work with scaleups and startups go. Focus your efforts on talent from companies who are at your stage or perhaps a stage ahead of yours.

Every person you meet is potential talent!

During your startup years, if you are smart, you invested some daylight or nightlife hours into cultivating a network of future talent. In my case it was among cool, rapidly growing companies doing innovative things in retail and mobile like us. Keep an eye on cool companies (see industry event suggestion) who likely have good people, even reaching out for coffees and introductions. You may not be quite ready for them YET, but perhaps soon and you will have better success at reaching out when you are ready to hire them.

Are you recruiting the A-Team?

There’s one qualifying question all founders need to regularly ask themselves as a sort of yardstick of how good you and your venture are at hiring talent.

Would you enthusiastically rehire everyone on your team?

For the staff you can resoundingly answer YES to this, these are usually your A players. And your Number 1 job as founder and later CEO is to stack your team with A-players.

“A-players” is an often-misunderstood concept. It refers to people in your team who are both highly productive (relative to their function or role) and display behaviors and values highly aligned with the firm’s values and desired behaviors. One important aspect is the recognition that A-players at one salary level may not be A-players at another, and therefore it is considered within the context of what the firm can afford to pay for the role.

People who are high on values but perhaps not as high on productivity are considered A-potential or B players. While those that are high on productivity but low on values are considered C players and low productivity and low values, D players. At scale up stage, you need to get more disciplined with not only identifying and attracting A-players, but also coaching and developing potential-A and B-players. And letting go of C or D players, who ultimately lead to reduced team trust, openness, dysfunctionality, and lower performance of the entire team. Something we can’t afford during scaling.

Go BIG on “V” (or go nowhere)

Incredible talent means recruiting not only on productivity or competencies but also on VALUES and those behaviors you would like to see hardwired into your organization.

Ask screening questions about previous workplace cultures and what they enjoyed most and least e.g. “What was the best job you ever had/ best company you ever worked for and why?” Develop behavioral questions or a culture-focused interview that all hiring managers are well trained on. For more information on A-player recruitment strategies, read and implement Topgrading by Brad Smart.

Always always always conduct reference checks coving both skills and company core values. Too many companies mishire and waste precious time on the wrong hires because they do not religiously practice reference checks. I would always do the management team reference checks myself, not use agencies, as it helped me better prepare for the candidate and know what to expect when they joined.

Five-Star onboarding experience

Patrick Lencioni wrote a fantastic book on the Five Dysfunctions of Teams. Each time someone new joins a team you run the risk that team trust takes a dip and potentially a nosedive.

Smooth onboarding helps the new person accelerate their productivity by coming up to speed quickly on your strategy, goals, and priorities as well as values and how things are done around here. It also helps the rest of the team by quickly establishing trust in the new recruit, having open and honest conversations with and around them, and involving them in decision-making.

Borrow a great exercise in experience mapping from AirBnB founder, Brian Chesky, I encourage you to take some time to design your own onboarding team experience. Ask yourselves “what does the Level 1 onboarding experience look like” then Level 2, then 3 all the way up to Level 10. This is a great exercise to open up your mind to how you as a company can differentiate yourself by offering your staff the greatest “first day, first week, first month” on the job in their lives. Not only will this help you build an amazing team, but word about your amazing onboarding experience will get around and build your reputation as one of the best employers in your industry.

For example, Level 1 onboarding may look like this:

  • Inform your team before arrival
  • Personally introduce/walk around on Day 1
  • Set up 30mins intro meetings with Key Managers/Staff first week
  • Workstation & software access ready
  • Agree on meeting rhythm

Level 2 onboarding experience may look like this:

  • Onboarding learning and deliverable goals - first week, first month, first quarter
  • Strategy, values, and goals session with Leadership Team member
  • Functional training
  • Defined space or project to test and opportunity to learn (also from failure)

Design your 5-star experience

Go big or go home. Imagine your Level 10 onboarding experience. Perhaps you pick up your new recruit up on his or her first day in a luxury car with a driver. The whole team is there to greet them in person on the first morning. Flowers from the CEO and a packed lunch at their desk. Everything they need to do their job effectively is already set up and ready to go. They join a week-long strategy and cultural emersion program with other new recruits and more experienced staff to work on innovative new projects in a fantastic location. At the end of the week, their spouse is invited to join them for one special evening! (And likely tells them “Do not stuff this up – you have to keep this job!”)

Letting go...

Sadly, at times we also have to let people go. It’s a fact of doing business and particularly so among young, new firms. Loyalty is important, but a business full of loyal people who cannot execute productively or behave in uncool ways is a death by a thousand pinpricks.

Generally speaking, there are two types of reasons we let people go. One is driven usually by the individual and their behavior or performance and the other is driven by the company and a change in stage or strategy.

If individually driven,

  • Give them a warning or “Yellow Card” beforehand and clear feedback on how to improve.
  • Prepare examples of uncool behaviors or unmet goals or deliverables beforehand. Write it down.
  • Once decided – act fast.
  • Check legal process and requirements in your market.
  • Stay professional and respectful but firm.

If company driven,

  • Be empathetic but clear.
  • Do make introductions via your network to assist in finding another role.
  • Do write a letter of (honest) recommendation.
  • Be fair - follow legal obligations and contract terms as a minimum.

In all cases, an exit survey can help you to uncover new information to improve your employee's experience and perhaps why it didn’t work in the case it was individually driven.

Create a flywheel that drives talent to your door and not the other way around.

In summary, as you transition from startup to scaleup and the business transforms, your organization structure and people are likely to need to change. Scaling requires a more professional approach to the organization, starting with ensuring you have incredible talent (A-players) in every functional role on your SCALE Team. And you spend time together working on the team to ensure it has good foundations to perform.

Creating a recruitment playbook that prioritizes VALUES, as well as competencies in the recruitment process, is critical to repeatedly hiring A-players. As is designing an amazing onboarding experience for new talent that joins your company is another strategy to ensure your team performance and trust remain high, as well as differentiating your reputation for talent.

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Claire's Background

Entrepreneur in retail, technology and broadcast media, and Co-founder of a startup. 25 years corporate, intrapreneur & startup experience.

If you would like more information on implementing A-player recruitment, best practices or building highly functioning leadership teams, please get in touch with