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We Are Mammoth, the web consultancy I cofounded in 2006, took seven years to grow from two to 17 people. The number itself isn’t magic or planned, but the team we have now feels extraordinarily close and disciplined. When we talk product design and development, hoo-wee, it feels like we’re connected on some astral-neural level. Together, our team has built and launched two new products, Kin (elegant HR software for small companies) and DoneDone (a bug tracker that’ll really make you hate Jira), and We Are Mammoth has become a benchmark development partner for dozens of companies around the country.
Who we are today is the direct result of who we hired along the way. I’ve certainly had my impact as a cofounder, but it’s the subsequent team members who’ve given us seven great years of success, collaboration, and fulfillment. They’ve built We Are Mammoth to be the great place to work and learn that it is today.
Hiring a great team is hard. It takes patience and iteration. At small companies, every new addition has an exponential impact on social dynamics, productivity, and skills. Hire a bad apple, and they make life miserable for everyone. Hire someone who fits like a glove, and it puts the entire team into high gear. As a founder, hiring is, quite simply, the most important skill you have.
Here are a few other insights I’ve learned as we’ve patiently grown our team over the years.
Every team starts with a first hire. As a newbie employer in 2007, I hadn’t considered how profound an impact our first hire would have. All of the sudden, we were employers, not founders. We had to get our acts together, from payroll, to contracts, to equipment. It’s a big deal. Not just for the founders, but for that first, brave soul joining your team. Advice to give? Don’t mess up the opportunity to make your employee’s first experiences good ones; they’ll thank you by fervently helping build your company.
For us, hiring freelancers felt like hiring mercenaries. They’re not there to buy into our vision, our culture, or our team. They’re there to build some stuff, collect a check, and extract themselves from the organization. As a company that’s always emphasized camaraderie and ownership, freelancers never sat well. We preferred to, gulp, just hire.
As for hiring permanent employees, we’ve done it two ways. Some folks came on permanently from the get go. Others have been contract-to-hire. We’ve had success with both. I do think, though, that contract-to-hire puts a fire under everyone’s butt to make a quality experience out of those first few months. Both sides know they have to deliver on their promises.
A majority of our team is in Chicago. On any given day, about half work remotely from home, a café, or an airport. We also have four folks working remotely from other states. Everyone works where they’re most productive. We have a good VPN, we’re HipChat junkies, and we use video conferencing (Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting) extensively to bridge the physical gap between team members. For us, it’s been great. Our out-of-towners feel connected by using the exact same tools our in-housers use.
Why remote? We had a hard time competing for talent in Chicago (against big guys like Groupon). So we looked elsewhere and found great people who are happy where they are and wanted to work with us. So be it. (Allan Note: read this article on “Selling A Global Team to Clients”)
Company culture is all the rage these days. How to build it, nurture it, share it. I have an opinion on this. Forget about it. For the most part, it’s out of your hands as a founder once your team starts to flourish. What you need to do is hire well and ensure your company is operationally pristine. Pay people on time, keep your network fast, your computers maintained, and be a good employer by ensuring folks take time off. The rest? It’s really up to your employees. They’ll tell you what they need, so listen and do good by them. Culture will follow.
I firmly believe that in order to hire well for a job, you have to have done the job first. Maybe you’ll totally suck at it. Maybe you’ll be great. Regardless, learning a job before hiring for it has been the best way to truly vet candidates, and empathize with their role once they’re hired. The experience will also give you real tools to measure their contributions to the team.
Now. It’s also a slow way to grow, and that may rub you wrong. It’s like learning a foreign language before traveling abroad. In the end, though, it creates a more mutually gratifying relationship.