For eight years, I worked for a startup on a variety of UX, training and content strategy roles. When we were acquired in 2015, I was one of 20 employees that had stuck it out for the long haul. By the end of my time there, we had grown to about 125 employees.
I had the unique opportunity to watch the company go from a scrappy group to a robust team that doubled in size in just eight months. As we grew to match pace with product and service demand, we leveled off into a more comfortable, stable and traditional corporate phase pre-acquisition.
During my time with the company, I learned some hard truths and incredibly useful lessons about building a functional, balanced and scalable team of designers.
This is a quick start guide to building a successful startup design team.
1. Balance Your Team
There are some truly amazing design/developers out there. I am talking about folks who are phenomenal devs, know multitudes of coding languages, pick up new languages on a dime and are also outstanding designers.
Design/developer rock star hybrids are a thing. But they are rare.
I discovered that most of the time, people are amazing designers and okay developers, or amazing developers and okay designers. And that is okay! Creating a team that is a balanced combination of great designers and great developers is the key to rocking successful lean methodology.
If you weigh your team down too heavily in either direction, you are going to have a lot of stressed out, frustrated employees.
2. Focus on Team Culture Fit
This one is tricky but incredibly important. When hiring, look for people who are collaborative and ambitious and who have great culture fit with your core group. Recruit candidates with a mix of ages, education and backgrounds and get buy in from the team before extending an offer. Teamwork is required to work through stressful situations where everyone comes out on the other side breathing, so make sure you hire the right people with the right attitude.
3. Startup Culture is not for Everyone
There are people with tons of industry experience who join a startup for the casual office and progressive culture … only to get discouraged with time.
When you are hiring designers, your knee jerk response may be to bring on people having extensive experience with giant corporate brands or agencies. Startup culture is vastly different than an established company and for some people it is just not a good fit.
When hiring, ask candidates questions about project management, tools and resources used and the length of their average sprint at previous positions. If your company is not at a level that candidates are used to, you may end up with an experienced pro frustrated by a lack of process and the rest of the team will be frustrated by what they deem an elitist attitude.
4. Understand that Things Change
There are designers who feed off of the manic energy that is startup culture. They love the rush, the passion and the excitement that comes along with growing a company from a concept to a functional business.
Understand that some of those people will not stick around once the company passes through startup mode. And that is okay.
They are not bailing because they do not believe in you, your product or service, or because your company culture is horrifying. Don’t get angry. Set them free. Provide a great reference and hire new people who are comfortable at the level of growth you have achieved. New talent means fresh ideas.
You will also run into some situations in which long-term employees are not able to keep up with your growth due to lack of experience. They try, but they start drowning. Reallocate those people to other roles if possible. If there are no other roles suited for them, you need to have some really tough conversations.
Approach these conversations from a fit perspective. There is no reason to go into specifics and make them feel inadequate. Just discuss the fit issue and write them a letter of recommendation highlighting their positive contributions to your company when it was in startup mode.
Maintaining positive relationships with former employees is key, first and foremost because of the humane aspect and also because employee reviews are extremely public (Glassdoor, LinkedIn). Pulling in the best talent means making sure your company is known as a great place to work.
5. Invest in Employee Education
An educational program is huge for mid-size startups. First, it is a great way to attract talent. Second, it helps halt employee turnover. Third, hiring new people and ramping them up is expensive. Paying for current employees to hone and grow their skills will save you money in the long run.
A common argument I hear is, “But what if they leave after I invest in training them?” My response to that is the classical CFO/CEO reply, “But what if you don’t, and they stay?”
Make employee education a priority.
6. Encourage Your Teams to Attend Conferences and Events
Allowing your team to attend and cover conferences on behalf of your brand is another huge way to attract talent. Your team will network with other industry folks at events, which is a great way to bring in fresh new talent when it comes time to hire. It also gives staff the opportunity to absorb and learn new skills to help them solve tough challenges (see Point 5). Events tend to recharge employee passion about their roles. Designers need inspiration to stay creative and events are a great way to amp up their energy.
7. Make Mentorship a Core Value
Mentoring your staff can make a huge impact on startup culture. Make sure that members of your team have internal mentors who will help them grow professionally and support them. Set aside at least an hour a week for mentors and mentees to connect and enforce the practice from the top down. Help senior team members find industry contacts or online communities on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Groups and more to support them while they grow in their careers. The best designers are lifelong learners, regardless of seniority levels.
8. Mentor Junior Designers
Encourage your employees to set aside an hour a week to connect with an industry newbie who is navigating the murky waters of their first few years of the tech industry. Mentorship increases employee focus and job enjoyment because folks who are new to the industry are bursting with ideas and passion and that passion is contagious. You may also uncover some raw talent that will be a good fit for internships or entry level positions in the future.
9. Create Well-Defined Career Ladders
Set goals and define clear career paths. Once a quarter, sit down with individual members of your team to hear them out and ensure they feel they are on track. Give constructive feedback if you see areas they need to improve to move to the next rung of their ladder. “Work faster” is not constructive advice. If you have team leads, have them jot down observations and areas they think members of the team could improve. This will lead to improved productivity and a higher quality of work.
You do not have to give staff enormous raises each year to demonstrate that they are making career progress. A title change, remote autonomy and a little extra cash can go a long way in helping employees feel fulfilled.
10. Don’t Lock People into a Career Holding Pen
A lot of mid-size startups try to hold employees in a career holding pen with no exit. Forcing people to stay in the role they came into can lead to heavy turnover. If an employee is a quality contributor and hard working team player, give them the option for career mobility internally. If they find a passion outside of their role, loan them out for a project so they can see if the other role would be a good fit. It is tough to lose an employee who is very skilled in their current role, but it is much worse to lose a great employee to another company if you do not give them the opportunity they are looking for to shift internally.
Building out a lasting startup design team foundation is tough, but not impossible. Keep these tips in mind as you grow your team and move onward and upward as a company.
(Lead image source: WOCinTech Chat – Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)