You have a million things to consider when investing your startup’s money. Developing your product is just the beginning. Then come the marketing, sales, and accounting considerations. But throughout all this, you can’t overlook the single most important financial consideration: your team. Your employees, after all, become part of what you sell.
While you absolutely need to keep an eye on earnings and burn rate, human capital is ultimately the fuel that makes the machine run. The ability to attract, engage, and grow talented employees makes the difference between the startups that thrive and those that die.
Talent development can even strengthen a company’s investment portfolio. Organizations that made strong investments in talent development outperformed the S&P 500 by 15 percent over two years, according to a study performed by Laurie Bassi, CEO of Bassi Investments, for KnowledgeAdvisors (which has since been acquired by CEB).
Companies that commit to their teams succeed because they attract hard-to-recruit talent like Brianna Crab, a data engineer at Capital One. Crab says she was swayed by the company’s culture of continuous learning — not the perks or salary — proving that employee development hones the sharpest competitive edge companies can buy.
Talent vs. Training.
As a startup, you’re doing things that have never been done before. Job postings often target specific roles and skills, but you also need quick learners who can grow at the same fast pace as your company. Your business plan needs to set the course for how you invest in your team.
What do you value most about your employees? Does your budget reflect that? Depending on your startup’s needs, it can be a toss-up on whether to hire for attitude or skill.
WeVue co-founder Taylor Wallace told me he doesn’t have a lot of time for training in the competitive software development industry, so he hires the “naturally curious” to fit with the company’s product-oriented business model. He wants to hire “someone who is not afraid to go figure it out on her own, who has the capacity to discover what is needed and then present the business case for how to get that skill.”
On the other side of the coin is Kent Barnett, my former employer. When he founded ClientLoyalty, Barnett leveraged the proven skill sets of his first two hires to attract more funding from investors. His investment in human capital was as much a part of his business plan as market opportunity and fundraising.
How to Make Human Capital Work for You.
Whether it’s hiring or training, any investment in talent that’s aligned with your business strategy and learning can only benefit your company. So what’s the best way to create your dream team?
1. Study your game plan.
Always sync up your training and hiring decisions with your business model: Do you want to be the next Nordstrom of customer service, the next Microsoft of tech products, or a model of operational efficiency like FedEx? Don’t forget to consider your level of funding, too. For some startups, the right approach might be to hire people at a lower cost and have them wear a lot of hats. Others may need a high-level new hire to start things off with a bang.
Barnett says he’s seen both tactics work to launch high-performing startups. One of his most memorable hires was a very talented — and expensive — employee who joined the company with a one-year commitment to do a specific job. On the other hand, Barnett recalls a former co-worker hired as a utility player who offered immediate returns.
2. Prioritize your needs.
Take a look at the competitive landscape to figure out what specific knowledge or skills will rocket your startup forward. Don’t stop at the technical skills. Dig deeper to determine whether you need an employee who can work autonomously, for example, or someone who can follow directions and excel at documentation. Do you need to recruit a new hire to achieve your vision, or does someone on your team right now show the potential to develop into a key player?
When Chris Cancialosi, founder and partner at gothamCulture, first began hiring for his team, he took into consideration the fact that professional firms often have long or uncertain sales cycles. Given the industry’s low tolerance for risk, Cancialosi recruited for cultural fit above other attributes, realizing that employees with passion and sharp problem-solving skills were even more valuable to him than those with technical know-how alone. He continues to recruit this way 10 years later.
3. Protect yourself.
In a startup, in particular, employees own a lot of the company’s future success, WeVue’s Wallace points out. If your startup offers expensive professional development opportunities, consider attaching terms to those investments to ensure your new hires don’t turn around and walk out the door with their shiny new skills. For example, have them agree to two years of service upon completing a coaching certification to avoid repaying it.
Losing an employee can cost up to 60 percent of his or her annual salary. That’s tens of thousands of dollars in lost knowledge, productivity, and time spent recruiting and onboarding a successor. Safeguarding your company could be worth it down the line.
As a startup, you’re always breaking new ground. A team of amazing employees is the most important tool to help you do it. Used wisely, the time and money you spend nurturing your team will never go to waste. Investing in talent is the single best way to help your startup thrive.
Shawn Overcast is managing director at gothamCulture. She has more than 15 years of experience quantifying the softer side of business, working with human capital departments from small startup companies to global Fortune 100 organizations. Follow gothamCulture on Twitter.