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How to hire fast – without damaging startup culture



Expert | Startup

By Aaron Brooks

Having grown their team by 230% in the last year, Vamp’s Aaron Brooks reflects on hard lessons learned from a year of recruitment.

Vamp, an influencer marketing platform I co-founded in 2015, turned three last year. In that time we’ve grown quickly. In 2018 Deloitte named us the forth fastest-growing tech company in Australia and New York became our sixth international office. We knew a dramatic headcount increase was the only way to continue this pace of expansion. What we didn’t realise was that our recruitment drive would send around the world, meeting hundreds of people, eventually hiring 49, taking us from a team of 21 to 70.

Our experience has been hiring into a fast-paced company that is leading a quickly-evolving industry. That means it has been essential that we hire creative, curious and persistent people to future-proof Vamp. It has been a steep learning curve with a lot of lessons along the way.

Put culture first

There’s nothing like the atmosphere in a startup, when you’re all working together closely to make  your goals happen. As we’ve grown, we’ve become fiercely protective of preserving that culture and it is such an integral part of our recruitment. But it’s not always about finding a culture ‘fit’, you’re looking for people that can enhance, not just blend in. 

I try to establish whether someones personality and values align with Vamp’s straight away. It’s in everyones interests to make sure they are compatible. Tight teams with shared goals are more effective in my experience. If you can nail this first judgement, it should also slow your staff turnover.

Of course balancing that with the right skillset is a challenge. In the past we’ve hired people based on culture and decided to wait for the skills develop. You want to give people a shot. Sometimes they can work so hard and it can be amazing, but it doesn’t always work out that way. If they don’t it can be really underwhelming. You need culture and competency, and there’s no formula for it, it’s hard. Which takes me to my next point.

Want to stay sane? Create a process

Any startup founder will tell you the same thing: delegation isn’t a luxury you can afford in the early years. Juggling the growth of a new business, myself and co-founder personally scoured the world for talent, took flights to meet them and spent hours getting to know them. We hired incredible people as a result, but it simply isn’t sustainable.

As well as hiring a fantastic recruitment manager, it was important for us to design a blueprint for all employees, departments and countries to follow. This meant that we would have a consistent approach to hiring world-wide and our managers could share the job of interviewing for their individual teams. It made our fast-paced recruitment drive sustainable.

Take inspiration from the best

We based this recruitment strategy on Amazon’s process. Their 14 leadership principles are listed on their website and if you’re a candidate, they’ll ask you two questions that align with a leadership principe. The response is then measured by a STAR scale: situation, task, action, result. We have taken inspiration from this for our own process, defining Vamp’s four key values and referencing them in our interviews.

This framework gives the interview structure, makes it easier for candidates to frame a response and allows us as interviewers to dig deeper into their resumes. It helps avoid unhelpful, basic chats by getting straight to the nitty gritty and provides a clear way to assess and compare their answers. We can adapt this to suit the different roles in the business. For instance, in sales, we find people need to be highly creative, so we would frame a question about that value to make that assessment. We’ll also use department-specific tasks to test skills competency or value alignment.

As an interviewer you can be on great form one day then have an off day the next, it happens. But if you’ve got a format to follow it covers that. You’re still going to get the answers from the candidate that you want.

I always start with ‘why Vamp?’

Our interviews are tough, but I think that’s a good thing. Of course you give leniency, people don’t need to be perfect and we pre-warn candidates that we’ll ask competency-based questions. How much preparation they do is up to them – and soon becomes obvious to you.

There are certain questions I’ll always ask. ‘Why Vamp?’ reveals how much research has been done and how much passion is there. I’ll also always ask, ‘what did YOU contribute?’ It’s amazing how often a candidate will tell you the achievements of a team but completely leave out their role. I’m always looking for insightful questions in response. If a candidate has no questions for me it’s a huge reg flag and indicates a lack of research. Curiosity is key.

Of course there is so much you can learn from a candidate outside of a process and questions. Last year a guy flew from Seattle to meet us in San Francisco and scaled the highest hill, unbeknown to us, with his leg in a cast. You can’t knock that kind of dedication. I’ve found a rigid process essential, but sometimes ultimately you have to go with your gut.