Start-up Life Lessons Learned

Built in ChicagoWritten by: Maria Christopoulos Katris, CEO of Built In Chicago

It really is about the person, not the role

For the past few months I've dedicated 90 percent of my time to interviewing, hiring and firing. I actually hired and fired someone in one week — not something I am proud of, but it was necessary. Why? Wrong person. I rushed to fill a role, instead of focusing on finding the right person. From then on, I made a commitment to myself that I would never do this again. Moving forward, I would focus on the right person.

In early February, we interviewed someone we really liked for one of our account manager roles. But for some reason, I did not pull the trigger and extend her an offer. Four weeks passed, and I kept thinking about her as a potential addition to our team. I knew she was smart, capable and excited about Built In. I eventually called her again to talk about the role. I really wasn’t sure where the conversation would go, but I knew my instincts would lead me to the right decision.

As we began talking, she mentioned how she was excited to join our team because she would also be able to help with our events. Just then I knew it — I had to bring her in to lead our local and national events. I pitched her the account management position and our event position, and asked her which seemed more exciting. We both knew she would be our next director of events.

To grow, you have to trust your team

Over the past two months, I’ve had multiple conversations with my board member and mentor, Ellen Carnahan, about the importance of getting help, so I can get out of the weeds. Having run a “bootstrapped” operation for the first 3.5 years this, of course, was not going to be easy.

‘Wait, you mean you don’t want me editing blog posts before newsletters get published? I shouldn’t be planning events? Hmm.’

While intuitively I knew this, it was much harder than I expected to implement. For nearly three years we were just two full-time employees. Now we are funded with 12 full-time employees en route to 15. Built In has changed. My role as CEO needed to change too.

One day in late January it struck me — we were way past the days of checking our bank account daily, and if we wanted to grow there was only one option: hire, spend (within reason, of course) and trust.

So, I did two things. First, I told my current team I could no longer be in the weeds if we wanted to grow and I began to trust them more. Second, I started hiring. Literally, I spend 90 percent of every day hiring.

Looking back I probably should’ve moved faster. I wonder what growth would’ve looked like if I added additional staff earlier. Saying that, I would never change the outcome — we’ve attracted some great folks to our team and sometimes I think had we not taken our time: would we be firing right now instead of growing rapidly?

The team that planks together… stays together

As with any small startup we offer limited tangible perks, but have a lot of expectations of our team. So, what do we offer? Daily plank sessions and lots of wine.

No, really. Adam, our head of product, leads us in daily plank sessions and I lead the weekly wine consumption. Those are minor activities, but important bonding moments when your team is working intensely 100 percent of the time.

Sometimes random plank sessions or opening a bottle of wine at 4 p.m. on a Thursday is just enough to keep everyone sane when a typical day involves eating lunch at your desk and being on your email 24/7. It helps me to reset and relax for five minutes. I am guessing my team is grateful to see me laughing and asking them about their dating lives vs. talking about our KPIs and revenue. Our team is not replaceable and should never feel as though they are. Moments like those remind us why we work together.

My next goal is to Skype in our employees who work in other markets. This is why Skype developed the video feature, right?

You must engage and learn from your peers and mentors

I am always learning from others — friends, investors, mentors, my team, books, etc. While it can be exhausting and sometimes confusing — because most people are not intimately involved with your business — it's important. The key is extracting the messages they provide and learning what to apply vs. not to apply to your business.

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