Veriff's Head of People Operations writes a memo to her future self as our team continues to grow.
Kristina Lilleõis, February 11th, 2019
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Every startup dreams of explosive expansion — a supernova of a signal that we’ve secured our place in the world. Veriff has a hundred employees now. A year ago, eight. And in the next six months we’ll need to hit 260. It’s exhilarating. However, it also forces us to look back to the journey that we’ve had so far and hope that at least in some way it will prepare us for the things to come.
As a disclaimer this reflection is from someone who is not academically educated in HR, until three months ago hadn’t had event thought about working in human resources and went through a pretty nasty burn-out just recently. Nevertheless, startup life, the pleasures and worries of being a cofounder, and the joy of getting things in order are deeply engraved in me. More importantly, I’ve seen what makes our team happy, what causes frustration and what could be the key to failure no matter how good the product, how clear the vision or how great the ambitions.
Talking of the product, vision and ambitions – Veriff, for me, has nailed them all. I get this question asked quite often during interviews – why I personally decided to join Veriff. For me it’s simple: Veriff as the product has actual technical superiority, the vision could change some very important things in the world and the ambitions are moon-high. And to be honest, I can feel that I’m not the only one thinking like that. The excitement that you feel in the office, because Veriff could turn into something really big, is undeniable. And that, my friends, is a big fat plus point to Veriff. It doesn’t matter what decade you were born, if you’re a millennial or not – you need a purpose in life. Hence, if 1/3 of your day could be spent working on something with a purpose bigger than you, in Veriff’s case – fighting fraud with all the power we have, it is pretty compelling argument for you to come to work in the morning. And that will be the case no matter the team size.
Now, the tricky part is to keep that vision and purpose in everyone’s mind. Especially so when the team and distance from the founding team grows. Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb has said that culture at scale is all about repetition — repeating over and over again the things that matter; and I couldn’t agree more.
At times at Veriff we have not done that enough and this has caused confusion, frustration and even a feeling of us vs. them — within the team. People get so sucked into their everyday work that they quite often don’t have the bandwidth to step back and see the big picture – why are we doing this in the first place? And that is exactly why they must be forced to do so.
I am going to say that this is still an area for improvement for us, but we’ve made some pretty decent progress with some key initiatives.
Our next step is to articulate our team’s DNA with input from everyone. We’ll start quarterly meetings to discuss and share longer-term goals for the company — and each team. Yes, all those initiatives take time, but no matter how busy you are, if you don’t make an effort that your entire team is aligned on why, what and how we are doing, keeping your team strong and united will be a serious challenge.
It’s not just about shouting inspiration, vision and purpose from the office mountaintop. It takes communication from founders, between teams, and communication that transports seemingly-trivial daily minutiae.
I must say that the level of transparency coming from Janer and Kaarel (Veriff’s founders) in sharing internally what is happening in Veriff is really great. Be it photos from airports, sharing feedback from investors or explaining inside jokes to new joiners, they help create tribal stories and Veriff folklore. May this will also continue when there are several hundred our thousands of us. So a point for Veriff on that one.
Actually, I’ll give the guys another point for identifying great team leads and trusting them to do their job. By not getting involved in every single detail of every single team, the founders send a clear message the team leads are capable of supporting their teams and trusted to make the right decisions. A company cannot function to its fullest potential if the founders insist on getting involved in everything.
However, despite the great work our team leads do, we are growing so fast that the teams have somewhat started to live their own life. Yes, we are working towards the same goals, but the communication between teams is not happening that easily any more. Adding the fact that we are currently in two separate offices, is not helping either.
We’ve recognized this and are taking steps to bring teams closer again. These include cross-team projects, team events (if you can recommend a venue that can accommodate 200+ people for Veriff Summer Days, let me know), mixing people from different teams during onboarding, and hosting weekly mix and mingle catch-ups to create shared memories. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that it is a worry of mine and it must be dealt with before we grow to our next milestone.
About growing to our next milestone, to 260 people, we not just have to make sure our existing team is cohesive and happy, but we also have to hire a lot of people. And we have to hire fast and well. That means that not all new team members will have start-up experience and know what this fast-paced life is all about.
We have to communicate something early on: things aren’t perfect. Yes, we hire to get there, but while on the way, we don’t have procedures and policies for everything. Hey, sometimes we don’t even have chairs for everyone. Expectation management.
That being said, when you get to 150 team members, people start expecting you to have your things in order. I start expecting us to have our things in order. At that stage this start-up scrappiness will start getting in the way of success. Especially in HR.
To be honest, I think HR is probably the only part in a start-up where you are not allowed to be scrappy because you are dealing with someone’s personal well-being, their financial security, their holiday plans and so on – all of those things, where no-one is easily willing to make discounts. So here’s some word of advice - get your team’s paperwork in order early on, hire a stellar HR team (we have two top-notch Recruiters, amazing HR assistant and me (trying to find my way)), get a decent HR software and sort out the everyday things. Such as having enough meeting rooms. (Want to incur someone’s wrath? Tell them all room’s are booked.) This is the foundation. Get it sorted before getting high on expansion. Otherwise HR, or properly resourcing your humans, will be your bottleneck.
That’s what this piece really is. At HR you are in a unique position. You talk to all teams and founders, yet you aren’t directly involved in their work. This affords you the luxury of taking a step back to see what works in your company’s communication, leadership, and teamwork — and what doesn’t.
So, use that perspective to remind people that they have to take vacations even if they’re too busy or the projects are too exiting, otherwise pretty soon nothing seems exiting anymore. Make sure that we celebrate our successes even when things seem not that bright. And check in with this piece when we’re a team of 260 to see how it went. And whether we stuck to the plan.