Aiming to address the HR issues faced by startups, Theodoros Giovanni and Nastasia Michael interviewed Argyris Argyrou, Founder and CEO of Ideas2life, the company responsible for Foody and AtYourService.
Argyris, which is the core aspect of your HR approach?
As most startups, we began very small and now we have a team of 32 people and growing. From the beginning we made team culture a core aspect of how we work and operate, and we still keep the same momentum. We have an informal team culture with flexible working hours. We employ several good practices including flexible working hours and working from home. We want our colleagues to enjoy their work and we do our best to maintain a team culture that fosters our values.
Have you codified your HR practices or are you still at the stage of developing them?
Up until two months ago we didn’t have anything written which was very frustrating to new members of our team. Let me give you an example. An intern arrived and had to immediately provide support over the telephone and email. During the first week of training, the intern used our internal communication platform (Slack) to let the team know about a task he was doing. I saw his comment and then sent him a task ticket (through Asana) telling him how the task should be specified, addressing the purpose and story behind it. Our intern that day had to learn something new that was not written down as a policy or procedure in our organisation in the past, since everyone learned with hands-on work. To avoid repetition and to ensure that everyone learned the same way, we spent the past couple of months codifying our procedures in a knowledge base platform available online to all new team members. We continually grow and learn, so it’s important to write down what works and how it works.
Argyris, you established two startups from scratch, so I imagine you did a lot of hiring on your own. What changes have you noticed in your recruitment approach as you grew from a team of 5 to a team of 30?
I consider myself lucky in that I have had opportunity to conduct hundreds of interviews in my previous professional capacity as a Group Marketing Manager for FrouFrou Group of Companies. I did not try to reinvent the wheel but used my experience in the field to get us up and running. As we grow, and this is currently something we are working on, we want to create a well-structured and automated recruitment process that will limit my involvement to addressing candidate shortlists. We intent to do this by creating a standardized process where candidate skills and qualifications will be compared against position-specific variables. Technology and automation are key to our business and we want to utilize them in all our processes.
And what exactly do you hope to achieve by utilizing technology and standardizing procedures?
We are doing this for two reasons. First, our team has grown a lot in the past couple of years. At the beginning we had to work with information that is very different, in terms of volume and content, to what we have today. When we had only 10 members in our team, we were recruiting about a person a month, so hiring and training was easier. Now we are rapidly expanding, expecting to recruit 30 people in 2019, which means that to maintain the same recruitment and training quality we must do things differently. Secondly, we are an organization focused around a strong team culture that we must maintain and strengthen. Here we are all about the team culture. As a founder, my input defined our team culture but at the rate we are growing we must find a better way to help sustain our corporate culture. For this reason, in the future we will introduce the position of Head of Culture and I will focus on other corporate aspects.
Let’s talk recruitment. How do you hire? Do you use referrals?
Like most companies, we advertise online, through social media and dedicated websites. Although we use referrals, we try to avoid it because there are some risks associated with it. We also work with all Cypriot Universities with computer science programs, and we are looking at final year students or students who have shown an interest in our work and Foody as part of their final year project. Last summer we interviewed 60 people that led to 24 paid internships. This was time consuming, but we ended with three full time employees, and that’s a win!
What can you tell us about your organizational structure?
We have an organizational chart but practically every person has multiple roles and teams may have several functions. We are not a typically ‘traditional’ organization in this regard.
In our experience other organization prefers specialized roles yet as you’ve mentioned you have people working in multiple roles? Is this intentional or have you yet to reach this level of specialization?
This is an interesting question. For startups, the first people to come onboard must be generalists, able to do everything out of necessity even though it may not be perfect. However, we learned that there is a turning point. Once you reach a size of 15-30 people, you need to shift from generalist to more specialized roles. We hire people we believe will fit in our team and then we intentionally have them work in multiple roles through an agile structure to help them learn about how we work and identify the most suitable roles for them. This is because most people working here are with us for less than a year. Colleagues who have been with us for 2-5 years, and have deep expertise in their field, need to span across the board to transfer their knowledge to the rest of the team
Do you have employee’s turnover?
Although we are a young company, we have very low employee turnover.
Do you keep and monitor any KPIs?
Yes, we have KPIs. Currently we keep our eyes on 10 competency areas on things we want to automate. We also monitor how well colleagues give and receive feedback.
Considering that employees have multiple roles, do you use the same competency areas for everyone?
As a team we employ the 50-50 rule. Half competencies relate to how well people fit within their teams, and the other half about job specific knowledge.
So, you evaluate both soft and hard skills?
Exactly. Let’s go back to our recruitment process. We don’t conduct first interviews in person but online. We have an online questionnaire with questions such as ‘What are your three sources for marketing news? Please briefly elaborate on your reasoning’. We have an online questionnaire with 10 questions and based on the answers we get we invite about 60% of candidates for a personal interview. This provides for good screening and saves us a lot of time.
Who designed this questionnaire?
I designed it myself. We conducted considerable research before finalizing our questionnaire, and it is designed to help us see how a candidate thinks and acts. If we are hiring for a customer support position, we shift our attention to how candidates express themselves.
Let’s talk about the challenges of managing millennials. As you know, millennials take risks, change jobs more easily than previous generations and prefer project-based work with rapid career progression opportunities. How do you cope with this?
We are still at the honeymoon period. Two years ago, we were only seven people, last year was twelve and this year we are 32. The challenge for us in the lack of career advancement opportunities but that we don’t have enough people with the experience and growth that will enable them to take positions of responsibility. I am Head of HR and Head of Marketing until a responsible person is ready to assume these roles. We try our best to offer positions of responsibility within our organization.
Do you believe you are a good organization for millennials to work?
I believe we are an ideal organization for millennials. We are growing fast, and everyone can see the possibilities and we offer tremendous and rapid learning opportunities.
Tell us about performance appraisal at your organization.
Currently I am the one doing most of the evaluations. As of next year, I will limit my role. We receive and provide 360o feedback and we ask people to rate and evaluate their colleagues in their business team on work performance as well as ranking their preferred working partners. We found that ranking is better than rating because it makes people think and prioritize rather than just stating a number. It helps us find our blind spots.
How do you keep employees happy and satisfied with their job?
People differ so it’s hard to say. I try to keep my ear on the ground and identify problems before they grow. I always conduct monthly meetings with everyone in my team. We go for a walk and discuss everything together. It is very easy and simple for all problem areas to come up when you are genuinely involved and engaged with your people, especially in the first month. So, whenever there is an issue, we always discuss it. Now we are creating many new processes that will also include monitoring job satisfaction. We expect to grow to 120 people in the next couple of years and it will be harder for me to conduct monthly meetings. At that stage, monthly meetings will become quarterly meetings, which will be very different.
And our final question. What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to an HR professional?
Be as honest and as transparent as you can. There is no alternative to honesty. Our organization is 100% transparent. The only thing people don’t have access to, for obvious reasons, are their appraisal rankings. If you are honest, difficult discussions can be made before matters become more difficult. If you are honest, you can identify problems before they grow. If you are honest, you don’t have to play games, you project your motivations and aspirations more effectively which is very helpful to management. My advice is to have honest conversations. This is the most important advice I believe I can give.