A startup is a rapidly evolving organism. Things change, and, if everything is going well, grow so quickly a year feels like a decade. For many entrepreneurs, these early adrenaline-fueled days can be a messy period of trial and error. Which is ok! Learning by doing isn’t a bad strategy.
That said, it’s helpful to learn from other founders who have gone through the same process, particularly when it comes to hiring. Identifying the roles you need to create and the people you need to fill them determines what your business can—and will—become.
In the third of a three part series, a marketing agency co-founder and CEO shares how he grew from 0 to more than 100 employees.
Name: Ryan Schulke
Business: Fluent, a marketing agency in New York
Founded in: 2010
Number of employees: 130
When Ryan Schulke and Matt Conlin started Fluent, a marketing agency in New York, eight years ago, “we couldn’t afford to use a recruiter,” Schulke says.
Instead, they relied exclusively on their personal networks, filling positions by making calls to talented former colleagues and colleagues of ex-colleagues. “At the onset certainly networking and pulling in people that we knew had good skill sets in areas that we needed perform.”
For the first 20 employees, this strategy worked great. The nascent agency was able to bring on trusted, talented people without the overhead of a recruitment firm.
But as the company skyrocketed to 50, then more than 100 people, the network effect was running dry. As a founder who is also the chief executive, Schulke is acutely aware that the strategies which “got you to today aren’t necessarily going to get you to tomorrow. Founder-led businesses often lose sight of that.”
And so the company began posting openings on job boards. Recently, it brought on a COO. Instead of relying on his depleted network, he hired a recruitment firm to find candidates. It was the right call: after interview dozens of qualified potential hires the company would never have been able to find on its own, Fluent settled on an executive with extensive experience, most recently as the CEO of a financial services company. “Sometimes you have to realize your own limitations take a step back and figure out a different way to solve a problem, Schulke says.
In the early days, it can pay to keep employees roles fluid enough they are empowered to fill roles that you don’t know you need yet. Fluent’s senior manager of office and culture was originally hired as a desk receptionist. But she displayed a passion and talent for organizing company events that boosted morale—a task that eventually became her full-time job.
Develop relationships with universities. Recent graduates can make great early hires, particularly for early-stage startups. Employees “right out of school have no preconceived notions of the way things need to work,” Schulke says, which often makes them adaptable and quick.