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Ten Valuable Hiring Lessons for Small Businesses

It’s easy to make mistakes when it comes to hiring. Spire’s founder, Jeremy Harrison, admits he’s made a few mistakes along the way. Here are ten hiring lessons he learned firsthand over our first ten years in business.

Author: Jeremy Harrison

November 5, 2021

When people visit Spire, they often ask, “How did you build this team?” I’ve been blessed to cross paths with the right people at the right time, over and over again.

Spire Team 2019

But we entrepreneurs are known for making things up as we go. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and I usually end up learning things the hard way. Here are 10 hiring lessons that I learned firsthand over our first ten years in business.

LESSON #1: Delegate Carefully with the 80/20 Principle

Almost every startup has a stage where you must do everything yourself. That’s a hard stretch—doing sales and marketing, doing the technical work, and doing the customer service and bookkeeping.

When you get ready to make your first hire, remember to choose carefully what roles you plan to delegate. When I made my first hire, I got this wrong. I hired a marketing intern and gave him tasks that I should have been doing. Meanwhile, I stayed bogged down in all the time-consuming work and couldn’t give him the direction he needed.

Whenever you hire someone to help you, start with the 80/20 principle. Eighty percent of the value you produce comes from the stuff you spend twenty percent of your time doing. Find the lower-value stuff that takes up 80% of your time (that would be 32 hours of a 40-hour week) and delegate it. That frees you up to pour more time into the 20% work that yields the best results.

LESSON #2: Plan Ahead for Team Growth

It was soon time to hire my first full-time employee. After botching the way I delegated work with the marketing intern, I wanted to get it right.  Based on something I read in The E-Myth Revisited, I decided to create a simple organizational chart, which showed what Spire would look like with eight employees. 

Our first org chart

I handed it to Paul, my first employee. He looked at me like I was crazy. After all, we were the only two guys in the building! I explained that all eight job roles on the org chart needed to be covered. Since there were only two of us, we had to divide them up. 

Together, we decided who would own each job role. Paul took three and I took five. We started documenting some basic rules for how we’d do each role.

Over time, we started hiring more people to cover some of those job roles, and we already had some documentation on each role that we could hand to a new hire and say, “Now, make this better.”

LESSON #3: Buy It, Don’t Build It

In the early days of your startup, cash is always tight. This can lead to bad decisions about how you invest your team’s time. Our third year in business, I messed this up badly… twice. 

First was the project management system. We thought our workflow was unique, and we couldn’t find software to accommodate it, so we tried to build our own. This was a disaster. Take it from me.  When you’re in startup mode, if you can’t find any software that fits your workflow, it’s probably because the workflow has blindspots that you’ll discover later. Tweak your workflow to fit affordable software that already exists, and save your team’s time to do work you can get paid for.

Spire team, after the DIY office renovation, 2011

Not learning my lesson, later that same year we did it again with office space—taking on a DIY project ripping out walls, drywalling, sanding, and painting. If you’ve ever watched four computer geeks do home improvement, it’s not pretty. The work consumed a full eight weeks of our time, attention, and billable hours.

Time is money in any business. Your startup may be strapped for cash, but your time is even more limited. So buy it, don’t build it.

Whitney, Morgan and Ashley, 2015LESSON #4: Don’t Skimp on Finding a Smart, Passionate Customer Service Rock Star

This is the most important person on your team—someone who can delight customers, attend to a growing list of details, and hold everything together. In 2009 at Spire, this was Ashley. She held our company together, anchoring our front desk for many years. She’s still at Spire today, playing a leadership role on our web team. Don’t skimp on finding a smart, passionate person to anchor your customer service, and do it as soon as possible.

LESSON #5: Get Clear on Who Is in Charge of Sales

As your business expenses grow, sales become increasingly important. If you’re good at it, it’s probably you, and you should get as much other stuff off your plate so you can really focus on it. If you hire someone to lead sales, I suggest spending extra on someone with experience who wants to get paid on commission. If they’re good, they will become your highest paid employee, but only because they are producing results. Investing in an experienced sales person is money well spent.

LESSON #6: Not All Revenue Is Good Revenue

As you grow, lots of opportunities will present themselves, which can pull your team away from the company’s core focus. Just because your team CAN do something doesn’t mean it SHOULD. Even when you need the cash, you need to be picky about the projects you accept.

Ribbon Cutting 2012Spire had a lot of talented programmers, so we started taking bigger-ticket orders for complicated, custom-built applications. This distracted our team and got us bogged down in unprofitable work that wasn’t related to my passion for helping people with their marketing. That work almost destroyed our credibility and almost sunk the company.

Not all revenue is good revenue. Get clear about what your team can do best, and say NO to the rest.

LESSON #7: Swallow Frogs

One of our leaders talks about “swallowing small frogs before they become big frogs.” There are times in your business that you are going to have to make staffing changes that you don’t want to make, decisions that might seem easier to delay or ignore. 

In 2012, I made what was by far the hardest decision of my career, a lay-off that was deeply personal and painful for everyone involved. After a lot of prayer, I finally got clarity that God’s will doesn’t contradict. If this move was right for my company, it would be right for everyone involved. That proved to be true as this former employee recovered and thrived after leaving.

This was a formational lesson for my business. Today I make much faster, clearer decisions when I determine someone no longer fits on the team. While it’s always hard, I now see it as helping that person develop and find their way. I’ve maintained good relationships with all of Spire’s former employees.

Strategic planning, September 2014LESSON #8: A Clear Purpose, Mission, and Values Will Ignite and Unify Your Team

As the leader, you probably have a great vision for your company. I did from the beginning. Unfortunately, I realized that the vision in my head and my heart was never communicated clearly to my team. This led to a lack of focus and motivation.

So in 2014, we invested in a process to get really clear about our purpose, a clear five-year mission, and a set of seven values that drive the way we do things and whom we hire and fire. 

The process ignited the team with a sense of shared purpose, gave us great unity, and has led to a quarterly planning process that is driving the most steady, focused growth we’ve ever had.

Today, I hire and fire based on how people align with our values and how our purpose as a company resonates with their purposes in life.

Team, 2016LESSON #9: Don’t Let a Job Description Keep You from Hiring the Best Person

Imagine you have two solid candidates to fill a job opening. One candidate fits your job description perfectly. The other candidate doesn’t fit the job description, but you find yourself wanting to change the job description so you can hire them.  What do you do? I say, change the job description. Every time.  Build your company around great people, not around job roles. When you get the right people on the bus, your company becomes more dynamic than you could ever imagine. I did this a couple years ago, putting a high-potential person in an entry-level role even though she wasn’t fully qualified. She figured it out instantly and climbed the ladder rapidly. Today she is one of our top leaders.

LESSON #10: Focus on Development, not Growth

Make no mistake. I want Spire to grow. This drive for growth has sometimes caused me to mix up priorities along the way. Some wise people on my advisory team have helped me get this right.

Jim Steen, Kenyon CollegeOne advisor shared a story of Jim Steen, the legendary swim coach from Kenyon College who has more national titles than any coach in the history of college sports. Coach Steen explained how he never started a season focused on winning championships. Instead, he focused on developing each swimmer to reach their full potential. 

I now realize that growth is a by-product of developing each member of my team. Focus on helping your people develop and grow. Help them reach their full potential. When each member of your team is maximizing their potential, and constantly stretching their limits, we’ve found that growth becomes a very natural by-product.

I am so thankful for our team. I’m equally thankful for the people who were once a part of this team and made selfless contributions along the way in our pursuit to empower small business success that transforms communities.

No matter what stage your business is in, I wish you well as you grow and develop your team! If you are finding it challenging to attract and retain quality employees, we offer a half-day seminar called The Hiring Workshop. Learn more about what we’ve learned about hiring at a workshop offering near you.

The Hiring Workshop

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