In a conversation with us, Manmeet Sandhu, Head of HR, PhonePe talks about the challenges in hiring for a startup, sourcing the best talent, ensuring employee long-term stickiness and engagement, and more.
Q. What are the key roles to hire first in terms of startup recruitment and why? In the case of PhonePe, what has been the process?
A. Product/tech leadership. We recently celebrated 5 years of PhonePe with a group of 20 core employees who were there at the launch of the PhonePe app in August 2016. For us, the first priority was to get the fundamentals of technology right, a tight group of inter-functional teams including tech, product, and business with a deep understanding of their own craft and perspective to put the organisation first. Once the product was out there, ensuring tight discipline on the numbers through the business finance and accounting teams was the next priority.
Q.What is the best source to hire when a start-up is still building its team and why?
A. The first 250 people who joined us were all the people who knew the founders and had faith in the vision. They frequently took pay cuts to join us, knowing that working at a startup was about wanting to build for impact and leave a legacy. The financial rewards would come if we get the inputs right – they would merely be a side effect.
More than at any other time, a company in its initial stage needs missionaries. It needs people who are not limited by the boundaries of their jobs and can put the organisation first. It needs people who are not worried about rolling up their sleeves and solving the problems that need solving. Doing this requires faith, commitment, and an ability to think beyond personal goals – something that is much easier to do when you have an existing relationship.
Q.Should a startup opt for a generalist team or a specialist team initially?
A. Startups need experts who are fungible. People who are curious about the world around them and willing to leverage their expertise in a way that best serves the organisation’s goals. This is usually a lot more about motivation and willingness than skills. People in a startup need to own their space and bring their deep understanding to the problem, but they also need to understand the other factors influencing the solution and be open-minded enough to build new perspectives. Curiosity, open-mindedness, and rigour are more important than a specific set of educational qualifications or experience.
More than at any other time, a company in its initial stage needs missionaries. It needs people who are not limited by the boundaries of their jobs and can put the organisation first. It needs people who are not worried about rolling up their sleeves and solving the problems that need solving. Doing this requires faith, commitment, and an ability to think beyond personal goals.
Q. What are the key challenges in hiring for a startup business?
A. When hiring for a startup you need people to give up the security, financial stability, and comfort of their job to come and join you for a dream. Frequently, at the early stage, there will not be enough money or any of the niceties of a large company. This means that they must really be bought into the dream and be hungry to create the impact they would never be able to make in their current role. They must be bold enough to take on unsolved problems and experiment till we have the right solution even while working with rigour, quality, and focus. Hiring for a startup requires direct attention by the existing team, without it being relegated to a junior recruiter. Your passion for the organisation is the strongest tool you have to get the right people in, meaning that each individual in the company must be willing to be a recruiter.
Q. What are the lessons you would share with the startups today on early hiring challenges based on your experience?
A. Startups don’t have the brand pull and the resources of a large organisation. So they really have to put everyone in the company willing to push to hire. In the absence of fancy budgets or a shiny new product out there, startups can only sell their own depth of expertise and experience and the power of their dream. So they have to be willing to invest a disproportionate amount of time sharing their expertise, their vision, and the culture they want to build.
Q. How do startups ensure employee stickiness considering most of them may see their runway (milestones) get extended due to the present scenario?
A. Long-term stickiness and engagement for a startup are really the same as in any established organization – spending time with the team to communicate vision, understanding individual motivations and aligning to those, and making sure that they see you as someone who cares about them and will take care of them in times of need. Startups are about buying into the dream of disproportionate long-term gains, the chance to create a considerable impact, and solve unsolved problems. They are not for everyone. There will always be short-term blips where throwing money will work, but that strategy never works for the long term, and never for the talent you really want.