Despite the vast array of literature on the topic, most entrepreneurs tend to find that people management is best learnt on the job
The chance to be your own boss is undoubtedly one of the main draws of entrepreneurship. However, while many entrepreneurs are willing and able to run things on their lonesome for the first few months, or even years, recruitment eventually becomes a necessity. While the hiring process itself can throw up a number of headaches for first time-business owners, the more daunting prospect is what follows: becoming somebody else’s boss.
Needless to say, there are countless entrepreneurs who had no prior experience of taking a team under their wing, telling them what’s what and aiding their professional development. Indeed, most will be more used to being towards the lower end of a company hierarchy. Alternatively, they may have started their business straight out of university or, in the case of Ben Towers, while still at school. The founder of Towers Design, the digital agency, was 11 years old when he earned £50 designing his first website for a family friend. Towers Design now boasts a workforce of 15 and the young entrepreneur is crowdfunding his second venture, Social Marley, a social media dashboard.
Balancing his educational commitments with running a business is hard enough – Towers has just sat his GCSE exams – but additional difficulties arose when he hired his first employee. “When they realised I was at school during the day, they used to start work at 10.30 or 11.00 and I wouldn’t know,” Towers explains. “I ended up having to get rid of them and finding someone else because they were abusing the fact that I wasn’t there.”
Suffice to say, Towers learnt some valuable lessons from the experience. “I was trying to find someone who had a really good portfolio; someone who had all the necessary qualifications in website design,” he continues. “But what I actually realised was that because somebody is more qualified, it doesn’t always means they’re the best. The next person I took on left school when she was 16 but she was amazing because she shared the same vision as me. Although the work wasn’t quite as good, her quality quickly picked up because she was keen to improve and keen to help. One of the things I learned from that is when trying to find someone, go with your gut instinct.”
With the youngest employee at Towers Design aged 23 – six years older than Towers – it’s safe to say the challenge of people management takes on an added dimension for this particular entrepreneur. However, Towers’ age is no longer the hindrance it once was. “You get the odd comment thrown at you but I am the only source of household income for many of my staff so they are actually grateful with the fact I have taken them on and given them a job,” he says.
It can also help engender a different sort of company culture, he suggests. “What a lot of more experienced people tend to lack is either enthusiasm or a forward-thinking perspective on things. By having a boss who is really enthusiastic and forward-looking, people are likely to follow suit.”
Will Rees, co-founder and director of Direct Online Services, the e-commerce company, faced a similar challenge. Having founded the business with his father in 2009, Rees has taken it from a start-up trading on eBay to a £15m turnover company with 150 staff across four locations in the UK and Europe. While the 27-year-old admits there was some initial scepticism from older employees, he has discovered that a personal touch can make all the difference. “You almost have to lead by example,” Rees explains. “As long as you treat people with respect and show them that you are where you are because of your ability and how you have performed – rather than just being there for the sake of it – people will respect that and they will value you as a leader rather than being envious.”
Given the speed at which entrepreneurs like to get things moving, they often don’t have a chance to consider, let alone prepare, for the prospect of people management. The result of this, in many circumstances, is that their first hire has a fairly undefined brief. “That is classic entrepreneur mistake number one: not planning to hire somebody and more importantly not really having a job role for somebody,” says Tim Langley, co-founder and CEO of CANDDi, the digital marketing automation company. As Towers admits, it’s spur of the moment-type stuff. “I never prepared myself at all,” he says. “It was more, ‘Oh look, quick, I need to find someone. This is all getting a bit out of hand.’”
While chaos is part and parcel of starting a business, there is another reason why entrepreneurs may not recruit until the situation becomes critical. It can just be hard to let go, admits Elliot Dawes, co-founder and managing director of Bulk Powders, the online supplier of sports nutrition supplements. “When you don’t have staff, you always think, ‘nobody is going to be able to do this as well as I can’, whereas with the right training and the right leadership, they can,” says Dawes. “That was part of the reason we didn’t take on staff for so long. We were slightly reluctant and thought nobody is going to be able to pack orders as quickly as we can, or write emails as professionally.”
With no opportunity for sufficient preparation, people management has to be learnt on the job. Essentially, it’s about throwing yourself in at the deep end and remembering there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “You can do all the research and read all the books about people management, but actually you just need to do it,” says Towers. “Going out, doing it, learning from your mistakes and getting experience from it is a lot more beneficial than spending hours researching and reading about other people’s mistakes.”
Of course, once a business starts to scale, an entrepreneur can employ the art of delegation, allowing them to focus on business-critical issues such as keeping investors sweet. But in the early stages, they have no choice but to front the challenge of balancing their own workload with the demands of managing a small team of employees. “As you start to grow as a company, the entrepreneur is less of a people manager and more of an influencer. They are more the person who makes things happen,” says Towers. “But when you are a start-up, people management is crucial.”
And with many entrepreneurs openly admitting that people management isn’t their forte, it is all about learning from one’s mistakes. “I have made a million mistakes as a manager and a hirer but if you are doing the right thing by your business, you can make almost every mistake in the world and get away with it,” says Langley. He goes on to suggest that people management – at least in its truest form – isn’t always necessary with the first few employees. “There are a number of people who need leadership, not management. Those are the kind of people you want to find at the very beginning: people who run through fire,” he says. “I have been very lucky in my career to have bumped into four or five such people in relevant stages in the business.”
But, even Langley admits there comes a time when proper procedures become paramount. “As you grow, you need to look at how you build in the processes to give people a regular understanding of what their job is,” he says. “Because if you are running through fire forever, it gets very tiring.”