It's a sign of the times that Glen Calvert, now 33 and with over seven years’ experience managing startups, doesn’t see himself as a young entrepreneur.
Nonetheless, getting stuck in with his first company at 25 meant the learning curve was steep. He had passion, drive, and knowledge of his industry. What he lacked was experience in the other areas required to manage a business. “Each startup has grown from two or three people to 50 staff within 24 months, and that process has brought certain challenges,” he told a room of entrepreneurs at a recent Leap 100 breakfast hosted by Mishcon de Reya.
This is not to say the challenges of growth have been insurmountable. Calvert’s digital marketing firm Affectv has created a technology platform which aims to deliver the “next generation” of audience-targeting technology. It tracks up to 85 per cent of the UK’s online traffic, monitoring over 7bn interactions a month. Launched in 2011, it counts AmEx, Sky and Microsoft among its clients, Octopus Investments among its backers, and was ranked eleventh in 2015’s Tech Track 100.
But Calvert is candid about the less glamorous aspects of being your own boss. Ask many entrepreneurs about their biggest obstacle to growth, and they’ll likely say funding. For Calvert, however, the challenges centred on people: hiring, firing, and making redundancies.
At any startup, every hire is critically important. Early hires must have the right skills and experience, but also fit into the organisation culturally. Calvert has tackled this process with “competency interviewing”. Instead of asking open-ended questions, he looks for specific examples of competencies and ensures they match the skill set Affectv needs. This streamlined process can’t be applied to every situation, however. “When it comes to the senior team, you will need to spend a good few months looking.” And while Affectv has broadly seen good results with this method, it’s not all been plain sailing.
In 2015, the business cut staff from 65 to 50 due to “errors made on the cost base”. Calvert accepts that, while redundancies may be unpleasant, they are often inevitable if a company is to prosper.
In the face of a restructure, he points to three approaches that have helped him. First, cut much deeper than you want and believe is adequate. “This was advice given to me by our VC, which I ignored, and six months later came to regret.” Second, tell management straightaway. And third, ensure you are prepared and clear on exactly what the individual’s package looks like. “The minute you tell them, they stop thinking about the business and start thinking about their own survival.”
Two further, important considerations are additional churn and morale. In making 10 per cent of a team redundant, 15 per cent will likely end up leaving, Calvert says. So leaders must factor in which departures will have the greatest impact on the rest of the team.
For many entrepreneurs, firing an employee is the hardest part of being the boss. It’s usually the result of early staff failing to transition with the firm – the highly-skilled engineer who suddenly finds himself with 15 employees to manage. Affectv’s senior advisers hold quarterly 360 reviews with the management team, making it obvious if they’ve fallen short of expectations. As with redundancies, acting fast is key. “You need to remember that there’s a secondary impact of not letting underperforming staff go, and that’s on the rest of the team. Everyone will know that you’ve not made a decision quickly, and the murmurings of discontent will start.”
Hiring and firing are a necessary part of fast growth, but Calvert knows that future success lies in facing forward. It’s why Affectv is a Leap 100 company, and why Calvert is a 30-something to watch.