Seattle HR Collective: Hiring Big Company Talent into Your Startup

October 3, 2019
October 3, 2019 HRCollective

Seattle HR Collective: Hiring Big Company Talent into Your Startup

Karthik Sivakumar, Head of Operations at, joined Mikaela Kiner for a fireside chat on an autumn evening at the September Seattle HR Collective Meetup. He’d happily spent several years working for large companies. He connected with founders of a few years ago and they were very persuasive in convincing him to try out a small company and help them scale. Karthik joined us to talk about this experience, going from a large company to a startup. He shared some helpful things he has learned in that change of environment and some tips for attracting people like him to startups.

Hesitations Sivakumar had about joining a startup 

Sivakumar helped strengthen the proof of concept at his new position at as he got more involved and helped improve some key operational assets. He learned that there was work to be done and had to adapt to just jumping in in order to tackle challenges, both big and small. He wasn’t sure if he could improve the business model but felt he was able to make a difference by being open to learning new things and taking on new tasks. 

How can hiring managers determine if someone is a good fit to transition from working at a larger company to a startup? 

Not everyone from a big company is a good fit to work at startups. Sivakumar was warned by some that he would have to clean toilets if he went to work at a startup. Joking aside, he did get a laptop and tools for him to use when he started. We know that the onboarding package can vary greatly among startups so you definitely want to ask about what tools will be provided and what items you are expected to purchase on your own.  Karthik shared that the company had a lot of data to make good business decisions which he was able to help channel. In order to thrive in a startup, one must be scrappy and ready to learn. Company processes are not always present or strong at startups so a good person to come into a place of work like that is one who wants to help build processes from the ground up or help improve upon what is already in place. There are tons of collaboration and problem solving on a daily basis. When screening candidates, hiring managers should focus on some of the softer skills mentioned in this article such as:

  • Understands the job definition, but stays flexible
  • Sees what needs to be done
  • Does what needs to be done and then some
  • Listens first, talks later
  • Plays well with others
  • Engages with their work and team
  • Isn’t afraid to get in the admin part of the work

What makes for a good leader at a startup? 

Kiner mentioned working with a venture capital firm to fill a CEO position for a startup. When she brought up humility as being a key quality a candidate should have, a leader at the VC firm questioned whether that was a positive thing. Sivakumar believes good leaders can’t exist in a silo. It isn’t about saying “yes” to everything but about strength in listening. Being ready to teach and be hands-on also helps. Also, a good leader at a startup is able to step back from all the multitasking of building a company to help the organization as a whole by planning for the future. That balance of being strategic and hands-on is a powerful combination.

Amazon is known for its vigours hiring process. Having worked there, what are the best practices to take from them? 

Sivakumar feels his current employer has a good mission, company values, and leadership principles to follow like at Amazon. Job leveling diagnostics for evaluating competencies for hiring are beneficial to have. Having a dashboard for data learning is also key. Having a description of roles and responsibilities serves as a sort of roadmap for those wanting to grow within a startup. sounds to have matured a hiring process and defined values. What does a startup need to continue to thrive?

It’s important for organizations to continue to build on processes, training, and practices. Teaching and coaching teams to be successful should be ongoing. Startups sometimes don’t have a lot of resources when it comes to training teams so leaders have to be creative in ways to implement this in an efficient and cost-effective way. They can take advantage of free resources online. Authors of leadership books will often provide free downloads. Other suggestions for keeping a thriving startup culture are as follows:

  • Set goals and change them as needed – Keep your teams up to date on company-level and department-level goals. If they aren’t working, don’t be afraid to change them.
  • Share successes and celebrate them- this keeps people in the loop on what others are working on, what’s going well and makes those working hard feel valued.
  • Make time to take care of business admin items. Document processes, document roles, and responsibilities, document feedback.

What can individuals do to help those coming from larger companies transition into startups

Sivakumar got a head start. Leaders at shared a wealth of information with him about the company prior to him coming on board so he could arrive prepared to take a course of action. He shadowed what his colleagues did on a day to day basis upon his arrival. Leadership was transparent on the challenges the company was facing. He designed an onboarding process for new employees and helped flush out the company’s mission by asking, “What does success look like?” He also asked what the considerations were in regard to diversity, inclusion and pay equity when it came to growing the organization and building and expanding teams. 

Thank you again to Karthik Sivakumar for speaking at the September 2019 Seattle HR Collective Meetup!

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