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Building a business around a mission: Taryn’s tips for startups

21 Mar 2022 By Taryn Timmons

Building companies to change the world

I’ve long been fascinated by the way organizations are built – not just around an idea, but around a person. From my academic grounding in social and organizational psychology, to my experiences as a talent consultant in health, to my recent role as an HR Business Partner, I’ve been gathering insights into how a young company can do this most effectively. With its diverse portfolio of businesses, united by a shared sense of ambition, Octopus Ventures is the perfect place for me to start passing these lessons along to the startups where they’ll have the most impact.

As the latest addition to Octopus Ventures’ Portfolio People & Talent team, I wear two hats. I’ll be supporting pioneers in healthtech and biotech, equipping them with the HR and talent skills they need to help their businesses grow, while from my base in New York, I’ll also be helping all of the portfolio as they look to stateside expansion.

A taste for business

My academic background is in psychology. Studying in New York I grew interested in how individuals cooperate and make decisions, joining different research programs to explore the complexities of social and organizational psychology. 

The value of listening sat at the heart of what I learned, and continues to inform my approach. The act of listening itself represents a critical starting point in any organizational process, offering a way into issues or challenges; I see it as a critical pitstop on the road to growth.

Throughout my career, I’ve accumulated experience in organizations ranging in size from small to midsize enterprises, to giant. I’ve also been exposed to a host of different organizational structures, management styles and interview process – all of which have shaped the skillset I’ll be bringing to bear on Octopus Ventures portfolio companies.

Companies undergoing rapid growth meet a unique set of challenges, but having been through the process before at Cityblock Health, I know the ropes. When I joined, the company had just put a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee together. I learned how positive the impact of strong values and diverse hiring can be on a company. Octopus Ventures backs founders with the vision to change the world for the better. This means getting things right from day one. As part of the People & Talent team I’m here to support entrepreneurs lay the foundations they need as their world-changing businesses grow.

Building organizations from the ground up

My colleagues and I are experienced operators with first-hand experience of the challenges ambitious founders face. Our shared expertise is a resource for the businesses we back and our approach is always bespoke, working closely with founders to better understand what their companies need to grow. 

In practice this could mean helping founders establish their company values, offering advice on building out recruitment infrastructure, or working with leadership teams to identify gaps – and connecting the company with the resources it needs to fill them. 

Beyond hiring, we aim to support organizations as they develop the kind of company culture that’ll ensure they can retain the staff they’ve worked so hard to recruit. As companies scale, and targets and ambitions shift, we join them in looking ahead as thought partners who can help to strategize on the next steps. Our goal is to ask open questions, ones that will get founders thinking about the kind of organization they hope to build, then giving them the toolkit to make it happen.

While I’m focused on health and biotech, I also work more widely helping portfolio companies expand ‘across the pond’. My experience in the U.S market means I can help portfolio companies navigate some of the key differences when recruiting at both a national and state-level, whether that’s offering insights into unique political dynamics, or the local nuances in employment law organizations need to be mindful of when hiring.

My key learnings:

Define your mission and values. It’s critical that a founder asks themselves what they want their company to be and to stand for – as early as possible. This means looking ahead, and asking if the values being established now will be able to keep pace with where the company will be in five years’ time. Mission is a key part of that. No one knows what’s coming down the road and things can change, but a clear and purposeful mission established from the outset offers an invaluable anchor point onto which values can be tethered.

Diversity is key. Hiring widely, across a cross-section of society rather than just for a small group within it, isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good business practice, countering the stifling effect that an overly homogenous environment tends to have on innovation. A range of viewpoints gives organizations access to a wealth of ideas. Companies that can recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and hire accordingly, will soon recognize the benefits. 

Leadership roles are (obviously) critical. When you’re hiring for leadership roles, it’s really important that you know what that individual is going to be doing in six, 12 and 18 months. If there’s not going to be a clear role for them in 18 months, they could just be a band-aid to what the organization needs. In which case it may be more useful bringing in a consultant, or giving someone on staff the opportunity to stretch their role, expand their skillset — and shine. Leaders in early-stage startups also need to be doers, willing to roll up their sleeves and put in the work to get things off the ground — not just people who are going to hire a team to outsource their work to.

Dont be afraid to give things away. An interesting thing happens when a company reaches a certain size; the CEO’s role shifts from being hands-on to being more detached from the day-to-day running of the company. Letting go is difficult, but learning to do it is essential – and it applies to everyone who’s with the company from the exhilarating early days. It’s a natural progression that’s tied to the success of the company, but it can still be a challenge.

Build great relationships. This is one of the major pieces of my toolkit, and I think it applies across the board, especially in early-stage startups. Once a strong relationship is in place it becomes possible to walk through issues, deep dive on them and patch leaks where you find them. Good relationships between leaders and teams make it easier to retain talent while HR teams in growing businesses will benefit from strong relationships in the relevant space as they seek to make hires to match the pace of the company’s growth.

Work together. Whether it’s building out a company’s values, or adjusting to accommodate growth as the company reaches a milestone, everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. In my years in HR, I’ve learned that there’s never just one way to reach a satisfactory outcome. Every problem has an interconnected network of potential solutions leading to a resolution – and teams that work together find it faster.

Sell yourself. In those early stages, making the right hires is crucial, as it sets the foundation for future growth. A standard job listing alone won’t do the trick if you want to attract the best. You need to be proactively searching out the talent you need – and selling the company. Clearly defining the problem you’re setting out to solve, and highlighting the impact you stand to have, is a great way to connect with like-minded individuals who will buy into the company’s vision and ambitions for growth.

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