I knew we had found our first employee, Meelik Gornoi, on a late-night walk home from Austin’s bar district. After spending two weeks with him in close quarters with my co-founder and husband, Marko, it was clear the three of us fit together like puzzle pieces.
During our adventures in Texas, Meelik taught me something about recruiting that has shaped our culture as we’ve grown from a team of two -- Marko and myself -- to over 60, spanning two countries on two continents.
Companies succeed when their employees trust each other. It’s that simple. That’s why I try to build an emotional connection with the prospective employees I meet. It’s nothing romantic; I’m looking for them to show me that our vision for QA matters to them and that I can count on them to persevere through the challenges we face during growth.
We met Meelik, our head of engineering, through Ragnas Sass, a founding father in Estonia’s startup community. When Ragnar introduced us to Meelik, we had been accepted into the Techstars Accelerator in Austin, Texas. Since we couldn’t leave Texas to meet him in Estonia, we invited him to come live with us for two weeks. I’m sure Meelik had never had a job interview quite like that one. We rented a house -- a comfortable, quirky two-bedroom downtown -- and excitedly drove to the airport to pick him up when he finally arrived in July.
The three of us bonded immediately during his visit to the Lone Star State. We saw each other nearly every waking minute of every day. We ate breakfast together, partied together and shared our ideas for changing how companies test and release their products. Meelik constantly impressed us with his commitment to what we were building. He decided to join our team during his trip to Austin and wrote a blog post to celebrate the occasion. “[Kristel and Marko] really complement each other. I know we can drive Testlio to success,” he wrote.
Getting to know Meelik in such an unusual way taught me about the value of building emotional connections with people that share our passion. Meelik has improved nearly every core business team -- engineering, product, operations -- since joining Testlio, and we can’t imagine the organization without him.
Ideally, I would spend two weeks getting to know every prospective team member. I enjoy getting to know people in depth and discovering their superpowers and individual traits. Unfortunately, vacationing with each new hire doesn’t scale. What’s a founder to do?
Make yourself vulnerable.
It’s not intuitive to every CEO, but sharing personal stories with prospective employees is one of the best ways to gauge their interest in your company and mission. That’s why I spend face time with every prospective hire. When I’m traveling or working in Estonia, I meet employees on Skype. I ask candidates about their personal lives -- not because I’m nosy, but to discover what we have in common and to make myself vulnerable to them. This makes people more comfortable and helps me better understand if they’re a fit for Testlio. For example, I talk a lot about my horse, Rockefeller, with anyone who loves animals. The goal isn’t to see how many mutual interests you have; it’s to give people the chance to show you who they really are and what they can bring to the table.
Look for bonding opportunities.
I want to make sure I feel someone’s investment in our mission. It may sound counter-intuitive, but asking personal questions is the best way to do that. I don’t just ask questions about candidates’ prior experience; I usually ask about hobbies. A lot of the time that's where I find shared interests with the person I’m talking to and can ask more in-depth questions. I immediately bonded with our VP of sales, Michelle, during our first interview because of her attitude and mutual love of animals. Everyone brings different life experiences to their work that shape their perspective. When you want to change how entire industries work, your employees' attitude matters.
Grow alongside your team.
As a first-time founder, I can’t stress how important the bonds I’ve built with my team have been to our success. But, these connections don’t come instantly or easily. It’s something entrepreneurs have to work at, not a process that ends as soon as the offer letters are signed. During the interview process, I’m trying to decide whether someone is invested in what we’re doing -- if they’re truly committed -- and can be trusted with the responsibilities that come with being an early stage startup. As employees grow at Testlio, I look for ways to deepen our relationship, whether it’s taking employees out to lunch, staying late at the office to chat or even getting together on the weekends. I know that when we’re facing new complex challenges the relationships I have with my team -- and they have with each other -- will carry us on to success.