When building a company and making their ideas a reality, founders should always put their people at the heart of their efforts. Greater social awareness, for example, means that diversity and inclusion are now a primary concern for most businesses and, as such, should also be a concern for potential investors. And, of course, over the past 18 months, remote working has become a reality for many companies, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But, while ensuring greater diversity and implementing a successful remote working practice can both be challenging, they can offer significant benefits to a business. More than that, though, they’re a necessity – particularly in today’s competitive startup environment. Founders and their teams must therefore do what they can to do right by their employees.
While the tech industry is especially well known for its lack of diversity, this differs according to the job in question. In technology roles, the issue is less about ethnic diversity – engineers tend to be from all over the world – and more about gender. But a tech company is about more than engineers. It’s important, then, to ensure that these other roles don’t become male-dominated and to focus on hiring women to achieve the right balance.
Scientific roles, such as data scientists and life cycle analyst specialists, can attract equal numbers of women and men. But interviewing women for these roles, and finding the right candidates, can require a business to cast its net further, to reach a wider pool of talent. Sometimes this might involve interviewing more people than would typically be the case, but it’s important to get the balance right.
Interestingly, when it comes to ethnic diversity, more people from ethnic minorities will apply for a role with a company whose founder is also a member of an ethnic minority. There are certain things a founder will only think about if they’ve done them first-hand. I know from experience, for example, that applying for a work visa can be a challenging experience. That’s why we work with specialised teams to help make this process as easy as possible.
When we tell candidates this, they’re always impressed, especially as we’re such a small company.
Different ideas and views
A diverse team – with different ideas and ways of thinking – can be hugely beneficial to the way you develop a product. Having more diverse views around the table means you don’t have just one mindset and a group of people all wanting to do the same thing.
Diverse viewpoints come from people of differing genders, ethnicities and sexualities, as well as different geographies and socio-economic backgrounds. Everyone thinks quite differently and this can be hugely beneficial, especially if you encourage those people to question things and try different approaches. The way people think can shape a product’s development. So it stands to reason that the more diverse the views and ideas that inform the development process, the more innovative, challenging and appealing the final product will be.
Many companies offer products and services to customers around the globe. The way these customers think, the questions they ask, even the way they shop, will vary depending on their location. With a team comprising people from different countries, a company is better able to think like its customers and thereby deliver a more satisfactory experience. We have a French colleague, for example, who always tells us what would and wouldn’t work in France. This insight is invaluable, as it allows us to tailor our products to suit the audience.
Aligning values and investors
However, while the benefits of greater diversity are clear, many startups – especially those whose founders are considered a minority – can still find it hard to raise funds. It’s not because there’s a shortage of skills in the tech sector, though. After all, it’s a sector built on aptitude, and one that spans multiple geographies and ethnicities. The biggest challenge in building a diverse workforce comes from a significant gap in funding. If diverse founders struggle to find finance, then diversity in leadership positions will remain sparse, at best. Diversifying the investor ecosystem will, therefore, have a profound impact on the makeup of founders.
It’s essential to find an investor who aligns with a startup’s values and that begins by interrogating the founding teams and what they stand for as a business. These were two aspects that were particularly important in guiding our own investor decision and we were looking for investors who resonated with our core values of transparency and honesty, and the fact that we’re a majority female-founding team. We wanted investors who lived and breathed these values, rather than just paying lip-service to them. That’s why we went with female-led Capital T. A company’s cap table should truly reflect what it stands for, so it’s important to dig under the surface.
Maintaining a values-led culture through uncertainty
Recently, of course, the challenge of hiring a diverse team was made more complicated by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, with the pandemic disrupting working practices for businesses everywhere. But, while adapting to remote working was initially seen as problematic for most businesses, it now represents something of a mixed bag. Some companies have embraced it and the access it has granted to a much bigger pool of talent. For others, who value the human interaction that comes with being in an office environment, it’s perhaps not such a good fit. Essentially, it comes down to personalities.
It can be tricky from a culture perspective, too. We have two people based in London, two in Paris, and the rest of us in Berlin, and we’re looking to hire in a couple of other European countries. However, if a company’s HQ is set up in the founder’s city but distributed teams are working remotely from elsewhere, it can create an awkward HQ/non-HQ culture. For this reason, we’re mindful of trying to meet in person as little as possible, even in Berlin, as it’s isolating for everyone else.
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that video calling is invaluable. There’s no favouritism. Everyone’s on Zoom and we’re trying to get into the habit of using it for more spontaneous conversations, as we would in an office, rather than constantly scheduling regular meetings. We find it helpful. After all, when working in an office, most conversations happen organically – people ask questions of their colleagues in passing rather than organising a formal meeting. The real value of video communication lies in helping to replicate that sense of spontaneity when working remotely.
The right balance
For many businesses forced to work remotely during the pandemic, there’s perhaps no reason to transition back to an office. Vaayu actually began life remotely. We not only started the company and hired remotely, but we’ve even received funding without ever meeting any of our investors. Generally, people working in the tech industry tend to have very specific tasks. They don’t need to be in person together and are entirely able to work remotely. Of course, there is value in occasional human interaction as it can be hard to build a cohesive company culture when everyone’s only talking on Zoom calls. Meeting up for a week or so, face to face, every couple of months, can go a long way to building unity across a team, as well as using technology to stay in touch.
People are the key to success
Investing in people is vital to a startup’s success. But it’s a question of finding the right balance – both when it comes to remote working and when employing a suitably diverse team. Making the effort consistently will pay dividends, allowing for an innovative distributed team, sharing different ideas and perspectives from wherever they’re located, but enjoying the same spontaneity and collaboration as if they were sharing the same office. This is the new normal.