How Does It Work is our version of a Proust Questionnaire, created to reveal the inner workings of interesting companies and their people programs. Co-Star is an astrology app with a cult following who love it for its slick aesthetic, hyper-personalized readings (powered by AI) and unique voice (something like a vaguely threatening, omniscient older sister). Co-Star reports that it has over 21 million app downloads and in April 2021 Axios reported that Co-Star raised $15 million in Series A funding.
1. Where is your team based?
Brit Pelzl, Head of Recruiting at Co-Star: We have an office in New York, which is in Soho. But the team, however, is distributed. So we've got folks on the west coast in California, in Seattle and then there's a few folks in the Midwest, Minnesota and Colorado.
We used to be in the office every day. The team that joined before the Series A was in the New York office. There were ten folks, every single day, they were there. And then when the pandemic hit, that team went remote.
2. How big is the team?
Brit: We are 41 now, but that is changing rapidly.
3. What do you, as an organization value? If you have defined values, you can tell us about them.
Brit: We have three values that are defined as an org: rigor, creativity and openness.
Rigor is really about being able to get shit done. But it’s also about asking "Why are we working on this thing?" Because we are still a small team, we have to be really careful about how we spend our time. So, we’re always testing our hypotheses, making sure that we're really working towards the right goal, and being rigorous about what those goals are.
Creativity. At the end of the day, we are doing something new with technology, this large-scale generation of content, hyper-personalized to each person’s chart is new. And so we have to be really creative about where those ideas come from. But, again, we're not throwing shit at the wall, we're being rigorous about creativity.
And then the openness piece plays into creativity, being open to new ideas. But also being really honest about feedback, both giving and receiving feedback, being open to admitting that you're wrong, knowing that you're probably going to be wrong a lot of the time. And just being really self-aware and moving forward with that.
4. If Co-Star were a person, who would they be?
Brit: Someone who is super malleable and open-minded about what they find super interesting, but also able to hold conflicting points of view at the same time. I also think Co-Star is someone that is able to communicate with all different types of people. If you think about who uses the product, 21 million plus downloads at this point, there's a lot of different personality types.
5. Do you have a special nickname for your employees?
Brit: No. God, no. The only thing that we are pretty rigorous about is that we try to use “team members” as opposed to “employees” or “coworkers”. As we are all on this team and working together on the same goals.
6. What's your tool stack?
Brit: With recruiting, we use Greenhouse. That got implemented right as I was coming on board, because I needed that to scale quickly. I also use Gem for email reach-outs and sequencing. LinkedIn for sourcing. We also have TriNet as our PEO because we are distributed across the US. And we're actually hiring for a Head of People who may take us off and try that into a new system, fingers crossed.
7. How are you structured? What's your management culture like?
Brit: Underneath our CEO, we have five different disciplines: brand, product, content, engineering and operations. And each of those five pillars has a lead.
Something that we've been talking about as a team is that before we scaled, it didn't matter what your role was, you could have an opinion or have a disagreement around a direction and have that in-person with everyone listening. That was the norm. And as we’ve scaled I do think there's kind of a hump that needs to get passed with folks joining and thinking they're new. I always really encourage people to remember that their knowledge and expertise from past roles and past companies is super important to Co-Star. And if they see something that's not working the way that it should, they should say that. We're working on encouraging new people to give that feedback.
8. What do you not care about as an organization?
Brit: The first thing that comes to mind is formal educational background . I'm really appreciative of that because when I had recruited at other orgs, there were conversations like, "We want someone who came from big four or these consulting firms." And that really limits the pool of people. I think what's been really amazing for Co-Star's growth is that foundation being irrelevant to us. We’re more interested in how you learn and how you figure out things that you don't know.
Also, our offer deck starts with, “We have a zero tolerance for assholes.” And that truly does happen in the interview process. We value the safety and health of our team over bringing a really high performing individual that might totally shake up that safety. I think that protects the culture.
9. What do you look for in a new hire?
Brit: Across the board, no matter what department we're hiring for, we look for someone who can clearly communicate outside of their discipline. So if you're an engineer, you're going to be working with content folks, if you’re an astrologer on our content team you need to be able to speak to engineers––an ability to bring any jargon down to the level of whoever you're talking about to get your point across. Alongside that, collaboration. No one's working in a silo. And problem solving. If you haven't done something, how would you figure it out? What would that process look like?
10. How do you handle team members taking time off?
Brit: We have an unlimited PTO policy, which as you know, that's sometimes good and sometimes bad. There is a four week minimum required. So folks need to take a full four weeks. Right now because the team is so small, there is a strategy around folks taking off. We couldn't have our entire backend team leave for a week, for example. That would be an issue. But we work really hard and then we go to rest and rejuvenate. And then we close between Christmas and New year's, which I love.
11. Do you have any interesting benefits or perks?
Brit: The in-house astrology readings are very interesting. Our new hires can get that at any time. Personally, that floored me. I think there are a lot of things that we could do that are not super money intensive, but could go a long way. We’re looking for someone who is interested in getting really creative in this role.
12. What's your hiring process like?
Brit: We review every single resume and respond to every person. When we decide to move forward, there is an initial call with myself or a member of my team for any candidate, no matter the role. What I'm looking for in interviews is a Co-Star culture-add, a quick skill assessment, and to answer questions about the team. At this point I'm working so closely with each hiring manager that I can pretty much know from my call whether or not the skill set is there. But then the hiring manager does a deep dive with the candidate and goes into the day-to-day of the role, what they'll be working on. And then the panel, which is all virtual, is a series of different calls with direct team members and cross functional team members. After that, we debrief as a team. If we're a thumbs up and the candidate is also a thumbs up, the last and final is meeting Banu Guler, who's our CEO. Because we’re still relatively small, she has final say on everyone.
13. How do you ensure you're building an inclusive environment?
Brit: That has been baked into my DNA and the company's DNA from the beginning. I think we're really lucky as a tech company where the founding team grew from Banu's network, who is a woman of color. Those original ten folks came from such different backgrounds and we grew really naturally from that point. And then as we've hired, all of the managers are super aware of continuing to be inclusive in their hiring practices.
And then once we get to offer stage, before we go into the offer deck we pause on the first slide and ask them to read through our values as a company. Those are that everyone has different experiences, everyone has different points of view and we respect all of those. And respecting people’s names and pronouns is very important to us. If you fuck up, that's fine. But be aware of it. I have everyone read through that and answer, "Do you value this as well?" If not, we don't need to move to offer. That's been really well received and it's not a gimmick. It truly is how we run Co-Star.
14. What's a people decision that you made as a company that you regretted or had to give up or had to walk back.
Brit: We've learned over the last year that as we are trying to stay somewhat non-hierarchical as an organization, hiring into specific roles without that person having at least done the work of that role, can be really challenging.
At a company of our size there's really no overlap in skillset at this point. And so let's say you’re in a copy editing role, you need to have done editing before. There is a lot of room to grow, yes. But we've really figured out that at this stage, hiring people with at least one to two years direct experience with that work is crucial.
15. What are you bad at as a company?
Brit: Like any early-stage company, prioritization is something that we're still learning how to be great at. We're working on getting really granular on what things we can do right now in this moment that will move the needle for the next quarter and the next quarter. And because everyone is so bought-in, we’re still figuring out how to mitigate our excitement, which breeds a natural tendency to underestimate how long a cycle or sprint will take.
We’re really focused on figuring this out because the result of a company not prioritizing things well or working on too many things at once, is burnout. That's when things get messy unnecessarily beyond the normal “make it up as you go along” that startups of our size require.
16. What's one unexpected thing that you splurge on as a company?
Brit: Each year we do a company retreat where we fly everyone into upstate New York. It’s considered a splurge for a company of our size, but it's so important to bring everyone together, even if it's just for three days.
Our last year retreat was so magical and that magic has carried into a couple quarters since then, and our plan is to continue to do that on a yearly basis, maybe one day biannually. But we’ve found that is a hundred percent worth it, especially as we’ve transitioned to remote-work being the norm.
17. Does Co-Star have any unique rituals or traditions?
Brit: Apart from the annual retreat we do an astrology recap during larger transit periods where a couple team members will present on what this means. And I think that's really just interesting for folks to be a part of. And then last year at the end of the year, before we logged off for break, we did an astrology reading for the next year and a tarot pull for the next year. That was a really unique to Co-Star, and also just a creative and fun way to say, "Here's what's in future. Let's go."