Note: This list originally appeared as a blog post on Nora’s Medium account in 2017. It originally finished with an announcement that Bright + Early was launching. Since then, we’ve grown and gone on to work with over 100 clients to help them set up and scale their People practices. During the past two years of whiplash in the tech industry, (layoffs, great resignation, layoffs again?) the need for quality, modern HR practices has only increased. However, companies finding themselves with tightened belts have often laid off or furloughed their people teams, choosing to shoulder the tasks onto founders, operations folks or an overall team effort. We understand tight times, so we wanted to give an overview of what you can feasibly handle yourself, and what needs a professional touch.  

As a founder, you’re naturally scrappy. You’ve probably done everything (from the financials to the hiring and product decisions) yourself. But lately, something feels different. Maybe you’re months behind on hiring the key people that you need, or your current team members are asking for career and salary trajectories.You know you want to be a great place to work, but you don’t think you’re big enough to hire HR. You might not even be sure what it is exactly that HR does. What next? In this guide, We’ll walk you through some of our favorite tools and tricks to build a solid HR foundation on your own — no hire required. We’ll also tell you exactly when it’s time to give up the solo act and bring in a professional.

Problem: You’re in administration overload

Maybe you’re running payroll yourself, or, as more than one CEO has confessed, keeping all your contracts in a box or folder. You’re furiously googling safety policies and laws on paying out vacation. Or, maybe you’re not doing any of this at all, and are praying nothing bad will happen (because it hasn’t yet, right?). You don’t run the rest of your business based on chance, so why put your head in the sand?

Get started:

  • Let’s get you out of the google drive of shame; you need HR software. A good system stores and reports on employee information, helps with benefits and payroll, keeps contracts handy, and even tracks vacations. Some options are HiBob or BambooHR for international teams, or Humi if you’re based in Canada. 
  • You need policies on things like health and safety, and standardized employment contracts. Open source policies are a thing if you know where to look and have the time and know-how to adapt and customize them on your own, but this can get tricky. You can also work with an employment lawyer on policies, but many folks who rely on legal only end up with stiff, less employee-friendly handbooks.

When to get HR:

  • HR software is generally easy to set up, but it does require you to have an idea of the guidelines you want it to handle. For example, it may track vacation or parental leave, but how much do you want to offer? It also requires you to keep its information current and relevant. When the record upkeep becomes too time consuming and when you want customized programs and policies, hire a pro. If you’re getting tapped on the shoulder too often with questions about benefits, it’s time.
  • When you want a fully customized handbook that’s more than legalese. A great handbook should cover your mission, vision, values, working norms, and policies that still meet any compliance requirements but feel more human and on-brand. An HR pro can help you craft this.

Problem: Recruiting isn’t going fast enough.

You’ve secured funding and defined your product roadmap. You figure you’ll hire a few developers, maybe a designer and product manager. You post some jobs on your website, but somehow the applications aren’t rolling in. Your managers are too busy doing manager stuff, and the process with the candidates you do have takes forever.

Get started:

  • Get in sales mode. What’s different about working for your company? Do you have any unique rituals, a different way of working, or fun events? Will they get the chance to work with art, travel, or some other potential passion? This isn’t a list of daily tasks we’re writing– it’s a piece of marketing! For help and some examples, check out The Bright + Early Guide to (Better) Job Postings.
  • Posting on your careers page won’t be enough. Be sure you’re on a number of specialized job posting sites (job boards via local startup incubators, sites focused on the particular role you’re hiring for, and sites dedicated to diverse candidates are all out there) and consider reaching out directly to candidates yourself instead of waiting for applications to roll in.
  • Think about the type of person you’re hiring and where they might be hanging out. Think outside the box here; we once worked with a travel tech firm who decided to skip the tech job boards and focus on hiring people who were passionate about their niche through advertising on travel blogs. 
  • Send your best people to speak at events. People want to work with other smart people who can teach them new things.
  • Leverage your network of other founders or your VC firm, who may even have their own talent placing services or job board.
  • Now that you’ve got them, how to manage all those candidates? Greenhouse and Lever are at the top of the game when it comes to organizing your recruiting. They’ll also give you an idea of key metrics like which sources are bringing you the best hires, and how long it’s taking each team to interview.
  • Repeat after me: no hiring over coffee or beers! We all think we’re much better judges of character than we are. To make a real weighed decision, you need a more scientific process. Not sure how to design a great interview? This Re:Work guide from Google is an amazing resource.

When to get HR:

  • If you still aren’t getting the right candidates, or if your managers are too busy to do all of this effectively, level up. Recruiting is a lot of work, and you’ll need to move quickly. A pro can also help you develop a better interview process and help you craft the hiring plan you’ll need to achieve your product goals.
  • If you have no idea what to pay people. If you don’t have a compensation philosophy or bands, making an offer can be daunting. Check out the Bright + Early Guide to Paying People, or bring in professionals. 
  • If you feel lost on how to make your hiring process more inclusive or struggle to attract a diverse range of candidates, an audit by DEI professionals could be in order.

Problem: You’re no longer flat.

In the early days, it’s likely that no one thought about reporting structures. You were proud of being flat. It posed no problem, and issues could be worked out easily with a chat across the table. Suddenly, you’re hearing that people want growth plans and career paths. Your leadership team is overwhelmed and can no longer manage 10+ people each while executing and playing visionary. The right thing to do is to get more people into management, but your top performers have no experience with that. How can you help them?

Get started:

Don’t be afraid to ditch the flat structure. Well-trained, empathetic managers are key to driving performance. We recommend some training, but in the meantime, Lara Hogan’s guides and Google’s re:Work guides on management and countless books are there for inspiration. How about a manager book club?

Try having a manager handbook to keep people on the same page with how to manage at your company, specifically. We’ve got a handy guide to building your own.

When to get HR:

  • When those managers need an ongoing partner and guidance from a real person.
  • When people are asking for defined career paths and formal feedback, like performance reviews. In our experience, this is all likely to happen around a headcount of 30, or shortly after leaving the “flat” zone, and are best crafted by a professional. 
  • To put together a full, customized manager training program. Live sessions with lots of practice, customized to your team, are the best way to go. 

Problem: You’re worried about inclusion. 

You know that you personally value inclusion at work, but aren’t sure where to get started. Things seem happy, and the scandals you read about in the news seem like they could never happen at your company. But sometimes you worry if you’re doing enough. 

Get started:

  • Free courses on basic DEI concepts are available on LinkedIn, Udemy, Coursera or these options gathered by The Muse. You could also host a book club and discussion circle. 
  • Open source some policies on supporting parents in the workplace. Great resources include our Expecting Playbook.
  • Be sure to have an anonymous feedback process that goes straight to you- even a google form will do.
  • If you have employees that are also interested in making an impact here, consider forming a task force. Just beware of shouldering unpaid DEI labor onto marginalized folks. You could consider making this a part time paid position or offering bonuses for those who are doing this additional work. 

When to get HR:

  • Tough issues like harassment are a tricky area and one where I really recommend at least having an HR resource on hand, as well as an airtight legal policy. Some people will never be comfortable talking to you or their manager about tough issues. If you do have absolutely any harassment complaint arise, seek help immediately. Ideally, have a professional assess and strategize your policies, processes, and benefits before anything goes wrong.
  • If you need a full DEI audit or strategy, it’s best to get an outside perspective on current best practices. 

Problem: You don’t know what people think at all.

You used to have the pulse on everything- now you’re not so sure. Maybe because you’re so busy or because you’re “the boss”, you feel like people come to you less and less. It’s lonely at the top, and you’re worried about missing key information.

Get started:

  • Keep it personal. You can’t meet with every team member every week, but you can hold the occasional skip level.
  • Collect some data! CultureAmp and Lattice are great tools for surveys. We use it for everything from measuring happiness to seeing how a training program affected performance. Other options are TinyPulse, which gives you less but more frequent data, or making your own via Typeform or another basic survey tool. 

When to get HR:

  • The tough thing about asking people how they feel and what they want is that you have to follow up. If it surfaces that everyone wants 360 reviews or a formal mentorship program, you’ll need the time and expertise to carry that out. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing their trust. Why should they give you feedback when nothing’s ever done about it? If it’s more work than you can handle, bring in professional help.

What next?

With so many great tools available, bootstrapping your startup’s HR has never been easier. If you have the time and the will, you can begin to build bedrock on your own. However, for those without the luxury of time, or a lot of knowledge in the space, tough issues can pile up quickly. If you’re reaching a phase where a lack of structure is slowing you down, rather than speeding you up, it’s time for some HR building. 

Not time to hire an entire HR team yet? Bright + Early offers fractional HR support, compensation modeling and research, modernized DEI consulting and customized, inclusive manager training. Learn more here.