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Culture, Vision, Responsibility: How MN Startups Grow Their Teams

Curiosity. Scrappiness. Ability to deal with failure. These are all traits that come to mind when one thinks of a startup founder, someone who has taken an original solution to a problem and transformed it into a (hopefully) sustainable business. But actually growing a startup involves a lot more people than just the founders.

Just as unique as the problem they’re trying to solve are the different issues a startup faces as it begins to scale. One thing that every scaling company deals with is what that growth means for company culture, hiring practices and day-to-day employee experience. We spoke to several growing Minnesota based companies to learn how they’re dealing with these issues as they continue to expand.

Branch-ing out, specializing roles

Atif Siddiqi is working on replacing parts of himself at the business he founded in 2015. “For things that I was once doing, I’m now finding people that can do it better,” he says. By doing this, he’s able to focus on parts of the business that need extra attention and think about the company’s long-term goals.

Branch, Siddiqi’s Minneapolis-based company, helps hourly employees by connecting them with their employers. The Branch app enables easier hiring, immediately-received wages, and lends for more flexibility for both parties.

As CEO, Siddiqi has found that no matter what industry, all hourly employees are dealing with similar challenges, like living paycheck to paycheck. After founding the company in 2015 in Los Angeles, Siddiqi moved Branch to the Twin Cities after working closely with Target and participating in the Techstars Retail Accelerator in Partnership with Target. They’re now at about 45 employees and looking to expand.

When looking for people to join Branch, Siddiqi mentions the ability to make the most with the least. “What we look for has stayed pretty consistent, but a recent addition is the idea of scrappiness: the ability to find solutions with limited resources,” he says. Being given some constraints allows for more creativity, he explains. The ability to deal with failure and how one does so is also important to Branch—and they’re not alone. More and more articles and blog posts are appearing online detailing the importance of coping with failure.

Despite the growth at Branch, Siddiqi says the company culture is the same as it was in the beginning. “Early employees are just as tight-knit as the ones we bring in,” he says, explaining that employee No. 50 has the same relationship to him as an employee No. 5. “We strive to make everyone feel included, value new opinions, and want to keep the idea of everyone getting along and maintaining those relationships as the company grows.”

Ryan Gruening, Head of Enterprise Sales at Branch, was hired a few years into the company but feels similar to Siddiqi about the company culture. “The whole team is very close at Branch,” he says. “It’s a transparent organization and close culture.”

Gruening started at Branch in September of 2018. While his main day-to-day goal is to drive sales for Branch and increase its space in the workforce—nowadays specifically with larger companies with 10,000+ employees—he mentions a clear and constant focus on those working hourly.

“There’s not a lot of companies trying to help the hourly worker,” he says. “Every day, every week, it’s about making them happier, creating more services to help them, and finding new ways to motivate and identify those workers at their current job.”

Finding the right people to do so is the hardest part, says Gruening. Branch is past the stage of figuring out how and what to do; they now need people to execute a plan and be able to move the company forward. But, he says of Branch and other startups, “It’s still not a 9 to 5 world,” startup world and especially at Branch.

Smaller company, similar goals

Even at a much smaller company than Branch, they’re already thinking about culture and plans for growing their team. Katrina Andersen, CEO of ClinicianNexus, raves about her small team as she describes the fun they have but acknowledges that the culture will shift as her company scales up. “Of course it changes, but you want to keep that playfulness there as you grow; that’s difficult but when we hire people we’ll make sure they fit our core values so they can ease into what we’re doing and multiply the fun we’re having.”

Andersen started ClinicianNexus in 2016 with her co-founders Tim Schottler and Bob Bryan, after realizing a problem while working at Health Partners: there was no tool for students, schools and hospitals to manage clinical rotations. They’ve since built a platform to connect students to hospitals for clinical rotations.

With 57 hospitals and 100 schools signed up—with an average of 250 students joining the platform per week— and only five full-time employees, Andersen still does a lot of the heavy lifting herself. She admits that being a founder of a startup isn’t glamorous. “When you think of a startup founder on the surface, you generally think of all the good stuff,” she says.

“People get excited about what you’re doing and you get to talk about cool things, but then a reality check happens, and that first year is super lonely.”

Speaking on growing pains and the challenges of starting a company with just a few other people, Andersen elaborated on this individuality that comes with it. “All your weaknesses come out and manifest in your company,” she said, explaining that all of those decisions made in the founding process are shown clearly in the success (or failure) of a startup.

Describing her team, Andersen mentions that while they all have different life views and habits, sticking to their core habits makes working together a great experience. “I think that as founders, it’s our job to lead what our culture looks like,” she said. One core goal is to seek understanding from one another; the other is to assume the best of everyone.

When looking for future employees, these are things the whole team puts first. “You can be trained on hard skills, but you can’t be trained to be people-centered and have a community-first approach,” she said. It’s the first company for all three founders, she explained, so having these values is what really makes it work.

Andersen’s hope as ClinicianNexus grows is that there’s a mutually beneficial relationship that can come out of every new hire. “I would hope there’s never a moment where someone thinks ‘Oh, this founder is too intimidating’ because she’s a founder. I want to always respect and have the respect of all employees.”

This search for new employees is definitely on the brain as ClinicianNexus continues to fundraise and expand, hoping to one day be a “one-stop shop” globally for managing clinical rotations.

On-demand health insurance, solid company culture

Another health company a bit further along than ClinicianNexus is also finding that while outsourcing for specialized roles and dealing with growing pains, a solid and inclusive culture is still important.

Bind is an on-demand health insurance platform that creates a simplified health plan benefit; with no deductibles and copay-driven plans, the platform is very condition focused. “What we try to do here is align people’s coverage to the way that they utilize the health system today,” says Matt Chock, one of Bind’s earliest employees who now works on network strategy and sourcing.

Bind allows users to see their options for treatment and where to get them, as well as add coverage during any point in the plan for specific procedures. Right now, they’re just working with the self-insured employer market.

When Chock first joined in the fall of 2016, Bind was in its early stages and it was “more ambiguous in terms of what people’s roles were and how they fit in,” he says. While they all had general ideas of what they were focused on, there’s a lot of things to figure out when translating an idea into a company.

“You’re thinking about what the big pieces are that you need to put together to make it work,” he says.

As the company has grown, there’s been a transition to focusing less on big build and more on execution, says Chock. “It’s a refinement,” he says. “More of, ‘how do we get this to operate better’ as opposed to ‘how do we get it to operate.’”

At about 120 employees, Bind is definitely past the point of creation and well onto execution. As the company has grown, Chock describes his own career evolution as “atypical.”

“With my consulting background, I came in as a generalist and could flex into a lot of different pieces of work,” he says. While he continues to do this, he says he’s more the exception than the rule.

When looking for future employees, Bind is currently focused on specialized roles. “We want people to be able to flex into different nuances around those roles, but people are generally working more within their specific area that we’re hiring them for,” he explains.

Jenny Tongen, product manager at Bind and around the 40th employee, experienced this firsthand. When she first started in January 2018, there was no products team—now, she’s one of about 10 product managers on a products team focused specifically on driving prioritization and building technological capabilities.

“As you grow, you create more functions and more teams, [so] you need more people to work on the same initiative,” she says. As their numbers increase more than just functions have had to change. To maintain alignment across all of the teams, it requires a lot more meetings and communication to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

“Early on, [this was] easy to do with a handful of people, but when you get to 100+ people, it’s a lot harder and takes a lot of conscious effort,” Chock says.

While it’s harder to get to know everyone as the company grows, Bind works to make sure everyone feels like they’re on the same level. “There isn’t much of a stratification between founding and later employees in the way we interact with each other,” Chock says.

A running group, bake offs, and a monthly trivia night that’s existed since Tongen joined Bind are all initiatives the company does to bring everyone together. “We do a lot of events for people to get to know people they don’t interact with on a daily basis,” she says.

Though a culture undoubtedly changes as companies add more employees, Chock thinks that Bind has done a good job keeping the culture aligned. The company was founded by people with healthcare expertise and who wanted to change healthcare for the better—having this as a guidepost persists throughout the organization, he says.

Tongen says almost the same thing. “Our culture is passionate about disruption,” she says. “We didn’t like the current structures around healthcare, [so] we’re looking to change them and look for people who are like-minded.”

Startups are by nature challenging, as they’re always trying to do so much so fast, but Tongen mentioned that Bind works to overcome growing pains with an unwavering focus on their core concept. “Sometimes organizations pivot to find their position, but ever since I started we haven’t had to change our concept,” she says. “It’s our true north – it makes us stronger.”

Fostering an inclusive workout environment

Another growing Twin Cities startup has faced a different set of challenges as they grow due to a model not all that common in the startup world.  

Alchemy, a community boutique-style workout chain, is centered around yoga, strength training and intense conditioning, hovering around 105 employees including trainers—and growing.

Alchemy’s Kyle Rademacher takes a workout break at one of company’s Twin Cities studios. Photo by Jenna Dailey courtesy of Alchemy.

“Alchemy came about from trying to provide a better and more accessible format for our customers,” says Mike Jones, CEO. With customizable workout formats starting and ending with yoga, with high-intensity circuits in between, Alchemy officially launched in the North Loop in 2015 and now has over 1,800 active members in both the Twin Cities and Denver.

The biggest personal change Jones has noticed as the company grows is going from being an individual operator who is able to make changes at the studio level, to being a leader who manages teams and drives initiatives via influence, rather than tangible, immediate change.

“Anything we want to change, we have to communicate why we’re making this change, and work through the logistics of six studios,” he says. “It’s dramatically more complex.”

As they grow, Alchemy may start to hire for specialized positions, but right now, they hire from within. Trainers take a seminar and a course to be qualified to teach, then work the front desk, coach, and can work up to being a manager.

Kyle Rademacher, now the marketing manager for the Edina location, did this exact process: starting in January of 2018 part-time at the front desk, he was full time by April as operations lead and began his current position in November.

As marketing manager, Rademacher feels as if he’s on the “same level” as those who work front desk or trainers. “We don’t consider anyone more or less,” he says.

It’s the same mentality on the leadership team, according to Jones. A mix of founders and non-founders, he says the team is “agnostic” to whether someone is a founder or studio member. “We try to make it an environment where the best people do the work that needs to be done.”

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