An Interview with Hayley Barna

Lucky me, I had the opportunity to chat with Hayley Barna about growing a company in the early years, the importance of culture, and how to find the best people. Hayley Barna is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who co-founded Birchbox in 2009. She is also a trusted advisor here at MakerSights. As MakerSights enters Year 3, it’s great for us to get advice and counsel from the best of the best!

Here are some of the highlights of our discussion:

What were some of the building blocks you put in place to create an organization that was able to grow?

Some were intentional and some were organic. Most importantly, we started out building a metric driven culture. We were clear about what we were aiming for, we were transparent weekly & monthly, and we were open to ideas from anyone! We hired great people. We formalized and articulated our vision/mission as well as formalizing our leadership principles, including the way we work with each other and with customers. We thought about both what we did that is already great, and what we aspired to. And we infused this with touchpoints from everyday work. For example, what did we want the onboarding process to look like? How about annual reviews? How did we plan to celebrate great work? How could we live our values? This became our guiding north star.

How do you build and maintain a great culture?

We hired young, ambitious, creative people. To keep the creativity flowing, we created annual events like Birchbox Day, which was like a hackathon – getting together and brainstorming – with a focus on cross functional teamwork. Before we opened our first store, we did an exercise using cardboard to build out our dream stores, even acting out the in store experience. Some of the ideas from the quick and scrappy exercise ended up in our buildout.

We also used our weekly All Hands Meetings to celebrate our guiding principles. Monthly, we recognized an “Employee of the Month.” Somehow the reward became a hipster garden gnome – who sat on the employee’s desk all month, and they signed the gnome’s hat! Quirky ideas like this that get started early in the company’s growth can be great ways to celebrate and create folklore.

We also celebrated tenure milestones – there was a token of gratitude given to the employee. For example, to celebrate the first year, employees received a pair of bright pink high tops embroidered with the Birchbox logo.

I recently heard a story about the earliest days of a growth stage company. When the business was still less than ten people, a new employee joined the company and there just happened to be a watermelon on their desk when they arrived. It became a tradition, and now all new employees get a watermelon on their desks. The brilliance in this is that once you slice open a watermelon, you need to share, so it’s a great way to meet other people on your first day!

What advice do you have for hiring the best people?

There is a lot of pressure to make sure new hires are a good “culture fit”. But it’s better to think of them as culture additive — you don’t necessarily want everyone be the same. Think about hiring complementary team members. Of course, it is critical that they align with your values. A good way to do this is to have some of the people on your team volunteer to become experts at interviewing for this and spend time with candidates, regardless of the function, to talk about values alignment. The rest of the hiring panel can then focus on skills and teamwork and all the other items on your list.

We would love to get your advice on Years 2-5 in the growth of a start-up.

That’s the phase in your growth where you no longer can all go out to lunch together, so you need to find other “cultural glue” – and continue cross functional communication, which is critically important. At Birchbox, we did random lunch groups, mixing people that didn’t often get to interact. Another idea is to do Lunch & Learns, where someone from the team shares a project they worked on that might not typically get visibility from the whole team.

It’s this time in your growth where your org chart is starting to form. You may transition from a flat company to one with several layers. This may feel strange at first, so it’s good to celebrate that you are going to the next level and that becoming more specialized in their roles is a good thing.

What’s a common pitfall companies make? What advice would you give to avoid this type of issue?

My advice would be to fire fast. People struggle with it, but it’s better for you and for them. Teams are resilient. It’s hard to admit mistakes, but better to move on quickly.

What books have you found helpful/inspirational?

Shoe Dog – it’s a great book about Nike that shows that it’s a long and tenuous road to a global powerhouse brand.

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