Company Culture
Hiring / Startups / Workplace culture

3 Baltimore founders on how early employees build company culture

The first employees a company hires help get more done. They also set to the tone, say the founders of VoiceVibes, Insightin Health and BurnAlong.

#BmoreFounders gather 'round at the headquarters of Pixilated Photo Booth. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

This editorial article is a part of's Early Employees Month of our editorial calendar.

When a company is forming, it’s not just a product that is being created, but also a team and a culture.

Those voices and values show how the people in a company can shape it collectively. This is true especially when a company is still forming at its earliest stages. After all, two people joining a team that was previously a pair of cofounders doubles the size of that team, and has a big impact on its dyndaniel amics.

So in making the hires to grow beyond the folks who came up with the initial vision, founders must think not just about about not just what a new employee will mean for workload, but how they will shape a team.

It was something that BurnAlong considered early on. Daniel Freedman, the cofounder of the Pikesville-based fitness and wellness company, said it was a key message from advisor (and now board member) Pernille Spiers-Lopez, the former president and global head of HR at IKEA.

“From the get-go she emphasized the importance of culture, and hiring for culture fit,” Freedman said. “As a mission-driven company — helping people achieve their health and wellbeing goals — it’s especially central for us.”

Less than a year in, values were already an important consideration for Insightin Health. About nine to 10 months in, founder Enam Noor brought on the first new employees. The hiring came as a result of client growth, and Noor sought out folks with 10 to 20 years experience in healthcare. Yet that experience wasn’t the only important part of the job description.

“We strove to ensure that as we grew, our core values of empathy, quality and transparency remained intact,” he said.

Being a scrappy startup by nature forced us to establish flexible work arrangements that provided a low-risk way to try out working relationships.

It set a tone that has carried through hiring beyond the first employees.

“Some key qualities we looked for in our earliest employees, and encourage even today, are those of passion, empathy and energy,” Noor said. “We look for individuals who take pride in their work and have a true appetite for elevating the healthcare experience to a more personal, transparent and human level.”

A company’s growth isn’t necessarily linear. Long stretches of building and developing can give way to periods of selling and marketing. And all the time, the goal is often to be efficient. So the way in which companies hire doesn’t necessarily mean adding full-time employee right away.

That was the case for VoiceVibes, which was founded in 2012 by Debra Bond Cancro. To build the platform that helps folks polish their speaking skills, she sought to bring together folks with experience across areas like data science, speech research, linguistics, acoustic psychology, software, signal processing and deep learning.

She recruited technical folks who were willing to contract outside of their day job. From the beginning, that brought a team with a commitment to the mission, as well as a cost-efficient way of assembling a diverse group of talent. Cancro also found it to be a way to test out fit with the company. While an interview often doesn’t yield the breadth of someone’s talent and commitment, working beside them does.

“Luckily, being a scrappy startup by nature forced us to establish flexible work arrangements that provided a low-risk way to try out working relationships,” she said. “These arrangements generally attract high-achieving, highly motivated people who like to work above and beyond their full-time day jobs. We are so thankful for these partners.”

By nature, companies also evolve. Early employees who remain become the leaders in charge of hiring the next group who will carry forward the company’s values. That’s been the case at Insightin Health, where the early employees are now the leaders who are strategizing for growth.

“Those leaders have now been able to develop robust teams in their respective departments,” Noor said. “This evolution allows us to be a constant driver of industry change and continually innovate leading solutions.”

It also allows the founders to prepare for the next step. These days, Cancro spends most of her time on sales and business development. It led her to seek out training in these over the last few months.

“I realized that I needed to evolve my selling skills and processes so that I can better coach and equip new sales reps — enabling them to be successful,” she said.

Companies: Burnalong
Series: Early Employees Month 2020

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