We talk with Renée Warren, the CEO of Onboardly, about how she created a close team of passionate workers, and how she creates a culture as the CEO.
Jacob Shriar: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe. Today, I’m with Renee Warren, who is the CEO of Onboardly. Renee, thanks so much for being here with me.
Renee Warren: Thanks for having me, Jacob.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. So before we get started and dive deep into some questions and what it’s like to work at Onboardly, maybe if you can, just give our audience, A, a bit of background on who you are and, if that’s okay, a bit of background on Onboardly and what you guys do. It’s such a cool company.
Renee Warren: Yeah, well, to make a long story short, I first started a restaurant when I was 17 years old. My mom told me to go out and get a social insurance number so that I could get a job and I said, “Sure, I’ll do that. Plus I’ll start a business.”
Largely, what happened was the opportunity presented itself to my sister and I that we could rent out a facility seasonally to actually run a restaurant, which we did for four years, and profitable for four years. We made enough money to pay for our university. It was hard, yeah, but to me it entrepreneurship was just in me from the beginning. So did undergrad, grad school, traveled; did the typical thing that a lot of young people do these days.
I wound up in Toronto and I was doing a lot of consulting work, a lot of marketing stuff for some tech startups there when the scene was kind of growing. I was the manager of the first co-working office space in downtown Toronto, so I really got a full understanding of the tech space then. This was back in 2005, 2006? Maybe a little bit later.
Then I met my now husband who introduced me to one of his friends that he grew up with named Heather, who is now my business partner. She was doing a lot of freelance PR work for startups while I was doing the content marketing, social media for tech startups. We ended up doing a lot of projects together and what we were doing really complemented each other, so we just kind of came together and created Onboardly. That was over two and a half years ago. Today, we have six employees and we are growing incredibly year over year. So that’s it in a nutshell.
Jacob Shriar: Great.
Renee Warren: So what Onboardly does, we work with funded tech startups to help them with customer acquisition and we’ve created this methodology that encompasses publicity, content marketing and social media as a tool to help garner your first few customers. So if you’re launching or launching a new feature, or need to take your company to the next level because you’re going for another round, or you need to start making money, which is a big thing, or maybe even impress some investors, you can come to us and we can help you get visibility for your brand as well as establish yourself as a thought leader in the space, write a lot of content, contributed content, manage people’s blogs and manage their whole personas online as well.
Jacob Shriar: Very, very cool. Yeah, you guys have an incredible blog. I was reading a few of the posts on the Onboardly blog. Very, very cool. Just give me a second. It seems there’s some technical difficulties. I want to ask you a next question about work-life balance. You just mentioned your now husband, Dan. I see through Facebook, you guys are always sort of out whether it’s hiking or whatever, there are a lot of photos with your kids, and this, and that, and very nice family. So it seems like you’re able to balance the company that you’re trying to build while also maintaining being the mommy and having a family life. So I’d love to understand how you maintain that work-life balance.
Renee Warren: Yeah, it’s interesting because the thing about social media is it allows you to kind of create this beautiful idea of what your life is. Most people don’t want to put pictures or update their Facebook status of all these negative things that are happening. But the reality is that Dan and I feel like we’ve cracked the nut in terms of what it is to be two entrepreneurs growing two businesses at the same rate, and we have two babies under two years old. They’re 11 months apart and it’s tough. But the absolute biggest thing that has brought us to the level that we are today in terms of that work-life balance has just been sheer and open communication.
Dan and I communicate openly about the things that we value and the things that are important to us. I do that with my business partner, Heather, as well. So Heather and I are pretty much married, just like Dan and I are. We share a bank account. We talk about absolutely everything. But if something’s really bugging me with Heather, I’ll just pick up the phone and be like, “This is bugging me. How can we make this work?”
The same thing with Dan; Dan will be like, “Yo, I’m heads down for the next two months. I’m trying to build this thing for Clarity. You have to understand that not every weekend can be a family weekend.” I’m like, “Okay, cool. Got it. We’ll figure this out.” So we’re each other’s number one supporter. You can’t ever tilt away from that because then it disrupts the entire flow.
You create this atmosphere and these ecosystems of how your life is and how you want your family to be, how you want your business to be, and your team internally and they have to know everything that’s going on. So we’re very open about everything that we’re planning, that we’re doing. We share each other’s travel schedules and we help each other out. That’s the big thing is helping each other out, open communication.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. No, that’s great. Let me just give a very quick plug to Dan’s thing, Clarity. Seriously, anyone watching this should really check it out. One of the most incredible platforms I’ve ever seen in my life. Clarity.fm. Maybe we’ll even post a link when the video goes up. Seriously, whoever’s watching this, really, really, if you haven’t already, go check it out.
I want to ask you about how you hire at Onboardly. It’s a relatively small team so of course, the first few people you bring on are obviously the most important. So I’m sure you have some tips or some tricks that you can share, so I’d love to understand how you went about finding these first few core members of the team. If you can share any insight into how you guys hire there, I think that would be cool.
Renee Warren: Yeah, for us, we’ve just come out of this incredible learning curve when it comes to hiring and recruiting. But for us, we create what we think is the role that we need to fill within the organization. Then like most people, you throw up your job descriptions on job boards, you email it to your friends or contacts. You even start poaching people to say, “Hey, we like what you are doing. Do you know someone of your caliber that would be interested in a job like this?”
Full discretion, we recently landed Kimple, which is a startup from the East Coast of Canada, as a client and they’re right in that space so we posted a job on Kimple. They’ve dispersed it to numerous job boards, and it’s an applicant tracking system. Through using that platform, we’ve found pretty much the unicorn of the person that we needed to hire and she’s been with us now for just over a month.
For us, you define the role and it has to be that absolute role. Then you do the whole application and you share that information with your closest network, with your friends, people such as yourself. Then you do that initial applicant tracking process in terms of do you feel that that person’s the right fit.
The culture fit is huge. Having such a small team and a small organization; we’re six people, we all have to get along. By no design we’re all women, but it’s good in a way because we all get along so we can do the female thing. But for us, culture is the number one thing, and we know that as we get to the next level, and the next level. You’re looking at 40 employees and beyond that, it shifts and we’ll have to refocus on how we do recruiting at that time.
For right now, we have our core values, we have this culture and we show these qualified candidates this is us. This is what we believe in. This is the work we’re doing and this is why we’re working with this type of startup, this type of client. Now, is this something that absolutely interests you? Because if yes, cool. Show me why it is. Show me the experience that you have that supports this and if you don’t have the experience, show us how you’re going to learn and train yourself so you can get to that level. So we’re not always hiring people that have 10 years experience. We’re hiring people that know they can do the job and do it well.
Jacob Shriar: Sorry. Go ahead.
Renee Warren: Most recently, we were just chatting about this before the video, but we just came out of this incredible two-year slump where we had five people come through one job within the organization. So you can imagine, there’s people who have been with us from the very beginning. They haven’t budged. But there’s one role in particular, we couldn’t figure it out. People would come, some of them we had to fire, some of them left. There was one in particular that actually went rogue, literally, gone.
So we went back and said this position is cursed. We’re going to kill it. We did. We just killed it. We got rid of that position. We obviously needed it, but we kind of rebranded the roles. So we created this role as an entity of the company and we said, “This is what this is.” We said, “We’re trying to sell this role, like a product, to people that are highly qualified to potentially work and fill that role.”
It took a little bit more effort, but in the end we actually found someone absolutely phenomenal to fill the position. So a small team, you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears to the ground all the time, even if you’re not hiring, because that perfect candidate might be someone that can help you take your business to the next level, even if you’re not looking for them per se.
Jacob Shriar: This role that kept being sort of rotating in and out of, do you think the problem was the branding, the way maybe the job description was written and the job title, or what do you think the actual problem was there?
Renee Warren: Yeah. I think in a way it was the expectation of what it looked like on paper and then what happened on a day to day basis. It just didn’t work out. The role was kind of like the catchall for everybody that has too many tasks. They had this basic role; content marketing, create content, edit, post stuff on people’s blog, but they were also the catchall for things for PR and social media, and whatnot. So they were kind of the bottom feeder role.
What we learnt from these people coming and going through this role was that there were certain stuff we shouldn’t be doing in terms of client work. So we started to say no a lot more, and we started saying yes to things that actually proved traction and proved revenue for our clients.
A perfect example would be one client wanting to be nominated for every single award under the sun, which at that point in time would not justify anything for them. They don’t have any investors and whatnots so there was no one they had to please. It was just kind of a feel good thing for them, but what we did instead, we said, “Okay, that’s not working. How about we add more emphasis on the PR side of things? Let’s make you a thought leader in this space. We’ve got a lot of contributed content opportunities with entrepreneurs and a LinkedIn presence and whatnot,” and that proved to be more valuable than all of the awards.
So for us, in identifying why this role was such a dud was that it taught us to say no to the things that we shouldn’t be working on. It taught us to figure out who should be working within the organization. It also taught us how to be better leaders because there were certain things that Heather and I learned along the way too that we didn’t know about ourselves before, which was kind of a devastating realization but it’s a learning curve.
Jacob Shriar: For sure, yeah. I’d love to ask you about leadership. Let me ask you this question first. What are some of the main concerns that you have in the context of company culture and employee engagement and things like that? What are some of the worries and things as a CEO that you have?
Renee Warren: By default, Heather and I are very goofy, fun people. It’s just our personality. We’re not going to hide who we are just so that we can fill the role of being the CEO or the principal, whatever it is that we are.
What we’re most afraid of is that our team won’t take us as seriously because we’re so goofy, because we have this very fun, vibrant culture. Maybe it’s been to our demise in the past, and people have left us and quit because they weren’t taking us seriously. I don’t know. We haven’t figured that part out. But I think that’s the biggest thing right now.
For me, when I think about the future and our company growing, I fear not being able to be a great leader to a larger team. You know different personality. Like right now, a lot of the people, we get their personalities. Because there’s only five or six of us, you have the time to actually get to know the person.
But I’m really not that good at providing the best tone of email, for example. So people take things personally and I have to rework all of that. Even thinking just asking one of the team members to do one task for me or to help somebody else out, I have to think about how they’re going to interpret the tone of the email, because I don’t want them to think I’m angry at them. So I’ve had to learn how to communicate more internally with the team in order for them to be more productive and feel positive, and happy, and rewarded.
But as the company grows, I fear that I won’t be able to do that properly. Now, I also haven’t invested much time or money in training, which I know is absolutely huge and important. So that’s kind of the next phase come the fall is really looking into how to be a better leader, how to grow a business and leadership, and those kinds of things.
Jacob Shriar: Nice. Yeah, very interesting. Me personally, something that I’m sort of trying to learn a bit more about is onboarding. I think that’s an area where companies really get it wrong. I’m not saying that’s the case with you. I’m just saying a lot of companies in general, I think, don’t go far enough in the onboarding process. They only go for the first week, maybe two weeks and then they kind of let it drop.
Where I think, and I’m learning more and more that you need to keep this thing going for potentially three months, potentially even longer than that. I’d love to get your thoughts on onboarding in general, and if you have any sort of tips or tricks on how you onboard employees at Onboardly.
Renee Warren: Yeah, I think the irony is we are Onboardly and we probably suck at onboarding. I’m more of a laissez-faire kind of leader so I show you the foundation, the templates. I show you the ropes in the first couple of weeks. After that, I kind of just expect you to pick up where I leave off.
Heather’s a little bit better. She’s more of a one-on-one person. She’ll sit down with you, kind of go through your tasks and make sure if there’s any questions that you have, or any problems will be resolved right away.
But, yeah, for me it’s just I feel like I know I need to spend more time one-on-one and it’s so important. We used to have one weekly stand-up meeting on Mondays to go over our tasks for the week. It was one of our employees that suggested another weekly stand-up meeting. So Mondays, we have to really talk about the state of the union for each of our clients for the week. At the end of the week, are they going to be so happy with the work that we’ve done?
We make sure that our tasks for the week are the best possible things that we need to be working on. Then we do a 15-minute stand-up on Wednesday to go back to the tasks they’re working on and really assess the stuff that we shouldn’t be continuing with, or stuff you’ll need help with in order to finish it for the end of the week. It’s just little things like that that have helped. And when you have a new employee coming in, that extra little 15-minute meeting is absolutely phenomenal for onboarding. You get to know the other people a lot faster, but you also get to know the internal workings of how the organization runs.
Yeah, so for us, we have remote workers and it is tough to not be in person a lot, but these people, they’re good. They’re good to log on to Skype. We use HipChat internally to talk amongst each other, and we always have little touch points every now and then. But I can’t stress enough the value of one-on-ones, even if it’s a five-minute check in, “Hey, how are you? How’s your dog doing?” Whatever it is, right? It’s that feel good factor of someone actually showing that they care. We’ve started to do that more and more and it helped dramatically.
Jacob Shriar: That’s great. Yeah, at least you’re doing things to try to address the problem. But, no, I think you hit it very, very smartly. I think a lot of leaders sort of make that mistake in a weird way. Don’t take any offense to that, but they do sort of just expect employees to come in and just sort of hit the ground running, maybe because they themselves as leaders, maybe you yourself are just so entrepreneurial, so ready to go, you sort of expect that from other people.
The more research that I’m doing into scientific studies and things like that, I’m finding more and more that that’s just not the case. But I don’t think it’s intentional that you’re doing that. I think it’s just an honest mistake that a lot of leaders actually make in all honesty.
Another thing that I’m sort of interested in, in university I studied psychology and I believe a lot in the importance of psychology in leadership. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I was just talking to someone yesterday about this and they said something really interesting. I don’t remember word for word what they said, but they said something like, they were the CEO of a very big marketing company in the States, and she was like, “The psychology of a leader is so interesting because as the CEO, you’re never allowed to be satisfied because you have to always be looking, let’s say, one year out, two years out, three years out, and being like what we have today is not good enough. In a year, it’s going to be this much better.”
I just found it really interesting. I don’t want to misquote her or maybe take her out of context, but I think what she was saying was really interesting. Do you want to talk for maybe a few minutes on the role of psychology in leadership?
Renee Warren: I’d say that I probably need some training on that, too. But it is true because you look at all the things that your company is doing to achieve the goals this year, next year, forever, and when you’re actually doing it right and you’re doing it well it feels good. But it’s very rare that you’re going to be doing it right and well all the time.
For me, I’m actually a very sensitive person emotionally and I’m okay to share that. For me, if something’s an issue right now, I need to talk about it right now. But give me five minutes and I’ll be over it. I don’t care. So I butt heads with people who need to sleep on it because I can’t sleep on it. I’ll be enraged the whole time.
So for me, the psychology of a leader is I have to kind of compromise in understanding that person’s psyche. So if they’re somebody that has to sleep on an issue, then I have to appreciate that and respect that because it’s easier for me to mold and understand their psyche and realize that they’re the one that needs more time to think about it, than it is to expect them to be coming up to my level and saying, “Okay, let’s talk about this right now,” when they’re not prepared.
A leader does have to compromise a lot more. That’s probably something that a lot of people just don’t do. Because they’re the leader of the organization, they think they can do whatever they want. Believe me, I have days when I feel that way too, but I’ve also noticed that when I start respecting and appreciate other people’s personalities, their sensitivities, that it makes for a better, more productive environment, and by showing them merit when merit’s due as well.
That was a huge learning curve because going back to this whole onboarding thing too is some people need that extra pat on the shoulder to say they’ve done a good job and that’s it, just a high-five, “Great job!” Some people don’t care. A quick, little private email is enough for them. But you really have to take the time to understand what those employees need and want because if it is a pat on the back and you’re not doing that, they’re going to feel like they’re not appreciated.
For me, it’s hard for me to give someone a pat on the back but I have to realize that that’s what they need. So it’s compromises. That’s probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done as a leader, and never ever thought that I would have to care so much about someone’s personality and their sensitivities as I do today.
Jacob Shriar: Yeah, that was so well said. You said a lot of very smart things there. It’s so tricky. It must be so weird as a CEO I find because every employee, like you said, is different and they react differently, emotionally. But all employees are so fragile in a way or I’m sorry, the relationship between the leader and all the employees as one is so fragile so you have to really walk a fine line. Like you said, you’ve got to word your emails carefully. You’ve got to pat them on the back and just the right time.
It’s such a tricky dance, I find. So it must be a lot of pressure for a CEO. I’ve never been in that position, but I can imagine it must be so almost nerve wracking in a weird way. So let me ask you this question. How much time do you think, and I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but how much time do you think you dedicate to, let’s say, employee engagement and that sort of making sure everyone’s okay and making sure the email’s worded properly, and this, and that? Is it a large portion of your time? What are your thoughts like?
Renee Warren: Well, maybe me, being a woman, it’s different. It’s always in the back of my mind that every waking moment; from the moment I wake up to check my email, it’s always on the back of my mind how people are feeling, because when you get talented people that are happy and productive, you worry less about it, but it’s up to you to keep them happy and productive. So if something happens and there’s always things that happen every week, someone has a doctor’s appointment that kind of disrupts the productivity flow for the day, even the week. Who knows? It’s up to you to stay on top of it, really.
We use actually a tool called “15-5”. They were a former client of ours. We worked with them for well over a year. They grew so much they actually hired the equivalent of my company internally. That’s an employee engagement tool. We still use it to this day. So every Friday, everyone submits a report. It takes them maybe 10 minutes to fill out and it takes Heather and I five minutes to read.
What this has done is kind of surfaced issues before they became bigger issues. We’ll ask someone, one of our employees, “Hey, how do you feel about the new girl?” and they’ll say all the things that they want to say. And it’s okay, it’s totally kosher. Heather and I are the only ones who see these reports.
Then Heather and I submit a report to each other. We change up the questions every now and then, and we make some of them fun. They’re mostly serious. Then the last few questions are always like, “What was the best joke you heard this week?” or, “What was the funniest thing that happened in the office?” We have just discovered some pretty interesting things. There’s a lot of creative people on our team.
The employee engagement is incredibly important. We don’t believe in three, six, one-year reviews. We believe in employee reviews when we feel it’s time that they need to improve on something, or they deserve a promotion, or a raise, or they deserve to go to the conference of their dreams. We keep tabs on when we need to talk to these people and then we blast talk to them, too.
For instance, on one of the 15-5 reports that was submitted by one of the team members a few months ago, she was like, “I would absolutely love to go to MozCon out in Seattle.” We’re like, “Cool!” So before we knew it, she had a ticket and the flight booked out to MozCon in Seattle, and she’s like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her. She’s very young. So for her, to travel that far was new. For her, to go to such an awesome conference was new.
But the information and the new friend that she brought back to the company when she came back was just absolutely mind-blowing and definitely worth the R.O.I. If we didn’t engage with our employees and really seek to discover their interests, both professionally and personally, we wouldn’t have been able to garner all that information that she captured when she went to MozCon.
It’s the little things, too. Like one girl worked extra hard one week on solving a client’s problem and instead of giving her a check or a bonus or whatever, we went out and got her some gift cards at Spear and some of her favorite stores, and just presented it to her and said, “We really truly appreciate you putting up with all the B.S. from that client.” To her it meant the world because we bought her stuff from her favorite store, so we know her favorite store. That’s important.
Then even since then, she’s been so incredibly productive. We’ve always rewarded her, not always with gifts, but with extra time off or whenever she wanted to get her nails done or something early one day we’re like, “Absolutely. You go.”
They work to achieve those things and money’s not always the number one motivator. But really taking the time to find out these people’s interests and the stuff that bugs them, the stuff that doesn’t bug them, what they’re most productive on in terms of the tasks. The tasks they don’t even want to work on, we try to minimize that. Everyone has to do stuff they hate, but it’s always a question in our weekly reports, what task shouldn’t you have been working this week. And if something consistently keeps coming up, then we make sure that there’s someone else that can at least backfill that task.
There’s so much more power in engaging your employees than people believe, and if you’re not doing it right then it’s kind of the reason why maybe five people will go through one job in a matter of two years. But we’ve corrected that.
Jacob Shriar: Yeah, that’s great. Honestly, very, very well said. Really, seriously, that was incredible. I could not have said it better myself. I think it will become a little bit more difficult as you guys continue to grow and scale, that sort of personal connection between the employees, knowing their favorite stores and this or that. But like you said, I think software will help, tools like 15-5 and other similar tools will probably make that a little bit easier.
I think we’ll end it here, but honestly, Renee, I just want to thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy day to chat with me. This is really incredible, honestly. It sounds like you’re doing a great job as a leader, seriously. Yeah, I just want to thank you again and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon.
Renee Warren: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It was awesome.
Jacob Shriar: All right, great. Take care.
Renee Warren: Thanks.
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