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People Ops 101

Growing a company without people operations or human resources is almost impossible to do. While teams are now remote, people ops supported the transition and stabilized units during the 2020 pandemic. Often overlooked, people are the most essential assets in a team. They're not just the resource you talk to when you have a problem. Good people operations empower people and encourage a positive culture.

How could you accomplish this without an HR team? At People Ops 101, a Startup Boston Week 2020 event, we got insights from some fantastic speakers (see below).

Why you need someone to take care of the people

Most of the time, the founders of start-ups are not ready to make the first hire. They are not prepared to relinquish control or have little confidence in their hiring ability. Instead, executives focus on bringing in revenue. They can overlook that hiring the right people can support the bottom line. For some, the first "HR" person came from working somewhere else. They might be taking on extra HR tasks until someone committed gets hired. Although the process changes all the time, the part-time HR person tends to get efficient. As an executive, learn not to micromanage and lean into other supervisors.

A big struggle of running a company without HR is that employees are often forced into a one-size-fits-all solution. HR does more than manage complaints. They build trust and culture into your team. Do it as soon as you are financially able!

In your first HR hire, think of someone who can put a stamp on the culture and long-term policy. Compared to more notable companies, small HR teams make a little difference in how people get hired. Even smaller teams can thrive without HR.

Human Resources vs. People Operations: what if you don't have either?

There has been a significant shift, and there is an increasing difference between human resources and people operations. The role of people operations is more critical as people are working remotely. People operations can better support diverse, remote teams. While managers care about accountability, people ops act as a support team.

Growing a company without HR is very challenging but overall gives the team great experience in the fits and starts of scaling. Many start-ups can't compete with a Google salary or a Facebook benefits program. People ops can win them over with personality and individual care. With your budget, get creative and give them a good experience. Support the team with continued growth and professional development opportunities. Be there for them. Let them go home feeling warm and fuzzy (in a distributed environment, this includes respecting workday boundaries—let them go "home"). A positive experience will help your company in the long run.

When does a full-time HR person come into the team? How do you fill in the gaps?

Is your bandwidth being spread thin? It's easy for executives and founders to think that they can do everything on their own. Beware, or else you run yourself into the ground and get burnt out. Before making a hire, keep a running list of tasks and responsibilities.

Use that list to make a job description and ask someone on the team for help. Find out what you can contract out and what you can automate. Know what you need from the new hire of a contractor. Otherwise, they have less accountability and expectations.

When making that hire, look at people with different backgrounds. They can be more loyal to the company. Hire for talent and not just pedigree. It can be dangerous to hire someone like you, for "culture fit." Diversity of representation and thought is crucial for a company to be viable. Hiring someone different can round out your skillset, approach, and introduce new opportunities for improvement.

Until you get more support, working with benefits brokers can help smaller HR teams. Also, consider a consultant or Agile Project Manager. They can work part-time to help coordinate projects and manage teams. Fortunately, they work as an unbiased sounding board for ideas and opinions. An HR consultant can also discuss regulation, mediation, and general support.

You can also fill in the gaps with software. Never cut payroll and make sure the software aligns with what the business needs. Budget for it in advance!

People are the most critical assets. Budget for HR, and they can help retain people and let them grow. If you lose them, it takes time and effort to recruit and train. You lose hours of work to compensate. Look for potential and passion, and you will build the strongest teams.

To watch the full video from Startup Boston Week 2020, click here.


Speakers at People Ops 101 included:

Shea is a serial entrepreneur in the Boston area. Some names he founded or co-founded include: Back Bay Roasters, LeanBox,, and The People Ops Society. His experience in business fuels his support for the people in his companies.

Cristina has experience in all parts of a business. She was a teacher, marketer, customer success, and now works Learning & Development in Outco Inc. Also an advocate in the DEI spaces, she is a powerful woman in Boston tech.

A former Harvard recruiter and HR professional, Ahfeeyah also has branding and marketing experience. An advocate for diverse teams, she knows how to build teams and that includes her own.

With a myriad of experiences, Pooja is currently the People Operations Lead in mabl, a software company in Boston. Leading and growing a small people ops team, she discovered the ins and outs of what it takes to build a great team.

Tracy is currently an office manager at Hopper, a travel company. In her day, she helps onboard new hires and guides them through the process.


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