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People strategies needed to manage a Unicorn's hyper-growth

By Anna Richardson, Vice President of People, Aiven

August 25 2022 - Two major funding rounds. The achievement of Unicorn status. And a headcount which has grown from 100 to more than 430. Intense is not even close to describing the last 12 months at open-source cloud company Aiven. As we look to the future, my role as Vice President of People is to ensure that company culture is preserved and that as we continue our hypergrowth we hire the best talent for the right roles and retain our talented employees.

Hiring for the right roles

It is easy for any business experiencing sustained growth to expand rapidly and that can result in hiring too many people, or perhaps hiring people into the wrong roles. Many decision-makers attempt to scale up their business too fast during a period of strong growth. One very public example of this is tech trading platform Robinhood, which in April this year was forced to lay off 9% of its staff after admitting to hiring too many people during its growth phase.

Strategic headcount growth is at the forefront of my mind. Itís critical we safeguard against reckless, unnecessary and superficial hiring practices.

For every potential new employee, during the hiring process, I work with my people team and partner with both the executive group and key decision-makers in the company. We evaluate and examine carefully how every new employee will:

  • Fit into their role, and we have clear base expectations for the role
  • Fit into the company and how the role will deliver value
  • Fit into the culture of the organisation as a whole

By maintaining these checks and balances in the recruitment process we can increase the likelihood that new employees align with our long-term goals, something which is key for our future growth and continued success.

Our recent Series D funding round, which raised $210 million, had a goal of recession-proofing Aiven as much as possible and providing our employees with a sense of job security in these challenging economic times. Creating a positive working environment and company culture is essential to Aiven, thatís why we are starting a long-term Employer and Brand Experience initiative that focuses on diversity and inclusion so that our workforce reflects our values.

During a period when 70% of tech companies were said to be experiencing a skills deficit, we were able to grow our headcount by more than 300%. We applied some very successful strategies to help achieve this including activating our networks within the company and operating a highly fruitful referral system. Employees who referred successful candidates received rewards and bonuses. We also focused on personalised outreach campaigns to outstanding potential candidates and made a conscious decision to avoid mass recruitment drives.

Creating company culture in a remote-first organisation

However, the major factor in our success in hiring is our unique company culture. After all, everyone wants to work somewhere they will feel happy, included and most of all listened to. Strong internal culture and values that people respect make us an attractive proposition for employment. We place a lot of emphasis on the values of openness and courage, so everyone at Aiven can contribute in a meaningful way to the success of individual projects and the growth of the business at large. We believe in placing trust in our employees, such as our flexible work policy. At Aiven, employees have the freedom to work anywhere in the world- whether that be in an office or living the digital nomad lifestyle.

We place a lot of prominence on giving back, as part of our company values. This includes giving back to the open-source community through our Cluster programme, which provides start-ups free support to scale up. We also take our ESG responsibility very seriously and are continually looking to improve in that area.

The recruitment approaches ensure that only the people with the right values, attitudes and skills join Aiven. This helps build a community spirit at the company, with all new employees reproducing and replicating the Aiven values. Long-term goals must align with values and culture.

Retaining employees through building careers

Culture is always changing and developing and so is our workforce. One of our key company values that drives us forward is recognising that everyone should be truly learning whilst they are at work. Employee development is essential to success. Every member of Aiven is allocated an education budget and is partnered with decision-makers inside the company. Our members of staff are encouraged to grow, develop and become leaders or subject matter specialists.

Values should reflect the business and be at the heart of compelling the company forward. As a managed open-source platform, we believe in the value of openness. This translates into policies and a culture that allows every member of the team to input into the company processes.

Innovative new policies such as the whistle-blower hotline are aligned with our culture of absolute openness, which leads to continued development and improvement at the company. But it's not just that, we are continually reviewing our benefits to ensure they take care of our team and offer more reasons to stay with us. Over the next few months, weíll be rolling out some exciting new benefits to do just that.

Ultimately, people have to come first

At Aiven, we focus on people. We ensure that the right person fills every role we hire with the most compatible skills, values and attitude. Our long-term values drive every internal process and goal, and every employee understands and reciprocates these.

Delivering an effective people-first strategy is a challenge in a period of hypergrowth. There is a temptation to rush and make hasty decisions. But itís critical in this period that strategy and future goals are front and centre of the process. And we will continue to ensure we hire the right people and build a strong culture that supports our brilliant, fast-growing workforce.

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