New businesses thrive with the right people in place

Were you ever the “new kid” at school?

Those first days were scary, exciting, hopeful, and a little bit lonely. You knew you were going to make new friends eventually, but it’s never easy to establish yourself, stand out for the right reasons, and not fall on your face. If only you had a buddy to help you along.

Fast forward 20 years or so, when you’re launching a new business. It’s the new-kid anxiety all over again. Only this time, you’re juggling business development and scaling up, leaving you little time to recruit the team you need to succeed.

Finding your first few trusted hires is a key element to make sure your startup doesn’t become a sad statistic: 50 percent of all startups fail in the first five years. The right cohort can help make the difference.

Pete Petrella, managing director of Viaduct, knows this. Founded in 2016, Viaduct helps entrepreneurs hire the best people at this critical time. “Founders wear a lot of hats,” Petrella said. “Finding time to search out the right talent is a huge effort and has lots of challenges. There’s so much else going on running a new company and bringing it to scale.”

Staff recruitment is a huge leap of faith, particularly for entrepreneurs. The bold move of being your own boss and creating a place and a culture that you want is essential. “A founder came up with the idea or found a solution that can change the world. Now you have to find the right person or people to carry it through in a competitive market,” said Petrella.

The startup culture may not be for everyone, but it is very appealing to someone who is not risk averse and ready to embrace something very new. It’s an evolutionary business culture, too. “Boulder, Colo., reinvented itself as a startup friendly place,” Petrella said. “It takes 20 years to change the mindset of a community. Buffalo was a bit behind, and now it is finally on the map to attract younger entrepreneurs who want to work in our community. I think it’s been a long time coming.”

A new hire is like any other relationship. A candidate may spark your interest. The right balance of skill, experience, motivation, and grit makes a good first impression. Then there’s that intangible “click”--call it instinct or confidence--that shows you the candidate is right. From there, you start to find the trust that can bring a dream to market. And for a founder, it’s hard to let go, said Petrella. “Things start to fall out of your control. You have to trust that you’re finding the right people. Founders and CEOs of startups have to be masters of recruiting or the organization will be in serious trouble.”

Petrella says Viaduct is developing innovative and efficient ways to help founders access the talent they need. The standard human resources assessment tools may not work for the unique startup sector. New assessments will determine if someone is ready to work in the less traditional arena.

“There’s more chaos there, maybe adjusting to a co-working or open work space,” noted Petrella.

Another Viaduct service is to support the new hire in the first few months on the new job. “The first 90 days (are) a culture shock. You’re doing everything so much more quickly. We’ll help the employees adapt and help the employer with on-boarding to make that as seamless as possible. This is a total time management solution that hasn’t been seen before,” Petrella said.

There’s the balance of the dynamics of the workforce, too, mixing in seasoned veterans and recent graduates. Nobody knows this more than Holly Hubert, former FBI agent who founded GlobalSecuritiesIQ in 2017. Her cybersecurity business occupies a very special niche. “Cybersecurity is a new discipline,” she said, “and no one comes out of school fully prepared to be a practitioner. As a leader, you have to invest yourself in mentoring others, and share your processes, your vision, and how you want to execute your plan.” Hubert relies on her great relationships with area universities to connect her with recent graduates. She said, “There’s a lot of talent here in WNY. Buffalo has a lot of great tech initiatives.”

John Gavigan, chief operating officer for SomaDetect, says he feels that human resources is one of the most important aspects of any business, and finding the right combination of skills takes work. SomaDetect, which relocated to Buffalo after winning $1 million in the 43North business plan competition in 2017, created sensor technology that provides real-time analytics to dairy farmers about milk quality and the health of the herd. This requires a tech-savvy team with dairy industry knowledge, too. “We don’t have a density of applicants for some of these jobs,” Gavigan said. “There are lots of people moving into the city who are discovering that this is a cool place to live. That’s been really encouraging. No midsize to major city is ever going to have the density of applicants they need for every job, especially in technology.”

This is where Petrella and Viaduct can step in. A Buffalo native, Petrella has his finger on the proverbial pulse of the community, which gives him and Viaduct an edge in helping startups find workers who are ready to jump right into to a fledgling enterprise.

“The employee market is starting to respond to the region’s growth,” he said. “There are ex-pats who are looking to come back. They want to come back home and now they have the opportunity. There are younger people who never knew Buffalo existed who want to work here, too.”

Petrella said he also often looks to individuals already in the workforce, “whether or not they are looking for a new job,” to fill roles in emerging companies. “If you’ve been working in a big company, and may have retired or been down-sized, you may look to a startup to re-launch your career,” he said.

Petrella cited a recent study that says 54 percent of millennials have started or want to start their own business. Launch NY and 43North are positioned to fuel this emerging trend with local business incubators and accelerators.

These initiatives help young business professionals bridge their professional passions with community needs, too. Consider how the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus developed and continues to grow. “Over the next 10 years, baby boomers are retiring, especially in the medical professions,” Petrella said. “It’s a good opportunity to bring in new talent for these roles, and the medical side will keep growing because of the need.” Jobs in technology and advanced manufacturing will also become more in demand as the regional economy evolves.

Surprisingly, sales jobs are the some of the hardest positions for startups to fill, said Petrella, particularly at the leadership level. “Sales leaders are hard to find. They aren’t easy jobs to do and it’s not comfortable for a lot of people. In startups, it’s hard to meet the salary requirements that a good sales leader commands."

It takes more than a concentration of businesses to attract a workforce: Community services need to be robust and on target as well as cultural, human service, and education organizations. These are the elements that help support a high quality of life, and returning workers and those who are just discovering that Buffalo is a fascinating (and affordable) place to live need to see this. “Main Street businesses and not-for-profits are important to the community, and we need those to thrive,” Petrella said. “For example, one engineering job creates the need for five service-level jobs in a community.”

In other words, “it takes a community to build an even better community,” said Petrella.

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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