29 November 2018 Courier Dec/Jan 2019

Secret founder: The startup jobs conspiracy

Do startups provide jobs for the many or the few? Our secret founder argues that small businesses should make more effort to provide jobs and training for the communities they set up in.

What kind of jobs do startups provide? I run a business in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, not that you’d know it looking at the companies I share a building with. Here, there aren’t many people who don’t have a degree, everyone is on a contract and the average annual salary is over £30,000. The street itself is filled with expensive commercial property. And the neighbours? They’re definitely not cool with the situation. In fact, they’re breaking down the doors.

It’s hard to blame them. People who live near my office have VC funding running through the streets around them, but no way to access any of it. For them, the job ads might as well be from the space station. Next door, the factory providing quality, long-term jobs that don’t require a degree is gone, replaced with an architect’s studio and several startups. The only job currently available in that building that doesn’t ask for five years’ experience is a cleaner.

We always read about success stories, companies like Uber and WeWork, that have had explosive, almost unrestrained growth. Collectively, these stories make growth seem like the only reason for a business to exist. Mainstream business media tends to instruct founders to hire people with the exact skill set for a particular project, use them for two years then let them move on – so you get maximum value from them. But this cuts out people with a broad, low-level skill set from the hiring process, and the idea of hiring someone who needs training before they return value to the company is out of the question. It’s ridiculous because shaping and training staff into key team members is the most rewarding thing about running a company. You’re giving them work they can grow into, instilling loyalty and the diligence it takes to make a company successful over a 20-year lifespan.

According to a recruiter who works on behalf of startups, if a candidate’s skills deviate from the requirements on their list by just 5%, their application won’t be taken any further. So, for example, if a company’s trying to become 10 times bigger in three years, there just isn’t room to hire someone who needs time to develop in a few areas, for personal growth or self improvement. Recently, a friend at a large tech company accidentally fell asleep at the office one night. He explained how the cleaning team, composed of low-skilled local workers, were told to arrive between midnight and 6am to have minimal interaction with the daytime staff. Interestingly, though diversity in his team was limited, the night team was made up of a wide range of people from local and immigrant communities.

Even in these kinds of situations where companies do hire low-skilled people, they are siloed away from the core team. They never have the opportunity to train or move up the ranks. It doesn’t have to be like this. In commercial kitchens, for example, anything goes. Rising up from kitchen porter to head chef – that’s a real thing. Local, low-skilled hires are seen as an opportunity rather than a burden. Everyone in the kitchen starts life as a kitchen porter. If they’re quick, they learn prep, they learn to arrive on time, they make friends and they stick with it, and suddenly they’re running the kitchen. They gain respect through the good work they do, not through the original skills they bring to the table.

Another example: crucial to the luxury fashion market in London are the specialised factories of seamstresses working in the east of the capital to produce all the garments. It’s a great example of training and enabling a previously broad skilled group of young people to deliver great returns for themselves and their company. That’s what a truly sustainable business does.

If, as startups, we continue to place all the emphasis on disruptive, experienced candidates, who’s going to build, who’s going to have staying power, who’s going to be with your company in 20 years time?

This issue’s secret founder runs a London-based food business. Would you like to write an anonymous column for Courier? Contact us.