Feb 2015

Founder stories: Volker Hirsch

Volker Hirsch, Blue Beck and Emerge Education

Hiring and managing a talented senior team should be a critical area of focus for any high-growth, tech sector entrepreneur. In this series of interviews, we talk to successful founders and entrepreneurs about how they’ve tackled their team-building challenges.

Volker Hirsch is a founder, advisor and executive with two decades of experience in start-up and scale-up companies. Volker is currently the co-founder of Blue Beck (a mobile game and app development studio) and Digital M (branded digital merchandise). He serves as Chairman of Cognisess (a people analytics start-up) and Bibblio (educational content curation) and is Venture Partner at Emerge Venture Lab, an angel syndicate and education technology accelerator.

Previously, Volker was Chief Strategy Officer at Scoreloop, a mobile social gaming platform that was sold to BlackBerry, where Volker became Global Head of Business Development – Games. With his acumen at board level at both growing tech companies and corporates, we asked Volker about his experiences of structuring teams, managing talent and developing leadership expertise.

As a growing company, how do you attract key talent?

It can depend where you are as a business. Literally where you are. With Blue Beck we’re based south of Manchester where there’s a wealth of talent but not as much competition as in London. My co-founder has a good, established name in the region and 20 years of experience in the space, and we can often fill open or new positions through our network. This works at our current hiring rates of 2-3 heads per quarter, but if we were having to seriously accelerate our recruitment we would work with recruiters, and also look at the background of the better guys we already have and profile and match candidates against that.

In your role of angel investor, what do you look for in senior hires?

If I hire in to complement the founders, the most important thing for me is to get people who don’t have supersized egos. Most of the time the best scale-up companies have a passionate and capable founding team, and there’s a possibility of warping the dynamic and the energy in that team if you bring in someone whose ego is so large that they want to assert themselves at all costs.

The founding CEO at Scoreloop was a very product-focussed guy. I joined as chief strategy officer so was strategy and customer-focussed, but without the CEO label. We had a great founding CEO there, and I didn’t need the CEO title to be a happy man. That alone helped us to very quickly build a rapport to trust each other and gel, and that was beneficial for the business, and the extraordinary growth we saw (from a few hundred thousand to 100 million users in 18 months).

In an industry that’s evolving so quickly, what leadership challenges have your businesses experienced?

We grew in 18 months from 15 to 50 people. The challenge of this was that most of the guys were engineers or technical, which effectively meant our CTO had to become a first class recruiter and focus on building the team rather than crunching code.

Something we figured out – before we started hiring – was to make sure the top lieutenants became capable of leading the software team. If you’re hiring fast, you spend a lot of time recruiting people and subsequently managing people and you won’t be able to do all the other tasks of a small company CTO or CEO.

Map out your organisation to predict how it will look when it’s larger and put the rules in place for this early. It allows you grow while you’re running. The challenge is that when you don’t do that you have to stop, reflect and start again, and that can cause friction and slow you down.

How does chemistry at board level filter down through a company?

The respect shown filters down. Possibly the worst mistake to make when hiring is to get people who are overly political. They can be great on paper with tons of leadership experience, senior positions at blue chip companies and so on, but big-corporate backgrounds can mean that they can be very political animals, probably by force from their previous positions. That’s unsuitable in a start-up environment and can stifle the energy of the team.

I was involved in a company where they hired a really high-end CEO, chasing a $1bn exit. He couldn’t get his head around the mobile games business, had too much ego to admit it, and tried to change the company to something he would understand, giving up a product line with a $140m revenue run rate in the process. He hired a slew of execs he’d worked with in the past and it was impossible to get work done. Earnings went off a cliff and it led to a buyout at a discount price.

So for senior hires, by far the most important thing is that they are powerful and driven, but their ego mustn’t be such that it dominates.

What skills do you need to develop while a tech business scales up?

For early stage founders who haven’t gone through the experience previously, the painful thing is learning how to let go. Identify trusted lieutenants to take care of departments. You can have a CTO who can go in a very short period of time from coding all the time to business management.

We spent a lot of time at Scoreloop preparing for this. We put a lot of effort into identifying the “second layer”. Otherwise you can create bottlenecks that create frustration at the top (who are overwhelmed), and with everyone else (who aren’t getting the decisions they need).

Volker Hirsch’s insights:

  • – “Political animals” can be unsuitable leaders in a scale-up environment
  • – Sometimes early-stage founders have to “learn to let go”
  • – Senior hires should be powerful and driven, but too much ego is dangerous
  • – Many scale-ups have excellent founding teams – don’t warp the dynamic
  • – Boardroom-level rapport filters down to the company – and can help in retaining talent

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