Leading Talent Acquisition at a VC-backed Tech Startup: Q&A with Circle’s Carlie Smith
Circle, a VC-backed fintech startup, is growing fast. The director of talent shares how she’s building the talent function and what she learned working at a venture capital firm.
Carlie Smith (Credit: Circle)
Carlie Smith is the Director of Talent at Circle, a social payments-technology company that has raised more than $136 million from investors including Goldman Sachs, IDG Capital, and Baidu. She is no stranger to the world of venture capital-backed startups, having previously supported OpenView Venture Partners’ portfolio of companies as a talent manager. We got on the phone to chat about the talent acquisition experience she’s gained working both for a venture capital firm and a VC-backed startup.
“You can’t rinse and repeat. You have to find out what works for the company you’re in…”
You recently moved from being a talent manager at a venture capital firm to being the director of talent at Circle, a VC-backed startup. What inspired you to make the change?
It was a two-fold decision. In my first conversation with Circle, the company’s mission struck me: To connect everyone in the world through an open network of value exchange, enabling you to move money regardless of which country you live in or where you want to send it. Circle wants to make sending money as easy as sending an email, and they’ve made a lot of headway. I wanted to be part of something big, that is changing the status quo within an industry.
The second part of the decision was that I wanted to be on the inside of a company. I spent the last seven years partnering with startups from the outside, first at talent acquisition firm WinterWyman, and then on the VC-side at OpenView. It was time to see a build through. It’s an interesting challenge, and I’m excited every day to be able to see the progress of what I’m helping to build at Circle.
What challenges are you focusing on in your role right now?
My main objective is to find the best team members for Circle, and ensure the experience is memorable for both the network of individuals we engage with and for our internal hiring teams. It’s also to continue to make Circle a great place for the team to thrive, not only as a place to work, but as a place to cultivate your talent and explore new skills.
Can you give a couple examples of projects you’re working on as part of those objectives?
When I first joined Circle, I implemented a structured interview process for hiring teams to follow that would scale. As we built it out, we considered: How can we build a process that provides candidates with a consistent, memorable experience? What does the hiring team’s experience look like, from start to finish? Are we setting up the team to go beyond the surface-level, to get to the information needed in order to make the best possible hiring decisions? Is the process repeatable and can it scale, given the volume of hiring we need to do?
Once we had a more structured hiring process in place, the focus shifted to candidate experience: educating hiring teams on creative ways to give the candidate and eventual new hire a great experience with Circle. That’s anything from the content of a message when the team is reaching out for the first time, to how we communicate with them around scheduling, expectations and feedback, to when we’re meeting the person for the first time.
What role do a startup’s investors play in how you hire?
Different investors have different resources you can leverage. Figuring that out upfront is valuable in building out anything people-related. For instance, the VC may have a talent partner in-house who you can leverage, to help you with networking, finding resources, or connecting you to other talent leaders in the portfolio who can share their experiences. With others, you are able to leverage the specific partner who has invested. They have knowledge across many different companies, industries, and geographies, so tapping your investor as a resource will help you build your people organization.
How is your role at OpenView influenced or helped you in your role at Circle?
As a talent manager at OpenView, I was able to see the models and programs various companies at different stages used to build out people teams and talent acquisition functions. I saw what worked, what didn’t work, and the “why” behind it. For example, why didn’t this approach work in Company A, when it worked Company B? I learned that you can’t rinse and repeat. You have to find out what works for the company you’re in, what the business priorities are at this point in time, and where they are headed in the future. That has been helpful for me to come in and figure out: What does Circle need? What is our culture? What are the business priorities? What already works really well here? Using that data to build talent and people programs that align with the business and will affect change.
“Start beta-testing new programs.”
Has there been anything that surprised you in your role, going in-house?
The feedback from the team at Circle, for building and continuously improving our people and the talent acquisition function. I was brought on to continue to evolve the people programs, but the buy-in and feedback has been fantastic: “It’s really great that we have X in place now,” or even, “Hey, this didn’t work, so what about trying this.”
What one piece of advice would you give to talent leaders at venture-backed companies, that you might not have given before going in-house at Circle?
Being in-house has allowed me to better connect with the needs of the business so I can build out a function based on those needs. My advice would be to really learn the business: ingrain yourself in the company culture, the subculture of each of the functions, and the teams within that.
Start beta-testing new programs. If you’re going to try something new, test it with one or two teams before rolling it out company-wide. Then, take steps to educate teams about the value of the new initiatives and changes you’re implementing. You’ll get feedback and questions from the trial teams that will help you iterate. When you’re ready for a full rollout, you know the program has been proven, you have an idea of the questions that may be asked, and you have stakeholders who’ve used, found value and can champion the initiative.
Read Carlie’s previous Q&A from her time at venture capital firm OpenView Partners: “How to Work with Your VC’s Recruiters.”
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