Are People Operations the Secret to Startup Success?

Kristen Craft | April 17, 2018

If you’re currently running a startup, you might be wondering why we’re dumping yet another “to do” on your already stacked list. Hear us out on this one, though: People Operations might be the fuel that powers your young business over the coming years.


Not to be confused with Human Resources (HR), but often used synonymously, People Operations is an all-encompassing term for, yep, you guessed it, people. People and how your business holds onto them and takes care of them.


People Operations covers all things from the moment you look at an application from a hopeful candidate (recruitment) to the onboarding and administrative support that goes on during their first few months, and right through any learning and development that people choose to participate in while they’re with the company.


Heck, People Operations is of such high importance to Google that their People Operations (POps) team even have a mantra: “find them, grow them, keep them.”


Google hasn’t just plucked POps out of thin air either. According to ‘WORK RULES!,’ a book by Google SVYP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, the company has been referring to their “HR” department as people since 2006:


“At Google, conventional business language wasn’t well-regarded. ‘HR’ would be viewed as administrative and bureaucratic. In contrast, ‘operations’ was viewed by engineers as a credible title, connoting some actual ability to get things done.”


The question is, if Google has been devoting such attention to People Operations for over a decade, why are startups still contemplating the importance of the idea?


Why Are People Operations Important for Startups?


In a detailed assessment of what startups should know about People Operations, George Dickinson of Bonusly makes what is an essential point for all startups to understand:


“The early days are your chance to build and solidify that admirable organizational culture that attracts the best people, and keeps them around long-term. That’s why to succeed reliably; your people operations strategies need to be exceptional.”


People Operations can help you anticipate problems and avoid them. Volatility is something that all new companies experience. It’s just part of being a young business. With each decision you make, whether it’s regarding onboarding, recruitment, or your retention strategy, the ramifications are magnified. The best you can do is make sure that someone on the team is paying attention and mitigating the impact and risks to employees.


In most modern tech startups, there is an expectation that early employees treat their job like it’s more than the typical 9-5 of your parents’ generation. With that expectation comes a desire from your employees (the people!) for a comfortable, safe work environment. They want friendlier managers and like-minded coworkers, plenty of perks, and loads of learning.


(You might find our previous article on the benefits of building a learning organization interesting.) People operations are at the forefront of making sure these extras – cultural or monetary – exist.


How Can People Operations Change the Business Outcomes for a Startup?


People Operations will help your business understand what it is that your employees need to perform at their highest level, and then deliver on those expectations. The benefit is an increased chance of actually succeeding.


According to an eight-year long study conducted during the first dot-com boom, companies that opted to bring HR expertise into the organization first were among the fastest to go public. They were amongst the least likely to fail. Both of which are pretty ideal outcomes, wouldn’t you say?


An example of how powerful People Operations as a team can be came when Google carried out their famous ‘Project Oxygen’ in 2009. The objective was to find out what makes a good manager with the actual question set out as “What if every Googler had an awesome manager?”


The aforementioned SVP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock and his colleagues, set about analyzing the data that the Google People Analytics team had compiled. The results helped Google identify a set of common behaviors among the best managers, which they were then able to use to guide management development programs for trainee managers. They had created a flywheel that identified positive managerial traits and fostered those traits, in order to drive business success.



How Does People Operations Benefit from Knowledge Management?


As we discovered in our piece on building your company’s intellectual capital, there’s tremendous value in setting up an infrastructure that lets employees share knowledge. People Operations is generally the group tasked with the construction of said infrastructure, and also the group championing it, so that as people develop, the company develops with them.


If we think back to Google’s POps team mantra of “find them, grow them, keep them,” you can pinpoint where and how knowledge management plays a role at each of those three pillars, particularly the last two.


The process of growing people and shaping them to become leaders, both formally and informally, can be influenced by things like new employee orientation, mentorship, or career responsibility mapping.


It can also be shaped by how well you handle difficult moments like an instance of a senior member of the team giving notice. People operations can smooth the path here, helping to transfer the most critical knowledge that your other employees might not otherwise gain.


Ultimately, in most companies, people are the greatest asset. This is especially true in startups, where every person has such a big impact. It’s imperative that someone, or a people ops team, is thinking about how to cultivate these assets and help them learn and grow.