The Talent Wars of 2022: A Conversation with Brex and Welcome
Unless you’ve been avoiding the internet, you’ve likely seen headlines including phrases like ‘The Great Resignation’ or ‘The Great Realignment,’ articles pointing out startling numbers around increased job migration and early retirements following a post-pandemic paradigm shift in worker priorities. The numbers don’t lie: attitudes around work are shifting, and companies are re-prioritizing to accommodate hiring needs in the years to come.
On Wednesday, November 8th, 2021, CEOs Henrique Dubugras of Brex and Roberto Ortiz of Welcome sat down for a discussion on how to build a shared mission, how to optimize for remote hiring and retention, and a deep look into the future of work where everyone is fighting for top talent around the globe.
Here are some highlights from their conversation, which can be viewed in full here on Welcome.
This talk was moderated by Angela Hottinger, Senior Partner Marketing Manager at Brex.
The changing landscape of recruiting in 2022
Angela Hottinger: In the last 18 months, we’ve seen a staggering level of investment into the tech space and a shift to remote work that has led to huge migration between companies. As leaders in the startup space, what are your thoughts on what’s causing this, and where are we going from here?
Roberto Ortiz: What’s interesting about our story is that we started in the middle of the pandemic. We didn’t start as a virtual platform connecting people remotely—it was only when we pivoted during the pandemic that we realized it would be a different world. Covid would either dismantle certain things that were working before and propel the ways people engage into the future.
We decided to place a bet on the future. We thought we’d build a tool that connected people in this remote world.
The market and investors know that Covid has changed the way we do things in meaningful ways, and we’re going to see how that manifests in the years to come.
Henrique Dubugras: We’ve gone through phases in our lifecycle—Brex is going to be five years old in March. A lot has changed in the world and with Brex itself. When we started, we had a completely different style of recruiting.
It was all in-person, mostly in San Francisco. There weren’t as many unicorns being founded every day, and there wasn’t as much funding. This has changed and accelerated since COVID.
At Brex, we have a mindset of iterating and reinventing ourselves. One of our core values is called ‘Growth Mindset,’ and we try to apply that company-wide. Even though we’re at around 1000 people, we’re always trying new things that may not have worked in the past, but maybe we should try again now the world has changed. I’m excited to share some of those learnings with you.
How to find the best people in a remote-first world
Angela: Brex and Welcome are rapidly growing companies with very ambitious missions. To fulfill those missions, you have to fuel that growth with the best people. What are your strategies in the current climate, and how does that differ at scale?
Roberto: With a lot of startups, you typically go to your friends and convince your craziest ones to leave their jobs and come join you. The formation of companies involves the core crazy folks who believe in a mission and give it a shot.
That was key for building our people in our early stages. We still look for that—not just to bring the right talent in that’ll enable us to build the platform and company, but also people with that startup mentality.
Henrique, I love keeping that growth mindset: there will be changes quarter-over-quarter, month-over-month, and you have to be okay with that. Today, we look for—and have always looked for—those who understand the startup mentality. Right now, we’re focused on people we love to work with.
For folks interviewing, and as part of the interviewing experience—onboarding starts at the interviewing experience.
How do we make sure that everyone who’s interviewing a candidate knows the things they’re looking for? As founders, we are all looking at the same things when bringing people into the business. The attributes that we look for make us better thinkers collectively and leave us ready to run as a company.
Henrique: When we started Brex, we got advice like ‘hire your friends’, but since we just moved from Brazil, we didn’t have any friends!
Then they say: hire the best people. Well, what do the best people look like? We thought we knew what that looked like in Brazil, but was that different here in Silicon Valley?
When starting a company, there’s a problem in that it’s hard to know what ‘the best’ is.
When we started, we struggled with that. We tried to solve it by looking at a couple of things: we had a ton of on-contingency recruiters working for us, the kind where they hire someone you give them 20%. We offered 30%, and it was great. That’s how we got around the friend thing.
But how do we know what’s good? One tactic to learn who was good was to ask our investors to introduce people who ‘are good at x’, not intending to hire them, but to benchmark what good looks like.
As a company grows, it goes through phases. I think most people, good or bad, are more comfortable with the risk-return of a mid/late-stage startup. If the founder is there, it gets easier.
Finding people with the right mindset
Angela: What are some of the criteria you look for when hiring for the startup mentality you want to find in those early employees?
Roberto: Hiring a Junior Engineer is different than a VP.
When I look at hiring, I start with the job that needs to be done. There’s the business side, but also the impact on the culture. If I’m looking for a leader, I’m looking for someone who can drive business results, and also be a great people leader. As a leader, it’s my job to protect the culture and to empower the culture we all want at the company.
Henrique: You have to believe in the mission of the company, that you’re doing something good. Find someone that cares about the ultimate goal of what you need to do.
Hire leaders to shape culture, not just to fit the culture
Henrique: This is something I changed my mind from the beginning of the company to now. I used to think about the best people executing in a similar way. But as we started to hire more senior leaders, we saw they all execute in their own way.
Some prefer to develop junior talent in a company and help them grow, whereas some prefer to hire people with more experience and use the opportunity of every role to bring experience in from the outside—two pretty contradictory ways to run a team.
Early on, Pedro and I thought we needed to decide which way we needed to go. But over time, we actually decided that it’s okay when leaders have the autonomy to do their own thing, as long as you have a set of values you don’t compromise on.
You lose the ability to get amazing leaders if you try to make their choices for them. We need to let the leaders of those functions have their own ways to operate.
Roberto: I’m loving this conversation, and we’re learning as we’re going.
We hire people who can build a better culture because they bring a unique perspective that we didn’t have before. It shouldn’t drive you away if they have a different way of leading or a different perspective. You should think that this person can enrich us as a company, and want to hear more of that.
One of the things we’re learning is that intentionality in building a remote-first company is multiple-fold: you’re not walking by, seeing your people, touring the micro-kitchen, the buffet that’s going to incentivize conversation. We have to work much more intentionally and proactively about building a culture that goes beyond the perks. That’s something we’re learning in our Year 1.
For us at Welcome, we’re always in Slack just like everyone else, but being a remote-first company, we have to document everything. People aren’t going to be part of every conversation. Time Zones introduce layers of complexity.
We’re learning you have to be intentional. Intentionality comes with the other side of iteration. We’re looking at quarter-over-quarter, pulse survey, what’s not working, what has to change. Not just in terms of how we run the business but also in how we build the culture. It’s an iteration engine.
Building culture in a remote-first world
Angela: In remote-first, while you don’t have those kitchen conversations, you can build incredible cultures, but you have to be intentional. Henrique, how have you thought about being a remote-first culture?
Henrique: We wrote a blog post on Building Brex on this that I highly recommend.
There were some upsides and downsides in the pre-remote world where you just had an office in San Francisco—the upsides were that learning ‘what’s really good’ was easier.
If I was an early-stage company, I would worry about whether you already have the benchmark of what great looks like—if hiring from the cohort of people in Silicon Valley you may have a benchmark of what amazing looks like.
The downside of building in San Francisco is wondering: do we really want to do this thing? Or are we only making this decision because everyone else in the valley is doing this thing? We caught ourselves adapting our culture to attract a certain talent pool vs. building the culture we really wanted.
I feel we’ve got the best of both worlds now. We had to go through that for a while to get our critical mass in the Bay Area, but now we know what great looks like. We’re hiring people from around the world, who are learning from the more experienced people; they’re becoming better, have a mixture of hard work and culture-fit, but also are super talented.
The reality is: the people in the Bay Area and other big markets are not smarter than people in the rest of the world. They’re not. But they may have been through experiences that have taught them a lot. Like they were in those early days of Airbnb and Uber where they’ve seen best practices, they’ve seen the problems at scale; they’re just as smart as people in the rest of the world, but they’ve been through stuff.
If you get someone who’s very smart and then put them through stuff or can learn from people who’ve seen it all, they can get just as good.
That mixture has been incredibly helpful. But now, having access to talent around the world has made recruiting so much easier. The bottleneck is not finding amazing people; it’s onboarding and training.
How to attract talent during the Talent Wars of 2022
Angela: Remote first has brought such a diversity of experience. As a remote-first employee myself, it’s been a great experience to meet people from across the country. What are some tactics for finding talent in a fully remote environment?
Henrique: There’s a race, now that everyone’s hiring from around the country.
There’s a pool of talent that hasn’t been tapped before. In the next 2 years, there’s a unique opportunity to find these people who are amazing and smart and talented, and now for the first time, are being contacted by Silicon Valley recruiters.
Angela: What's a bigger issue for you when recruiting individual contributors or managers in remote specifically: screening or sourcing?
Robert: Yes, there’s a pipeline and getting people in the door, but then the work begins. The landscape has changed, so with talent from all over the place—I perk up when I hear hiring someone from North Carolina; I want to hear their story. We’re also finding, if you take geolocation out the window, what the experience looks like.
Angela: What are some of the people measures you focus on to understand and predict employee retention and churn?
Henrique: I have a contrarian view here. One of the things that predict churn is where the person lives. If they live in the Bay Area, they will churn more. Statistically, that’s the biggest predictor. Why? You can have multiple theories about it, but factually it’s just true.
Manager score is the second biggest predictor.
Roberto: I think the pulse surveys matter; manager scores matter. People leave people, not companies. In a startup, that’s very true. Your ability to have a great relationship with your leader and manager supersedes the rollercoaster ride of a startup.
I was having this conversation with one of my leaders at Welcome, and he mentioned one thing he used to ask employers: “do you have a best friend at work?”
It was a way to test the connection at the company—beyond the mission, do you love working with these people? That’s part of our responsibility, too. We’re leading people, and people want to connect with each other, not just the company.
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