The challenges of running a start-up through a pandemic: Hiring

Atelerix share the challenges of hiring in lockdown

Mick McLean, Andrew Muir, Clive Stanway

Atelerix is a biotechnology company providing an innovative solution for storing and transporting cells and tissues at room temperature. As the company approached its 3rd birthday it was planning to expand its team, just as the country went into lockdown. We spoke to Mick McLean, CEO of Atelerix, Clive Stanway, Non-Executive Director of Atelerix, and Andrew Muir, Investment Director at UKI2S, to discuss the challenges of running a start-up during the coronavirus pandemic and how this has impacted the Company’s hiring process.

Atelerix currently has 7 full time employees, is planning to grow its commercial presence and expand into different sectors. As such, the Company wanted to add depth and breadth to the senior team by hiring a Chief Operating Officer and an Executive Chair.

What experience was the company looking for in these roles? “For the COO we wanted someone with specific experience in the cell therapy sector and a knowledge of the regulatory environment and the therapy development pathway,” commented Mick McLean, CEO. “For the Exec Chair, we were looking for a similar background, but in addition, someone who had extensive Board level experience, commercial and fundraising abilities”.

Finding the right team members can be a challenge at the best of times as they not only need to have the right experience, but also fit with the company ethos and work well with the team. This is usually assessed in person, with multiple rounds of interviews to gauge the candidate’s experience and personality. This however was impossible following the UK lockdown to limit the spread of Coronavirus. Postponing hiring people would have led to significant setbacks for the Company, and with no real idea of the timescale of the social distancing measures, Atelerix decided to proceed with a new approach.

The company undertook interviews via video calls, both one-to-one and in groups. This helped to overcome the challenge of hiring people without meeting in person and whilst it was challenging in some ways it actually offered several advantages. Andy Muir, Investment Director at UKI2S and Board-member of Atelerix, commented, “I think the candidates actually met more of the team in the interview process than they would have otherwise, because everything moved to video and we were all more available. And it was probably a faster process, because none of us had to travel. There is no doubt that some candidates find video interviews harder and it is more difficult to put them at ease, but actually from the interviewer’s perspective you focus more on what they are saying so it can make the process more objective”.

Mick added, “It did feel strange! However, we were fortunate in that we had met the COO candidate in person in a different context a few weeks before lockdown, so we “knew” him better”.

The economic uncertainty of the pandemic has led to a sense that some people are more reluctant to leave secure jobs and take a risk with a start-up at this point. Whilst this did seem to be the case with one candidate, Atelerix didn’t see a reduction in the availability of talent. Clive Stanway, Non-Executive Director, observed that the Company “would have found the same people” either way.

Hiring is very much a collaborative process, and often recruiters provide huge assistance in recognising the right people. This was emphasised during this hiring process and Atelerix worked more closely with the recruiter than would have otherwise been the case. There was more cross-checking of intent to make sure everyone understood each other than there would have been in a “normal” process.

Ultimately, Atelerix were able to find the right candidates who will make help forge a rounded senior team covering all the bases the Company needs to consider. The next challenge will be integrating the new starters into the team, which will be particularly difficult for the new COO who will need to understand the team and infrastructure remotely. Having hired a new Sales and Marketing Assistant shortly before lockdown, Atelerix has experienced the slight awkwardness of incorporating a new team member from a distance. It would certainly be better to welcome new starters in person but for now this is a challenge that companies will have to work through.

To combat any uncertainty around hiring via video call, Clive drew our attention to come of the other processes that might need to change. “We might think about longer probationary periods for people we haven’t met before they start, and we will probably do more soft referencing in the future although it is important to make sure this will not leak out and embarrass candidates.”

Going forward, this experience has taught the Company new approaches which will help with future hiring and in other areas. Mick said “I didn’t believe that interviewing by video conference alone would be sufficient, but it seems like it is. I think that I’ll feel more comfortable working like this in other situations such as contract negotiations, appointment of distributors and so on. Following the pandemic, I think the use of video conferencing will become more widespread and normal”.

So, does Atelerix have any tips for organisations going through the same process? “I’ve always relied on personal interactions with candidates to gauge whether they’d fit in with the team and as an indirect way to get a feel for things like personal warmth, integrity and so on. That’s not possible by video conference so you need to pay even more attention to framing your questions and making sure you’ve got your points across clearly and aren’t afraid to ask again until the point’s been addressed.” Commented Mick.

Andy added, “Whilst you can move faster with video, you can manage fewer interviews in the same day because it’s much more tiring. It’s also important that everyone on the call uses video, and I would recommend being up front with the candidates and your fellow panel members about how you will politely interrupt them if anyone speaks for too long – sometimes it’s tempting for people, especially candidates, to fill the silence which doesn’t necessarily help their case”.

In general, the hiring process has emphasised some key learnings about the benefits, and challenges of video conferencing. “Some years ago, when video conferencing was new and unusual, I used to run a training course that I called ‘The world’s worst teleconference’” commented Mick. “We started with asking everyone to list the worst behaviours they could think of to be exhibited during a teleconference: chewing gum, rustling crisp packets, drumming fingers next to the mic etc. We then acted them out with a mock teleconference between two (or more) sets of participants. Obviously, videoconferencing makes those bad behaviours even worse (or at least, more obvious), and it would be valuable to have the entire company have some training in how to conduct videoconferences and how to behave (or not!) during them. Both in the interviewing process, but also for day to day business”.

Like any start-up, Atelerix has had to overcome many operational challenges, some of which have been exacerbated by the Covid crisis. But it has also given the team time to reflect and prioritise. “I think we’re lucky in that we’re a small team with a lot to get done, and so this enforced slowdown has given us some time to pay attention to the “important but not urgent” activities that always seem to be left for another day (or until they become urgent). We’ve been able to flex the skills of the team to deal with these matters (preparing marketing materials, and training for distributors for example) so that we’ll be in a better position when things begin to open up again” summarised Mick.

For more information on Atelerix and its technology visit the Atelerix website. Atelerix is a UKI2S portfolio company. Get in touch to find out more about our portfolio and investment opportunities.

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