Lessons in Hiring: How to Build a High Performing Team

27 June, 2019
Meryl Johnston

Meryl Johnston

8 minutes
Lessons in Hiring featured image

The hiring process can be complicated at times. At Bean Ninjas we’ve run the full cycle of hiring contractors, casual, part-time staff, and full-time staff.

When you’re growing quickly it can be difficult to know who and when to hire. In this post I’m going to discuss our journey in hiring. I hope you’ll find some valuable lessons in building a high-performing team.

When you're growing quickly it can be difficult to know who and when to hire. Click To Tweet

When do I hire new staff?

The first question to ask is ‘when to hire’?

We don’t have a fixed process on deciding when to hire. It’s more of an intuitive decision for us and we’ve made mistakes around this in the past.

… this is probably a sign that we should have more of a quantitative approach to staff resourcing, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Bean Ninjas grew quickly within the first 18 months of business. This growth phase meant a lot of hiring. The biggest mistake we made during this time was not starting the hiring process early enough.

We hired when our staff were at full capacity.

Our recruitment process takes about four to six weeks and bringing people up to speed in a role can take weeks or months depending on the role. Training a new employee also draws on existing resources.  This meant that staff who were already at capacity were trying to complete their work and train new staff.

In hindsight we should have started the recruitment process much earlier.

Also make sure to factor in the recruitment process and training period for your new recruit.  Expect delays and build contingency into your hiring process.

Hire before your current team is at capacity. Click To Tweet


Our hiring process and how it’s evolved

Ben and I built Bean Ninjas from the ground up. We did everything for the first four months of business. We were reluctant to take on debt, so the business grew slowly and organically.

Our intention was always to build the business to scale. We hired as soon as we had enough work to justify the cost of hiring bookkeepers.  

Early Days – Hiring Contractors


We hired three bookkeepers on a contract basis. Two were from Australia and one from the US. It was a flexible arrangement that suited everyone well. It also negated the risk of paying staff when there was no work to be done.

The downside was that it made scheduling difficult.

In the initial stages of a business, work will come in the door inconsistently. That’s why it’s recommended to hire contractors who can take on work when it’s available as you test whether the business model is viable. Hiring part-time and full-time staff is great, but you don’t want to pay someone to “keep themselves busy”. Careful thought is required before hiring part-time or full-time.

In hindsight, the business may have grown faster had we taken on debt and focused on building a high-performing core team from early on.

The early days are a critical time for the business. This is when a business will grow and succeed or fail. Many fail and hiring the right people is crucial. In this period we needed strong team members that could wear many hats, the accounts person is the marketing person and the HR person. These initial hires also need to be comfortable working with less structure, things are constantly changing in a start-up as you grow and improve, team members need to be adaptable, flexible thinkers and able to lead and follow as required.

Later days – Hiring Part-Time

In 2016 we decided to hire a core team of part-time team members. The benefit of this was that our team would have fixed hours and could turn around work faster for our clients. Then we’d still have the contractors available for any overflow work.

Hiring part-time staff is a good idea. Setting fixed hours makes scheduling easier, and improves the flow of work.

Enter Full-Time Employees

Once work was consistent, clients were loyal and the workload was increasing, we were able to make our first full-time hire.

We were lucky, one of our part-time staff members was able to increase her hours and become full-time. This meant as our client load increased we could match the demand with our existing resource. Otherwise, the challenge in creating a new full-time bookkeeping role is having sufficient workload available when a new bookkeeper is ready to start. The converse of this is hiring too late and running above our capacity to provide adequate service until the new bookkeeper was available to share the load.

Full-time employees take vacations, take personal leave etc. That’s when a few contractors available for adhoc work helps. If they’re already familiar with the work, platform or client they can jump in and help out immediately. They’re also useful with sudden upswings in workload.

I’ve found value in creating a tighter, more permanent team. Giving expert term members who take ownership of an area of responsibility are easier to manage than a large team of contractors.

The smaller team also makes communication easier and more efficient. This is especially true for communicating changes in processes.

Employees in this small core team can ideally work at least four days a week.  Invest more time in mentoring fewer employees, also helps them to develop faster.

During 2017 our focus was on improving the delivery of our service, building our team and providing an exceptional experience to our existing customers. In 2018 we are ready to focus on growth again.

Related: Bean Ninjas growth journey continue with Solo Founder

Striking the balance

Finding a balance between hiring when under-staffed, and reducing headcount when there’s not enough work can be a challenging thing to do.

A key learning here has been ensuring that we initiate the hiring process early enough, and focusing on trying to maintain a delicate staff balance in line with the amount of work required for our clients.

Finding Talent – Why Small Business Owners Struggle With It

high performing team

Talent is hard to find, especially when hiring freelancers. Two big risks jump to mind. Hiring a person who’s just between jobs, or hiring a budding entrepreneur. The former may likely disappear after a few jobs, whilst the latter may find something new and shiny to pursue.

I like working with employees who possess an entrepreneurial mindset, despite the potential risks such as their appetite for risk-taking and being able to keep them around long enough (many naturally want to move on to the next exciting project).

Others would disagree with me, but I’ve found that during their time they can add plenty of value. I also find that if they stay for longer, they firmly invest in their projects and work environment. They make a calculated decision to join and they make a calculated decision to stay.

Recruiting great team members is important and so is retaining them.  Retaining these entrepreneurial types can be challenging. They strive to develop and grow and are motivated by building something and moving forward. They are not necessarily motivated by being paid the most.

At Bean Ninjas we seek to develop a collaborative development plan with our team members that encompasses their goals for their career and for their personal life.  If you want to move to Indonesia for 18 months to learn to speak Bahasa, we want to know, we want to encourage you to do those things that will bring satisfaction to you in and outside the workplace and make you a fulfilled team member.  

We have an advantage over other employers in that we provide a flexible workplace that attracts and retains self-motivated staff.

Those who wish to transition from working full-time in an office to working from home can also pose a risk.

Let me explain why…

Whilst working from home might sound ideal, but it is an adjustment.  For someone not used to this working environment, they may find that some of the challenges that come up include isolation, not being able to build a social network from work colleagues, distractions (someone popping over unexpectedly, or laundry calling to get washed).  Not being able to “switch off” from work mode can also present challenges, which can cause stress with their significant other or family members.

Personally, I prefer someone who is already experienced in working from home or from a coworking space.

Finding the right fit for your business is the most difficult part of hiring, especially if you’re new to your industry. Some of the traits we look out for in our employees include:

  • Organized
  • Focused
  • Motivated
  • Self-sufficient
  • Problem solver

These are the basic traits (something all of us are looking for, right?). I also like to look for someone who is adaptable, as we are constantly changing and evolving. Someone who has a balance between speed and high attention to detail is also sought after.

Attention to detail is critical in bookkeeping.

So how do we find these talents?

Related: Who do you need on your accounting team?

Content Marketing

Being known in the industry is something that has helped us to find the right talent. Employees are eager to work with you.

Most of our recent hires came to us. One after listening to a podcast, and another after reading an article about Bean Ninjas in the Chartered Accountants magazine. These have proven to be great members of the team. They did their research and realized that they would be a good fit before approaching us.

Casuals Proving Themselves

Another of our best talents started as a casual. After a while, we could see that we had a good fit for our business.

Having casuals prove themselves is a great way to find the best fit for your business.

References and Referrals

reference and referral

References and referrals are key in hiring. References are nominated former colleagues or employers who have made themselves available to provide input on the candidate, whilst a referral is a candidate that is referred to you via your network.

To be honest, I don’t put much stock in references, as employees can choose their own references. They are unlikely to put someone down who would give them a bad reference. 

Other entrepreneurs I know follow a detailed process with reference checks and tests. I prefer to get them started with an on the job trial and see how they perform, communicate with the team and handle deadlines.

Referrals are good if they come from people you trust. Mostly we tend to hire people we already know. A friend recently started a small project with us. Since we already knew each other, we already had established trust and could communicate well together.

That said we do run some background and security checks to ensure that potential recruits are who they say they are.

Traditional Hiring

Traditional hiring methods are still a viable option for recruitment for many businesses and are the go-to for companies who aren’t yet being approached by job-seekers (or even ones that are). If you’re lucky, you’ll get tons of applications. With this comes the unpleasant task of sorting through applications and trying to decide who’s going to be a good fit.

It can be tricky to tell whether a person will be a good fit. Sometimes you’ll get employees who fit, sometimes you won’t. It’s all part of the hiring game.

Contractors are great, but keep a core team who knows the business, takes ownership and cares deeply. Click To Tweet

I personally prefer the content marketing and referral approach rather than posting job ads. This means that applicants who are applying for the role already have an idea about the values of the business and have self selected whether they are a good fit or not.

In Conclusion

Contractors are great, but I suggest building a core team who know your business, takes ownership and who care deeply. For me this key in building a high-performing team.

… and remember to hire early instead of when your team is at capacity.

Posted By

Meryl Johnston

Meryl Johnston

Meryl is a Chartered Accountant, entrepreneur, and surfer! The Bean Ninjas mission: Creating freedom for entrepreneurs through stress-free business finances.

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