When it comes to buzzwords, the phrase “company culture” is up there with “hustle” and “wellness.”
But there’s a good reason for that—in a tight labor market, talented employees can afford to be choosey, and a great culture can be the difference maker when it comes to landing top employees.
Marcela Sapone knows a thing or two about hiring talented people and putting them to work. Sapone is the co-founder and CEO of Hello Alfred. Their company is dedicated to bringing hotel-style hospitality to more households. Essentially, they hire home managers to tackle the small tasks that no one wants to deal with: grocery shopping, doing laundry, taking out the trash. While this might not sound like a big deal, it is to people who are crunched for time–– and investors agree. Hello Alfred recently raised $40 million in Series B funding.
This job is highly intimate, and requires hiring employees who have the ability to form relationships with their clients while also being unobtrusive.
How does Hello Alfred achieve such a delicate balance, and create a company that’s based on the foundation of trust? We sat down with Marcela to find out.
Jillian Richardson: A lot of your employees are part time, and a lot of your staff are operating all over the city. How do you make sure that people still feel like they belong to a team?
Marcela Sapone: While the majority of our managers are full-time, we do have part- time workers. We’re an 80/20 split between full-time and part-time. We also have a workforce in eight different locations. Our culture is the glue, the foundation, and what keeps us in business.
We think a lot about how to scale our culture, since we’re fundamentally trying to build one of the most trusted companies in the world. We’re in people’s homes.
To create a sense of ‘being one team,’ we don’t think about our field staff differently than our corporate employees. Everyone has the same level of benefits. Everyone has the same perks. We’re a very flat organization.
We also try to create a shared context of everyone’s job and how they fit into our greater mission. For example, all our corporate employees go out into the field as an Alfred for a few days. That way, they can form relationships across the company and get context for what other people do. That creates a lot of empathy.
JR: It sounds like this notion of ‘one team’ is very strongly embedded into your company. How else do you communicate that?
MS: I have a strong belief that putting our mission statement on the wall doesn’t do a lot. We have to live our values and share them.
We also have an award at the end of the week which we give to somebody who exhibited one of those values, and we tell their story. We celebrate real actions and reinforce them, versus having a mission statement on the wall.
JR: What is some typical advice that you hear about building company culture that you think should be ignored?
MS: I don’t like it when people take a formulaic approach: “Write a mission statement and some values, put it on our website. Hire people with the same values.”
The problem is that there’s a kind of a dissonance between the words that you’re saying and what’s actually happening. Culture needs to be flexible.
Every new person who comes into our company is changing the culture. The DNA of the company is changing. All of us are culture bearers. It’s important to talk about how the values are evolving over time.
JR: What qualities are you looking for in someone that to you signifies that they’re trustworthy? How do you determine that?
MS: It’s definitely not an algorithm. We look for people who are inherently trustworthy. We feel comfortable in their company, they’re intuitive, and they adapt to situations well. They’re personable and hospitality-driven, and motivated by helping people.
Some subtle things that people do really make them stand out. It’s small things, like pushing in their chair after the interview or taking their coffee mug with them. Those are the types of cues that we’re looking for.
JR: What new skill or habit has helped you the most in growing the company?
MS: I’ve learned how to think about hiring myself, then firing myself, from every single job in the company. That way, I can ultimately learn to delegate to my colleagues. I have every job in the company—I’m doing everything, and wearing all the hats. So, to delegate and build trust with my colleagues, I have to “fire” myself from every job.
To be honest, it can be hard to delegate. It’s hard to give everyone who works for me trust on day one. But I’ve found that I can really get to a place where I empower every person who walks through the door.
One mistake that I’ve made is thinking that people need to do things the same way that I have. I have to let that go. There are so many ways to skin a cat. Instead, I just tell someone what I want the outcome to be, and what my one or two non-negotiables are. And usually, those are more values-based. For example, my non-negotiable is that we communicate to every stakeholder and we think about the story from their perspective and we involve them in the process.
Now I’ve given that person everything they need to be successful. They’re going to get to that outcome.
JR: What has been one of your favorite failures?
MS: You know, I think some of the best failures are when people say “No.” Like, “No, we’re not going to invest in your company.” It means that two things happen: One, you build real clarity on your own business and how it’s going to work. And two, it opens up the door for the right person to say yes. We heard “no” a lot in the early days, and I had to get really comfortable with it. But in the moment, it feels really terrible when somebody that you want to invest in your company says “no.”
JR: What is one of the best investments that you’ve ever made in yourself?
MS: To have a self-care routine. I am extremely busy. But even in my busiest week, I force myself to go to yoga. It’s the only time that I really shut off. I’m always grateful when I leave. Even when I don’t want to go, I always leave feeling reset.
JR: What books do you gift to people the most?
MS: We give everyone at the company at least one book: Danny Meyer, Setting The Table. It is the Bible on hospitality and how to treat people well.
The second book I love to give is Phil Knight’s Book, Shoe Dog, because it’s such a thoughtful reflection on building something from scratch and how hard it is. The outside world might think that you look very successful, but you can also be so successful that you’re failing. I think it gives everyone perspective about how to build things sustainably for the long-term. It’s a good book for people who are entrepreneurs.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity with consent.