People Ops Question: When and how do we hire our first “People Ops” person?

Sabrina Kelly, Techstars VP of Talent and former VP of People Ops, answers your People Ops questions
Jul 10th, 2019  |  Sabrina Kelly
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At Techstars, we define our mission in People Ops as the following: “We are strategic partners in building Techstars business by maximizing the value of our most important asset—our people. We attract, retain, develop, and support Techstars employees globally and aim to uphold our culture and values, in a manner that is inclusive to all.” 

As the VP of Talent and former VP of People Ops, I hear a lot of questions from founders. This series aims to answer the most frequent questions.

Size matters

In my experience, there is a lot that you can get done early on with just a little external help. There are a number of influencing factors—the biggest being how quickly you’re growing—but until a company reaches about 30 employees, typically there isn’t much need for a dedicated People Ops person. Depending on your growth trajectory, I would start thinking about making a dedicated People Ops hire between 25 and 40 FTEs (that’s “full-time employees” in HR-speak). 

It’s around that point that consistent processes for things like onboarding, performance management, and recruiting become really valuable in order to maintain consistency in the culture of the business as you grow. In addition to getting ahead of some employment laws that kick in around 50 FTEs, it can also become more difficult to keep a pulse on the your employees around that point, as you’ll likely have multiple teams and managers starting to do their own hiring. 


When founders ask me what to look for in their first People Ops hire, I typically recommend looking for someone with some experience in recruiting, who is interested (and seem highly capable) to expand their role as the company grows. Recruiters are the gatekeepers to your company, and often at a scaling startup, your biggest pain point is hiring great people fast. Having a strong in-house recruiter that you trust can take a lot of that burden off of the founding team and also help to ensure that you are hiring the RIGHT people. Plus, it might be an easy trade from a cost perspective to repurpose your agency fees toward training someone awesome in-house. 

Beyond filling such a time intensive need, starting with a focus on recruiting allows the People Ops hire to naturally create connections with early employees that might make it easier for them to maintain trust and therefore a solid pulse on the company as it grows. Depending on seniority, those relationships and insights can allow them to ultimately to serve as an advisor to the founders on key people challenges as their position expands. 

Building culture

Recruiting expertise and background aside, what’s most important for this hire is that you feel strongly that this is a high-integrity person whose judgment you trust. Having a great People Ops person early on can potentially save you from some really bad (and therefore extremely costly) hiring and management decisions. Their ability to act as a high-integrity sounding board—for both founders and employees—can lead to really valuable counsel that helps steer the company in the right direction. 

Sabrina Kelly
As Vice President of Talent, Sabrina leads the team that helps Techstars to maximize the value of our most important asset - our incredible network of people. Sabrina's career has taken her across multiple markets in the US and Europe. Starting with an early love for talent in the NYC startup scene recruiting top technical talent for companies like Spotify, IAC and Etsy then gaining exposure to startup HR in the Boston market before ultimately leading People Operations globally at Techstars for five years.
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