Startup Year One: Lessons on Hiring New Talent, the Evolving Roles of Founders, and More

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The holiday season seems like an apt time to launch a cookware brand—one designed for and marketed to millennials, no less. Named in honor of cookbook author, editor, and Julia Child publisher Judith Jones, Great Jones is now celebrating its one-year anniversary.

Cofounders Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis come from two different business worlds with two different résumés, which might be the perfect recipe for success. (Forgive us for the terrible food puns.) Tishgart is a James Beard Award–winning scribe most recently at New York’s Grub Street vertical with previous stints at Teen Vogue, Vogue, and Refinery29. She also hosted a segment for CBS This Morning interviewing chefs. Moelis comes from the startup world, where she managed consumer insights for Warby Parker and was a product manager at Zola.

With year one now on the books, the first-time entrepreneurs reflect on how their roles have evolved, what goes into bringing on critical support staff, and what it means to be part of a growing generation of business leaders who launched their careers at startups.

The brand’s cornerstone piece: The Dutchess, an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven.
Great Jones

Fortune: What brought the two of you together to launch a company? And what inspired the launch of Great Jones specifically?

Tishgart: Maddy and I have known each other for 20 years; we went to summer camp together! We always kept in touch, despite our careers going in different directions. Prior to Great Jones, I worked as a food editor at New York magazine. After spending five years trying new restaurants for work, I wanted to take better care of myself and spend more time cooking at home. I needed to upgrade my kitchenware. (No more Teflon!) And I had trouble figuring out what I actually needed and why. It was surprising to me that there wasn’t a modern option; I couldn’t find cookware on the market that was high-quality, reasonably affordable, and aesthetically pleasing.

Moelis: At this time, I was working at Zola. I was their first-ever product manager. At Zola, I was observing the cookware market up close and noticed consumers experiencing the same frustrations as we were. When Sierra had me over for dinner and we talked about bringing this to life, I was immediately excited. That’s when we got started.

How did your previous job experiences at Refinery29, Teen Vogue, and Grub Street (Tishgart) and Warby Parker, Zola, and Jopwell (Moelis) influence your roles as founders and managers of a brand-new startup?

ST: My prior work as a journalist is surprisingly applicable to my role as a founder. A big part of starting a company is knowing what you don’t know—and then having the moxie to reach out to total strangers for advice, and conduct deep research, to fill in the gaps. That’s what I did as a reporter. Beyond selling products at Great Jones, we’re creating a compelling brand; we break down barriers to cooking by offering recipes and telling stories about not only how to cook, but why. My background in editorial comes into play here, as well. I also manage our communications. (We don’t work with a PR agency.) It’s an asset that I’ve had the experience of being on both sides of a pitch.

MM: Working at three high-growth, venture-backed startups prior to starting Great Jones was an incredible learning experience for me. Through those experiences, I was able to gain exposure into what it took to start and grow a company, and soaked up critical insights along the way. At Warby, I learned the immeasurable value of building a customer-centric brand. At Zola, I learned that technology is an extremely powerful tool to drive virality and scale. At Jopwell, I learned that bringing diversity of backgrounds and thought to the table will result in significantly better outcomes for any business. I’m so grateful for all of those experiences. Each one has had a unique impact on how I think about building Great Jones. 

The Great Jones Family Style complete cookware set
Great Jones

How did you split up the responsibilities and job roles between the two of you initially? How have those assignments shifted since launch?

ST: One of the benefits of us coming from different professional backgrounds is that our focal areas were and are quite clear. I oversee brand, product design, communications, and marketing; Maddy oversees operations, finance, strategy, and our website’s functionality. It’s less that our assignments have shifted since launch, but more that we’ve worked to figure out the ways in which our “domains” touch and overlap.

Had you ever been in charge of hiring before launching Great Jones? Did any previous mentors offer advice about what goes into making critical hires?

MM: I’ve been involved in hiring at all three of the startups I’ve worked at in the past, and was responsible for hiring a product team at Jopwell. What I’ve learned from those experiences is that while hiring is not a science, establishing consistency in the process from candidate to candidate is critical in evaluating fairly across people. A mentor of mine once told me, “Hire for attitude, train for skill,” and that’s a piece of advice that I definitely take to heart at Great Jones. We’re a super lean team, and everyone wears multiple hats. So finding candidates who are enthusiastic, inquisitive, and willing to roll with the punches is often a strong signal for job performance. 

What were the first few hires you made? What went into determining the kinds of jobs you needed filled, and what were you looking for in those candidates?

ST: Our first three hires were in social media, operations, and customer experience, all made shortly before we launched. These roles are highly differentiated, making our small team incredibly versatile. We landed on candidates who shared a sense of passion for establishing not only how the outside world experiences Great Jones, but also how we shaped our internal company culture. We knew how important it was that these team members set a positive tone, both in terms of work ethic and energy, for others to come.

How large is your employee base now? Do you have plans to grow it further?

MM: We are a team of eight right now, growing to 10 in early 2020. We are excited to bring on a few critical new hires in Q1, but we’re careful to grow our team at a pace that doesn’t put our internal culture at risk. 

What hiring advice would you leave with would-be entrepreneurs that you think they should know?

MM: As a founder, building a strong team is a core function of your role and can transform your business. Hiring takes time and energy and may feel hard to prioritize when you’re managing a million other things, but the impact of bringing on a great new team member can be game-changing. When you’re going out to hire someone new, don’t be afraid to ask for help: your investors, fellow entrepreneurs, and mentors have probably been involved in the hiring process for a similar role before, and can shed light on who to look for and where to look. 

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