Being the CEO of a startup is a unique leadership experience and a totally different culture for employees. Our guest built a business from the ground up, found employees, cash and clients, and has turned the corner into a business that is thriving. He has a phenomenal background and is probably one of the smartest people I will talk to. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Molecular Biophysics. He’s also a Techstars graduate and most importantly has a huge heart for his work.
Char Hu is the CEO and Cofounder of The Helper Bees, a business he started because of a personal story that made him want to change the way our elderly age in place. The Helper Bees works with some of the world’s largest insurance carriers to reduce their claims and administrative costs so that they can support older adults who want to age in place, at home. He has a wealth of knowledge on attracting talent, what it’s like working with two cofounders, what it’s like going through an acquisition, and how he has managed to continue to create an environment where people can thrive. I’m excited to also talk with him about his new Director of People and what that has been like for him. Char Hu, welcome to the show.
I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Let’s do a quick update. A few years ago, you started the business. Where are you now? Tell us how many employees you have. Are you remote? Give us some of those backgrounds.
I think the last count is 215 employees. To put that in context, in early 2020, we were about 20 or 23 employees. It has been a pretty massive ride. We grew to about 200 in a span of roughly 2 to 3 months back in 2020. It was a pretty significant scaling. If you remember, March 2020 was also a pretty volatile time for us, in general, in the world. It was fun to balance that as well as trying to scale. We are fully remote. We have a presence in Austin. That’s our HQ. Around Central Texas, we have a hybrid, so folks can come in whenever they want. Our office space is meant for a central meeting spot in the US where different leaders or employees want to fly in for weeks at a time to come in and hang out, work, and see some other folks.
Let’s talk about that growth because it has been my experience working with companies and advising them that to grow quickly, you need to have the people infrastructure in place. You have to do things that attract employees to the organization, and make sure they know what they’re doing once they’re there to be able to grow that quickly. Has that been your experience? Is that what you did?
To grow that fast, you have to hire everyone you know. Anybody who is smart doesn’t necessarily have to have the exact skillset that you want. At the time, if we’re honest with ourselves, we didn’t know exactly what skillset we needed in general. We needed smart and clever people who work hard and believed in a mission. If we had that, we could maneuver the individual towards whatever project, product or process we needed them to do.To grow quickly, you need to have the people infrastructure. You've got to have things that attract employees to the organization and then make sure they know what they're doing once they're there. Click To Tweet
I want to say it was deliberate but it wasn’t. We were hiring everybody we possibly could. Anybody in our networks who wanted a job that is mission focused and understood the general role, that’s who we bring on. At that point, it hits the machinery of the company. That’s when we start to imbue a certain amount of culture as we’re scaling. I invited everybody who joined the company to contribute to the culture because we had not figured it out. We were a group of twenty people in one of our founder’s homes. The pandemic hit and we scaled. We would love to keep that culture, but we knew it was impossible. We invited everybody new to participate in molding that.
What did that look like? How did you invite them? What came out of that?
The biggest thing is hiring. Most of you know that culture starts at hiring. The good employees are interviewing you as well as you are interviewing them. What we did is we had a lot of different people hired. It did not flow through me, the founder or even the senior executives. The vast majority of the hiring occurred on the ground floor. Everyone is hiring whoever they want. There’s an oversight. We want to make sure that there are the proper checks and balances, but when you decentralize that hiring function, especially when you were scaling that quickly, we saw a pretty significant diversity of employees come in as opposed to it being 1 or 2-person idea of who we ought to bring in.
That doesn’t answer the culture a bit. I think who you hire and who you bring in from a diversity perspective definitely affects culture and brings that together. We had an edict when you hit the floor or the company. I still do it now when I do coffees with new employees. I tell them that their job is to help encourage culture. It is an active thing and they’re part of it now.
How would you describe your culture?
First, we’re mission-driven. You gave a great preamble on who we are as a company. We’re here to change the way older adults age within America first, and globally, perhaps second. That has to resonate with you. It doesn’t always with everybody. Several years ago, I would not have cared, honestly. It was not on my radar. That absolutely has to be a big deal because what we do from building tech to doing customer service can sometimes feel far removed from our mission. If I’m writing a line of code, I don’t necessarily know how that fits with aging in place. Our job from a culture perspective is to remind individuals that it is germane to the aspect of aging in America, not only now but ideally, tomorrow and many years to come.
It’s a reminder of success stories. We publish testimonials every single week in a weekly update email that I send out, which reminds folks of all their hard work when they interact with an older adult or their family, and how that is perceived by the individual. That’s one. You have to be mission-driven. Early on and still to this day is autonomy, even among unproven or new employees. We hired you because you’re smart and you’re clever. You’re interesting. You believe in our mission. Go do cool things within the confines of the goals, and don’t sweat some of the smaller stuff. That’s another big part of our culture. Very early on relatively junior employees that were new to the company were making their own decisions on day one.
Were they good decisions? Do you have any regrets about that?
No regrets at all. There’s no way we could have micromanaged it. I’m sure that there were a lot of mistakes and that’s fine. You learn from those, but I don’t think there’s a way we could have hit scale with everything routing through one conduit.
I find it to be one of the biggest pitfalls of growing companies. It is that the leader or the leaders feel like they need to be involved with every decision that’s being made. There’s a limit to how much we can do. If we make that happen, not only do we slow down growth but we slow down innovation because we don’t have all the ideas.
As a leader, you have to be very cautious about where you put your time and your energy because you can’t do all of it from the prior prioritization scheme. It sounds cool. We give everybody this awesome autonomy and they magically made the right answer or took the right pathway. That’s definitely not what happens. Instead, the leadership now focuses on teaching and mentorship of what are our core principles and how we want to be as a company. We spend a lot of time with the leaders that matter. That gets distilled down to everybody else. That autonomy now is guided. I do not want to cast it as we are so clever and hired smart people. They pushed us naturally and it was all organic. It was definitely not the case.
It’s unique to have three cofounders in this business. What has it been like having this relationship with the three of you?
There are only three cofounders, but I’ve known them all for more than half of my life. One of them is my brother-in-law and he married my oldest sister. He has known me since I was twelve. That and two other aunts were the three cofounders. Our CTO, we went for a boarding high school program together. We went to college early at sixteen. I’ve known him since I was sixteen. It’s people who have seen me do very dumb things throughout my entire life.
That’s a challenge, but what it allows for is a tremendous amount of trust and respect for each other where we know each other’s weaknesses and argument points. When times are challenging, which we’ve had many of them, that trust is who you want to go and solve problems with. That’s where I think having two founders is a valuable experience. I talked to sole founders. I’m like, “That is hard. There’s no way I could do it.” It’s an emotional journey. You’re going to be racked with self-doubt. There are a lot of different pathways to travel and having people who are as bought in as you to argue against is a very nice feeling. Yelling at people who are literally as invested in the company as you are is great.Culture starts at hiring. Click To Tweet
There are pitfalls though. I get called in probably too often to deal with founder drama and personality mismatches. You guys probably don’t have that because you’ve got such a long history together. When you’re talking to other founders and they think about taking on a partnership, what advice would you give them around that? Not everybody has the advantage of having family and a long-term friend to be cofounders who are as smart as you.
We definitely have personality challenges, especially as we hit scale. As an early-stage company, you do everything you could, run fast, move quickly, break things, whatever cliche you want to use. As we’ve grown up as a company and have checks and balances, our personalities have changed. We’ve brought in more leaders too. Our C-Suites are now filled out. That’s challenging because it’s no longer us three. We have to broaden who we bring into our circle. It has not always been easy and it is not currently easy even with quite a bit of strength.
To your question about how you select another founder, it’s tough because as you undoubtedly know, you can’t predict where you’re going to head. It’s funny because I think entrepreneurs have to be optimists, but I’m a bit of a pessimist among the sea of optimism. Assume it’s going to go wrong. Everything is going to go wrong. Do you want to work with that person?
Establishing clear boundaries to have arguments and discussions is critical. Even though we knew each other well and we are family, that raises the bar of what’s at stake. It’s no longer just a company. It’s a relationship that is important to you for the rest of your life. You’ve had them for more than half your life. What’s more important, a company or that? It’s obviously the personal relationship. We’ve established boundaries and I use this to this day. It’s like, “I’m going to put my CEO hat on right now and we’re going to talk. I’m going to take this off and we’re friends. We’re going to go have a beer together.”
Our ability to be able to segment those is quite literally by saying, “I’m putting my hat on. I’m putting my work hat on. Do you want to talk about work when I’m over at my mom’s house having dinner on Thanksgiving?” The answer could be no and we’re done. We’re not going to talk about that and we’ll put it away. No matter what, you would have to establish those boundaries with your potential cofounders because you’re going to get into a lot of awesome arguments and it’s going to be fun. You want to know how each individual will handle that.
It’s usually the folks that don’t know how to lean into those difficult discussions that struggle because then they start to build up this resentment over time, and it explodes out of them at one point. The relationship is either ruined or severed or something terrible happens to the business. That’s great that you guys have figured out those boundaries.
All relationships are ever-changing. That’s why you stay married for many years. It takes a long time to figure that out, assuming people stay married for a long time. Talk about how now you continue to elevate each other and challenge each other as a team. Let’s start with your executive team now outside of the three founders. How do you continue to keep that conversation moving as an executive team?
It’s something that we’re learning through now. I found other companies before this. As you mentioned, I was a scientist. This is the first venture-backed company that has hit this amount of scale for the first time. Although I’ve been a business owner and business operator, this is the first time I’ve been a CEO. Within a company that’s six years old, I think I’ve only truly been CEO for a year, a year and a half or maybe two. It’s a short narrow window in time. I have been clear with all the new executives, “I want you to elevate me. You’re going to teach me something that I don’t know. You come from a lot of backgrounds. You’ve got a lot of success. That’s why we hired you. You need to teach me something.”
We’ve learned quite a bit along our way about how to deliver services at scale when everything is on fire, how to be calm, how to be thoughtful, and how we grow the team. I’ve approached it as a learning experience and it has served us well. We’ve had a great CFO, great COO, and a couple of CEOs now on different business divisions that have a ton more experience than I do, or maybe even other cofounders.
I think it’s trying to find this common ground, which is our mission, that’s unique. Nobody has worked in a company like ours, and being able to push and pull on each other on our strengths and weaknesses, and learn from each other towards this particular vision. That’s how we elevate. It is always casting it as, where are we heading as a company? What kind of company do we want to be if we were to attain that goal? Challenging ourselves constantly on that, I found to be the rule. At least right now, it seems to be jelling properly.
As a CEO, what’s your job description? What would you define as the things that you do as the CEO?
You’re hitting me at a tough time. I don’t know. I asked myself this question. I’m like, “What is my job now? I got all the C-Suite.” I used to run all of the operations. I was our finance guy. I do all the fundraising, sales and marketing. Now I’ve got a big team of individuals who can do all of that. I am trying to answer that question. It’s evolving over time. Now people are saying, “You label CEOs.” You’ve probably seen this where you have the visionary CEO or the subject matter expert CEO or the operational focus CEO. Where do I fit on that spectrum? I’m trying to figure that out.
Ultimately, it is ensuring that the direction of the company is the right direction long-term and that we are doing the things necessary to accomplish that tomorrow, but also in three years. That is my particular job in my view. It is to operate in a timescale of immediacy, short term, what’s going to happen tomorrow, end of the week, and where we are going ahead in 3, 5 or hopefully, 10 years.
I appreciate your vulnerability on that. As a fellow CEO, there’s a lot of head trash that can come. I’ve personally defined my role to be the head inspirer. I need to keep my team inspired. Once every other week or so, I try to come up with something that ties them back to the mission of what we do to remind them of what we’re doing. I also am the leader in terms of making decisions. Somebody has to do that. Capital, I got to make sure payroll is getting made. The one I added in was I’m also the person in charge of handling the jerks. I don’t want my team to have to deal with that. That’s my job description. Sometimes it can be maybe a little more ethereal than even what you said before, I don’t know.As a leader, you have to be very conscious of where you put your time and where you put your energy because you can't do all of it from a prioritization scheme. Click To Tweet
Do you then overlay that with what you want to do?
Yeah, because I want to do this thing. I want to do this and to be still out there spreading the brand and the message. Thinking about how to end suffering in the workplace, which is what we do, that part of it is also important. Keeping my team motivated and inspired to do the work is probably the thing I’m working the most on now. It’s tough. Work is hard now.
Everything from macroscopic to even your local environment is challenging. As a CEO, your company changes quickly or slowly even. Going from a founder to a real CEO, I struggle with that question I just asked you. It’s like, “This is what I am doing. This is what I should be doing.” Hopefully, there’s some overlap there and this is what I want to do. Hopefully, there’s a lot of overlap there. What’s interesting as founders who have hit scale in early-stage companies that want to scale is you have the opportunity to ask the question, “Do I want to be doing that?”
It is very different from the early stages where you couldn’t. You had no luxury to ask that question. Of course, you’re going to be doing everything. I’m the one physically running payroll. I’m the one doing all of these different tasks like doing the taxes and everything. Now, it’s less and less that you have to do it. That list gets shorter and shorter. You get to choose what you want to do and that is surprisingly hard to deal with.
What do you want to do?
I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. What am I good at? What does the company need? What does that intersection? What’s that Venn diagram look like on all of these things? It depends on where the company is at. As a founder, you have a vision for why you founded the company. Rooting yourself in that and how you can best execute that is an internal question that takes a long time to answer.
I was a software engineer before this. I worked for IBM. I hated that job. I was good at it but I hated it because it wasn’t my personality. I wonder if the journey is looking at also what lights you up. What’s the work that you do that time flows? It goes by quickly. At the end of it, you feel like you had a great accomplishment. That’s probably where you want to be spending more of your time as the business continues to evolve. You outsource and delegate everything else that you’re not great at, or that doesn’t give you that same feeling. We run on adrenaline in the early days where we can do anything and get it done. I can’t believe how much work I got done in the early days of my business. Now, I don’t have that vigor anymore.
It is challenging because what’s fun in the early days is you are doing everything. That means it’s constant stimulation. You’ve found a company because you love that. You love testing your ideas out there against the world, modifying them and trying to succeed in that. Even though I don’t know what I want to be doing, I have a general idea. The undercurrent is always I want to learn more, even the things I’m not great at. What’s cool about founding a company is as long as you are commerce related, you get to try it out and learn. It might not be the most fun thing in the world, but gathering that skillset with context that’s real life is a lot of fun.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. What was it like to go through the acquisition?
We acquired a couple of companies. The first company we acquired was a few years ago. They’re bigger than us. They were older like they had been around for 26 years. I have never bought a company before. I have met the sole female founder. She had a wonderful story. She’s a registered nurse who was doing great work but needed technology and a bit of a succession plan. I have never bought a company. I have no idea how to even structure. We had to call our attorney like, “How do I actually do that? Do we give them money?” It was that basic.
What the actual experts in the field have told me is true on stuff that is strategic, which is our hearts and mind bonded. We understood where we each wanted to go. There’s a common pathway. We felt like it was better to team up than to go our separate ways. That ended up going very well. At some point, we ended up 8X-ing that company in a fairly short amount of time, probably eighteen months.
The second acquisition we made is several months ago. It’s funny. In our initial intro call, I almost canceled it because he seemed like a competitor. I’m like, “That’s the thing I want to do.” On the other side, he’s like, “Who am I talking to?” We had a mutual contact through an intro. We both didn’t want to take it, but within ten minutes, I’m like, “Our roadmaps are aligning on this.” We had a little bit of scale and could definitely help execute on that. They had built an interesting tool. Our hearts and minds bonded. Both of them have been transformative. We’ve been able to 8X and 10X both of their revenue in a short amount of time. It shows how people who are aligned on a vision and mission, and have the resources to go and execute those can change a whole lot in this world.
What do you think the employee journey was like? What was it like for the existing employees at The Helper Bees when you brought these two companies on?
It’s a challenge because you never know what the acquisition is going to go through. How much do you share with your employees that you’re doing it? You don’t want to exclude them, but you also have no idea whether it will happen. The first one was being open and talking about it. It’s the same with the second one. In both companies, we started working together before the paperwork was signed. That was a conscious decision of mine to say, “I’ll give you my time and a lot of my team’s time because I assume we’re going to do well together. Why should we wait?”Our job is to foster a sense of connectedness because it allows information to flow. Our strength is being able to hear different ideas, hear different complaints, and act upon them. Click To Tweet
The teams in both instances got to start to work together. I don’t think everybody knew what we were trying to do, but enough folks did. When it happened, it was met with a collective. It’s like a natural thing. How you integrate the companies is a different story as people are scaling up. It was met with a collective. We saw this seven months in the making or whatever it ended up being.
That’s a great way to do it. You didn’t use this word, but being a little bit more transparent with it. It wasn’t like throwing change upon everybody. It was a little bit more experienced along the way. You were able to be transparent about it. Maybe not what the final outcome was going to be, but at least working together.
It’s like fundraising. Your team close to you knows that you’re honing in on something, but you don’t want to jinx yourself or whatever you want to say because deals can fall apart at the last minute. You bring your team along for the ride. Now, if I introduce a partner company to them, 1 in 4 is going to ask outright, “Are you looking to buy them?” They now know the playbook.
Your cards are on the table. We’re in the final piece here because I don’t want to take up too much time. Talk a little bit about what you are doing now for your staff. You got these 200 employees and continuing to grow. What do you feel like you need to be doing now to continue to elevate them?
It’s challenging in this environment. We’ve got employees in 40 or 42 different states. The vast majority of them, we’re not going to see in person. I keep leaning on this mission-driven approach, but how do you foster that feeling of connectedness when you’re working at home in a state where you don’t have another employee? A lot of leaders are dealing with this now. The way that we can elevate our employees is to create an atmosphere. Maybe it’s on Slack or maybe it’s on virtual rooms.
It’s a combination of all of those sorts of things, where you feel connected and part of an organization that’s doing good in this world. You need to feel a part of it. We don’t have it figured out completely. I think we do a heck of a job at it, but it’s still early days for us. Can we maintain that? As we continue to scale maybe by other companies, but definitely scale and add more employees, how do we keep that feeling of the first day of a new employee? I opened my Mac book up and who do I talk to? I can’t turn to anybody.
That has driven us since the first day. I was like, “Have their calendar booked. Have a buddy booked within their department and also across the department. Get in and talk to them.” I can’t imagine the loneliness you must feel when you open your laptop and you have one meeting. What the heck do you do? Our job is to foster a sense of connectedness because it allows information to flow. Our strength is being able to hear different ideas, hear different complaints, and act upon them. If we have people who aren’t connected to us, we would never get that data input. We were worse off because of it. Our job as leaders is to ensure that data flow happens.
How do you lean on Crystal, your new director of people for that?
She has been great. Her full-time job is not all on recruiting. Her team does a lot of the recruiting now. We do have a recruiting functionality, but hiring managers are integral to that process. We’re still keeping that early stage of decentralizing hiring. We have a people department. We are centralizing but still keep a lot of voices involved because we are a very diverse company. We’ll continue to be that way. What she’s particularly good at is telling the executive team, “You need to be thinking about this.”
When I mentioned connectedness and hearing the voices, it’s so much harder. I’m booked on Zoom calls now eight hours a day. I’m not following everything. She’s the one saying, “Your company, broader than your executive team, thinks about this now.” She’s grabbing us and saying, “You got to think about it.” That’s incredibly valuable to be a representative or the voice of the rest of the company.
That’s a great move that you’ve made bringing her in and having that broader team. Somebody needs to be thinking about the people and what they need. If nobody is doing that, that’s when you start to see culture erode and you get an accidental culture, which you don’t want.
When we grew that quickly, the first senior-ish role we brought on was people. It’s everything. If you love that, it’s hard to come back from.
I love that. You’re singing my song there. On that note, I want to thank you for your time. I appreciate this and hearing your story. To everyone, thank you for tuning in to this episode with Char Hu. We will see you hopefully on the next episode. Char, we will follow up in a couple of months and hear how you’re doing as well.
About Char Hu
Char received his PhD in molecular biophysics where he researched the underlying mechanisms for diseases like Alzheimer’s. He went on to build and operate Georgetown Living, a certified Alzheimer’s and dementia living facility known for its evidence-based design building and pet therapy ranch animals. In 2015, Char co-founded The Helper Bees, bringing his passion and industry experience to his mission of transforming in-home care for older adults. The Helper Bees is an insurtech company that works with some of the world’s largest insurance carriers to reduce their claims and administrative costs by supporting older adults who are aging independently at home. Dr. Hu serves on several non-profit boards whose mission is to deliver services to older adults in need.