Be brave, choose the right company for you

There’s such heat around recruitment not only in our local community but also on a global scale. Best talent, employer of choice, retaining A-players, onboarding, career paths — all of them became keywords we often use obsessively. Our approach to bringing new people on board goes beyond sexy words.

We live in a world where the knowledge industry is growing tremendously. We sell concepts, ideas, abstract constructions far more than physical strength or skills. Pixelgrade is no exception. We’re part of a league where design-thinking stays at the forefront of everything we do. However, this doesn’t imply that implementation is less important. On the contrary.

The reality shows that there’s an abundance of bold and disruptive ideas, but few can find smart, ethical, and performant solutions to transform them into reality.

The way we recruit at Pixelgrade is relevant not only for the local community — by the way we’re the rebels in an ocean full of corporations or undercover manufactures — but also for the global eyes who watch us. There are quite a few of the latter: from other WordPress themes authors to demanding partners who want to collaborate with us in the long run.

I’ve been going through a lot of explorations, from participating in The Watercooler leadership community as an ambassador for more than one year and a half, to reading tons of articles about how to bring the right guys and gals on board. I’ve had countless talks with peers about how they cope with internal team dilemmas while working with a professional consultant to shape a framework tailored to our personality – I’ve been iterating on it heavily along the way, and I even made it (somehow) public. A deep dive by any standards.

Therefore, what I’m going to share is not yet another article where people brag about how they put together a successful process for hiring. In fact, it’s at the opposite side of the tunnel: a transparent yet vulnerable story about how you should look after the right company, and why recruitment is more about you and less about HR people.

Before, a little bit of context.

For the sake of history

Ten years ago, in Iași, where we have the main office, it was quite challenging to find a job, unless you wanted to be an agent for a call center or the hospitality industry.

Doing a lot of stuff helps you discover what works for you

It was damn hard to make a living as a marketer, designer, videographer or any other job within what we call today creative industries.

I still remember the times when I was volunteering for Creative Coffee — a global gathering for entrepreneurs who wanted to share their ups-and-downs stories with the world and looked after sponsors to sustain our project.

I met hundreds of people to pitch how sustaining creative industries is a great strategy for their businesses, and why people are more prone to start making money out of their intellectual property. The results? Folks were raising their eyebrows and making a fool out of me.

What’s a creative industry in the end? Do you think the world needs more dreamers? Why should we give you money? What does it mean to be a creative entrepreneur? How does a community help my business per se?

All these questions were hitting me in the face over and over again. I found a way to run Creative Coffee for 23 editions in a row and expand the concept across more than ten cities around the world, but I knew I needed to speed up my freelance career to survive.

Being independent and working on my own was one of the smartest things I’ve done, especially in those times.

I learned what it takes to work remotely, how to pack my copywriting services, how to make sure I get my money on time, where to find collaborators, when to delegate tasks, and so on.

Fast forward almost eleven years, and today the local landscape looks completely different. Students are snatched directly from their first or second year of college by big corporations with an inflated speech promising just about everything: top-notch working conditions (even massage, right?), an office in the heart of the city, a growth hacking mindset, dream technologies, big projects, you-name-it.

The reality shows that most of those students did not volunteer one day in their life; they did not take the freelancing path; they did not practice their know-how or skills in a real environment. However, a lot of organizations keep screaming about how much they want them to be part of their tribe, even without bringing real value at least in their first six months, even a year.

It’s one of the basic laws of economics: the request is higher than the offer.

At Pixelgrade, we don’t do that and, to be forthright, we’re quite proud about it. We don’t want to settle and accept low standards. We aim for more. We’re looking for people who want to push their boundaries, get out of their comfort zone, and put all their effort and energy into growing themselves.

Here’s a real scenario when most companies zig, yet we zag.

Last summer, Vlad, our CTO, put together an internship program for backend development. It was our first time. He started with three students with a different level of abilities, and three months later chose Cosmin, the most promising candidate.

It was an intense journey where Vlad put his best work on the table and helped these students evolve in ways hard to replicate in other environments, especially if it’s a 100+ people gang.

Thus, what sets us apart is how we deliver this kind of internships and the care we invest in such challenges. You are not one of a bunch who’s learning the same poetry, and also nobody promises that you will be hired at the end of the experience. No, my friend.

You embrace the challenge, make the most out of it, and convince us that if we don’t bring you on board, we’re losing a great fellow. You pitch us more than we do because you’re at the beginning of your career and need help to grow more than us.

Sounds harsh? Well, let me remember that 10+ years ago I needed to travel the country to find collaborations, and I was working the hell out of me to prove that I deserve to get the job.

Don’t be fooled by the increased demand in today’s market, where companies have just one (honest) goal in mind: to make money out of our time. Watch your own back.

The moment you are in life as a whole

Not too many HR people, CPOs, or any other folks who wear similar hats tell you about how crucial it is to take a look in the mirror and get a glimpse of the moment you are in your life. By that, I mean being authentic about your current values, your aspirations, your dreams.

Slow down and ask yourself those tough questions

Are you planning to have a kid and want to have six months off? Do you aim for a sabbatical? Do you want to build a greenhouse? Do you want to have a balanced personal life? Do you value the time you spend with your family more than earning money? Do you need a big chunk of cash right away to get rid of some debts?

Genuine answers impact your choices. If you’re not honest with yourself and you’re just looking for a job, well, my friend, you are doing it wrong. You know what will happen? You are going to choose the company where you will receive the big bucks (since they seem to be a neverending problem), but the likelihood to deliver your best work are quite slim.

And yes, that money will help you buy more clothes, travel and publish award-winning photos on Instagram, but you won’t be happier because what you do at the office is just crap. It does not help you grow your skills, your knowledge, you are not entertained intellectually, you have teammates who share radically different values, and so on.

The truth is that you are fully responsible for covering your needs, and you probably should invest more in finding the company which can help you satisfy them.

Don’t leave it to the HR people to watch your back because they have their own metrics to reach, stakeholders to please, and too often their goals do not align with yours.

Invest time, energy, and money in finding the organization where people care about your evolution, but not any kind, a meaningful evolution for everybody.

For instance, at Pixelgrade, we need autonomous makers who are eager to go the extra mile and accomplish significant results. In daily reality, this means that you need to be focused, disciplined, work fast, assume more duties than those written in job profiles, take the initiative, keep your promises, and so on.

In such a small team like ours if you don’t deliver, everyone will know. You don’t have places to hide because there are no layers upon layers of management.

Yes, we have an awesome office, a great taste on design, gaming console, goodies, lunch on us, a beautiful red sofa, but that doesn’t mean that we’re superficial, lazy, nor that we’re playing all day long. What brought us here (almost eight years later, revenue of almost $3mil, 25+ themes in our portfolio, a role model for some WordPress authors & Co.) was the hard work we’ve put behind everything we’ve done.

Therefore, if you need a cozy place, where you have a team leader who delegates tasks, and days where you get bored and scroll on Facebook, please don’t consider Pixelgrade.

It’s not labeling. In fact, maybe it’s nothing wrong about the company which allows you that kind of freedom, but we’re not part of the same movie. Of course, we do scroll on Facebook, we do take days off to slow down, we do play Fifa (even I), but… you get the point.

A hiring process should make sense

I’ve heard about all kinds of hiring processes. From the ones where you talk with robots, you receive a PDF 5.249 pages long about the company’s greatest successes and the way they shape the world every day with care and a human touch.

If the company hires you and doesn’t care about your potential nor how you want to evolve, maybe it’s a sign to take a step back, rethink, and take it from there.

People first, companies later

Please bear in mind that it’s your responsibility to know where you want to grow, not the organization’s task. I know that most people are forced to improve their public speaking skills, to run local meetups or to organize conferences on a particular topic because the company aims for more media reach, but I don’t believe this is a healthy yet ethical approach.

I think it’s far more healthy and balanced if everyone would dig deeper to find their core skills and ambitions, and the company could support them in reaching their creative potential entirely.

At the beginning of Pixelgrade, there was just one rule for recruitment: nice, passionate people. The thing is that people are puzzled quite a lot, overestimate their knowledge or skills, so the mantra needed some support.

I must confess that I feel sorry for those folks because they’re not bad per se, but their professional history reinforced the idea that money equals a certain skills level. In other words, if today I earn more is because I am far better than a year ago. It’s not necessarily true.

That’s why we worked closely with a professional who knows our team (she’s also a therapist and coach) to develop a blueprint for our recruiting process which matches our values entirely.

  • We start with having a coffee where we chat more about what we do, how we do it, who we are, what experiences shaped our path.
  • We continue with a technical chat and a technical test: sometimes it’s a brief (if you apply as a marketer, content writer, etc.), other times it’s the analysis of a theme in terms of design or a snippet of code.
  • Then you have a Skype call with Laura with whom we put all these stages together for a personality test and a short chat.
  • The final lap is about the results of the test (you find out a bunch of insightful ideas about yourself which can help you regardless if you join the gang or not) and the financial offer.

I always describe this experience as a two-ways journey where we both have the chance to find out interesting things about each other. There’s no ascendancy, no win-lose relationship, no fake negotiation — no human spam.

If I were you, I would start with my own dreams, ambitions, and goals. I would try to be true to myself and stop the bullshit regarding the rules imposed by everyone else: family, friends, society, companies, ex-employers, etc.

Once I got some clarity about what I need and want, I would write careful e-mails to those companies which seem to fit, not before doing my research about what kind of people work there, how’s the culture, what makes them, them.

At the end of the day, you are the sole guardian of your happiness, both personal and professional, so you know best what works for you. Be brave and follow your heart.


Oana is a storyteller at Pixelgrade and community builder for creative industries. A true believer in the power of making the world a better place one story at a time.