Hiring your first employees – a Q&A with Muddy Boots

Last week Sue Keogh shared her experiences of hiring her first employees. This week Miranda Ballard, founder of Muddy Boots Foods and Sage Business Expert looks back at what she’s learnt when going from 0 to 1.

How many people to you employ?

Muddy Boots directly employs one person full time and one part time, as well as Roland and myself. We have outsourced the manufacturing and distribution of our burgers and meatloaf. Those contracts run four days a week and contribute to another 10 jobs.

Would you recommend employing someone temporary or part time?

We started off thinking that part time was the way to go to keep our costs down but have since learned that, if you need to ask a lot/get a lot out of an employee then, and if you can afford it, it’s best to put them on a full time contract. Part time works well for our book keeper as we only need her for one day a week. However, our full time employee, Jen, runs sales and operations. She is extremely dedicated and we’ve been able to grow her role and give her more responsibilities because she’s performed well.

muddy boots foodHer predecessor was on an hourly/part time contract and we just felt like as a result they never gained the momentum or looked beyond the ‘to do’ list on her desk. We were paying her up to 7 hours a day sometimes, and we now realise that for another hour or two per day extra cost to make it full time we would have gained far more value from her than it would have cost us.

Part time also means it’s hard not to let people be flexible with their hours. Honestly, I don’t want to hear about whether they have to take their dog to the vet or if it would be helpful if they started later one day because they’re picking someone up from the airport, for example. Full time means you’re all clear about what is expected from them in terms of their hours.

I’ve been an employee and now and employer and I can appreciate both sides. It’s not nice to feel ‘owned’ but you have essentially sold your time. That time belongs to your employer. I know that sounds draconian but that’s the basics of it. We were far too soft with our first employee, we didn’t assert our confidence and authority and she walked all over us. She didn’t go the extra mile, she barely completed the ‘first mile’.

Be confident, you are paying them and they need to respect that. Having someone full time means that the relationship begins with the right balance in place.

How do you recruit?

We’re just about to use a recruitment company for the first time, as we don’t have enough time ourselves over the next couple of months. Until now however, we’ve always done it ourselves by spreading the word in the area. Our local petrol station charges 25p per week to put a sign in the window: that’s a lot cheaper than recruitment fees! It does depends on the role though – if you’re looking for creativity, for example, or a specific skill set, that’s going to take more effort.

We made a silly video when advertising one of our roles. Not only was it was great fun to do but interestingly was also a great marketing benefit. If you send a newsletter to your mailing list, many people will just read it and delete it. If you put in a job vacancy, they’re much more likely to forward it on. So at least include a picture of your products and your logo and even go a step further to make a daft video like this that will hopefully entertain people.

Another good way is to ask local business owners – they might have met someone else in an interview process who just missed out on getting the job but who they would recommend. You might also find a local company that isn’t able to promote someone, or needs to look at redundancies – they might let you meet their employee if it works for them. Similarly, but less politely, you can pinch staff. If you come across someone that you want to work for you, make them an offer.

How do you interview?

We keep it pretty simple – just Roland and me and a cup of tea. We ask them about themselves and about things on their CVs. Then, just at the end, without warning, we go over to the video camera on a tripod, switch it on and ask a question like, “If you could have entered the Olympics, which sport would you do and why?”

It forces them to think of their feet, it shows you how original they are, and also whether they spook when being put on the spot like this. We were recruiting for a sales position and these factors were really important to us. Jen, who got the job, didn’t mind it being sprung on her at all. She was charming and confident and she gave the best answer of the lot – even making a funny quip on the spot. We were very impressed.

It also really helps to have a video record of the people you meet. You might meet a few in a day, or they might be spread out, and it helps remind you of how you felt about them.

How do you keep your employees happy?

We’re still new to this and as you can tell from our first employee, we’re not natural managers [?]. We certainly make sure we are really transparent – we talk through the weekly management accounts, we’re open about the struggles, as well as making sure they feel part of the celebrations of a good thing.

Particularly for a small business, it’s a risk for an employee – you have to offset the slight feeling of insecurity with the wonderful benefit of working for a small company, which is the excitement and the dynamism. You all get to try stuff out and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work straight away, or at all. That’s surely more fun that working in a big corporation with hierarchy and red tape.

You do have to make sure they’re enjoying themselves.

We have a rule that they have to be happy when they walk into the office. None of this ‘not bad thanks’ in answer to ‘how are you?’. When Jen gets to the office door, we say, “YAY! JEN’S HERE!” It sounds silly but isn’t that a nice greeting for you when you get in the work? Just to be made to feel welcome. We’re always going to do this with every employee now.

Miranda Ballard

Miranda and Roland left behind their London media careers to return to Worcestershire and launch their own food company, Muddy Boots Real Foods Ltd. Their customers now include Waitrose, Budgens, Ocado and some independent retailers. They share thoughts on running a business on their ‘countrypreneur’ blog: www.muddybootsfoods.co.uk