Hiring and staff management are arguably the most important components of running a successful experience-based business. “If you don’t have the right people, the entire experience is missed,” said Misty Akers, co-founder of The Candle Pour—a Tampa, Florida-based shop that offers custom candle making. In this week’s deep-dive episode, we bring back former guests Misty and Dennis to talk further on the topic of employee staffing.
The couple shares their honed-in process, proven successful after having gone through the hiring, training, retention, and firing process time and time again. However, they didn’t always start off as experts.
“At the beginning, it was a lot of trial by fire,” Dennis said. “It was literally just getting your stripes by getting through the days and learning as you go.” As the Akers gained a better understanding of their customers, what they looked for in employees changed as well. Initially they just looked for customer service experience. Now they look for employees who they can genuinely tell enjoy being around other people—from children to adults.
The Akers also abide by the simple motto of “hire slow, first fast.” For many business owners, the default when an employee leaves unexpectedly is to look for a replacement as quickly as possible. And while this may seem tempting, the hiring process shouldn’t be rushed as it can be troublesome in the long run. “You start interviewing, hoping to fill holes so you can take a break,” Misty said. “But I’ve learned that it only gets worse and it takes longer to find the right person.” In regards to the “fire fast” aspect of the motto, Dennis admits that although harsh, that doesn’t mean they aren’t building relationships with all their employees. The decision is never easy, but sometimes it has to be made.
At the end of 2020, amidst a global pandemic and right at the start of the holiday season, the Akers faced an incredibly difficult situation after they unexpectedly lost all four of their full-time employees. Despite hardship, they stuck with their motto and pitched in the extra hours themselves and closed their store when necessary to accommodate the situation, even when this meant losing out on half of their sales for the year. “When we did that, we knew we were going to lose sales, but in the long term, we knew what we were doing was beneficial for the company,” Misty said. “We made the decision to have no business at all rather than an experience that would be off.”
Dennis and Misty also make sure to constantly communicate with their employees. If they notice something isn’t going as expected, they sit that employee down to chat and address it head on. Perhaps something is going on in a staff member’s personal life that business owners can be compassionate toward, but if it permanently affects the work that they do, sometimes the best route is to part ways. And when things are going smoothly? The couple make sure to express their appreciation—something that may sound simple but is often overlooked by managers and owners.
The employee feedback and customer reviews they have received reflect the successful approach Misty and Dennis have taken in prioritizing their employee staffing process and model. “Yes, we’re a candle company, but we are an experience, and our employees are the experience,” Misty said.
Here are a few key takeaways from this week’s episode when thinking about your own staffing approach:
- Don’t waste people’s time during the interview process. As soon as you know it’s not a match, let job candidates know. This saves not only their time but also yours. Misty begins her hiring process with an initial questionnaire containing general questions about hours and customer service. This simple step helps screen out candidates, and if it’s not a fit, she lets them know immediately.
- Employees want communication. When Misty asks candidates what they need from their employers to be successful at the job, they say communication nine times out of 10. Not only do employees want communication from their managers and owners—they want to know what the expectations are, if they’re doing a good enough job, and the areas they can improve on.
- Your team doesn’t have to be the same, but they have to mesh. You, as a business owner, and your employees make up a team. Although no one will be exactly the same, everyone still needs to get along.
- Show appreciation to your employees. Everybody wants to feel appreciated and valued, and sharing those sentiments with your employees can be the motivation that helps them perform at their highest level. Appreciation can be shown in various ways—Misty and Dennis always verbally thank their staff, such as for the time the pair has gained back to spend with their children.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Misty and Dennis, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 18 transcript
Hire slow, fire fast
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it. This week I’m doing my first deep dive episode. Bringing former guests, Misty and Dennis Akers, co-owners of Candle Pour, back on the show to talk specifically about the topic of employees. We’ll chat hiring, firing, training and retention, and how the process of building and growing your team has an immense impact on your reputation and the consumer experience. They’ll share their motto to hire slow, and fire fast, take me back to the early days of starting with trial by fire training, and share their most recent staffing challenge of losing all their full time employees right before the holidays.
Let’s dive in.
MISTY: I honestly think hiring is the most important thing in a business. You know, your business runs and what we do is an experience. And if you don’t have the right people, the entire experience is missed. It doesn’t matter if you can do it great. But if your team doesn’t believe in it, they’re not buying into what you’re trying to do, and the goal of the company, then everything is lost of what you’re trying to achieve in running a great business.
DENNIS: A team, we hired a team, so not everyone’s going to be exactly the same, but they have their roles, and they have their purposes.
And they need to mesh. If they don’t mesh, you can tell pretty quick. So not only do you have to do screening on the forefront, but then once they’re hired you want to make sure that they’re correct for the team. And honestly, I think Misty does a really good job at that. I have zero experience with hiring. She has a lot.
I just tend to watch when she’s hiring and weeding people out. And I try to ask questions on how she’s doing it, but many people start businesses without experience in that one part. And I would say, I mean 99% of what we do is getting the right people in the right spots. So then you can grow and you can really focus on the businesses instead of working inside the business.
EMILY: So take me back to when you were opening Candle Pour and hiring for the initial staff. What were you looking for?
MISTY: What I was looking for specifically was customer service. Just trying to find people who you can tell they love to be around people, the service industry. So I started initially looking for sales positions, retail sales, and then I realized that’s not who we’re going for. You know, we’re not going for somebody just in a retail shop. We want somebody that is used to from the time they interact with the customer until the time that person is gone, that they’re building a great relationship with them, and they’re walking them through the process. And so that was very important to me specifically, is looking for people that you could tell they enjoyed being around people.
EMILY: And then once you found those people and brought them on, what did those early days and weeks look like? How did you teach them the Candle Pour way?
DENNIS: Well, that’s changed. So when we first opened, we’ll call it a lot of trial by fire. There was a lot of learning we were doing and training of ourselves. I would say the big difference between we’ll call it 1.0 and 2.0 employees—1.0, being like grand opening and 2.0 is people we hire now—is we have a better feel for what we want from a process standpoint. Before we were just looking for really good people. And that’s what we still look for, but we have a better feel for now this is what we need out of them while they’re in the shop.
Again, beginning, we were just going, let’s go, trial by fire. We were busy. And when we were busy, when people got hired to come in, it was literally just getting your stripes by getting through the days and learning as you go. But now we want to really prepare them before they even get to that point. It can be stressful to learn that way. And we want to make sure our new staff members are a little bit better prepared before they get thrown to the wolves so to speak. It’s just a little bit of a different experience.
MISTY: I think we also understand our customers better. We didn’t know, day one that was people coming in. We had no idea what to expect. And so over the last I’ll say year, because we did close for five months due to COVID. But for the first year we were getting used to, what did people want? What were their expectations? What was working and what didn’t work? And you also have employees that you hire and sometimes you think that they’re going to fulfill something, but then you learn that your customer doesn’t want that type of attention or they don’t want that type of interaction.
And so now my shift has changed to hire people with patients. Hire people that can sometimes coddle, but then also, they have to interact with children. They have to interact with adults. You know, it’s a higher end experience, but also we have a lot of kids that come in and that’s not the feel that they’re going for. They just want to have fun and they want to create something. And so people that can definitely, speak in all worlds.
EMILY: When you guys first start to identify if an employee is going off the tracks, or they’re not lining up with expectations, how do you address that?
MISTY: One thing that I hear every time I interview, I ask what do you need from us if you’re given the job to be successful. And I would say nine out of 10 times, at some point they say communication. You know, I want to know if I’m doing a good job, if the expectations are there, if I’m not, then I really would like to know if there’s areas that I need to improve. And it sounds like there’s just a lot of managers, owners that just don’t communicate that until it gets to a point of no return.
For us, if we notice things we try to get to know our staff. For example, there was somebody that I could tell there was just something off. So we sat down and just had a chat and there was something going on in her life. So I was able just to give her a little space, but if it’s something that seems like it’s almost a permanent change that’s when you have to really let them know this can’t continue because this is not what we signed up for. This isn’t what you signed up for and if it doesn’t match, sometimes it’s best just to part ways.
EMILY: In our last interview you used that phrase hire slow, fire fast. And you know, to some people it might sound a little aggressive. And you even mentioned that in your last interview. It’s a little harsh. But why is it important. Talk me through why that value holds true and can be a benefit to your business.
MISTY: It just can go bad so quickly when you have the wrong person. And the problem is I think everybody’s gone through, it was like, you’re desperate. You need to fill a position you’re working, especially as owners, we’ll have times that one of us is in the shop basically from pre-open to late at night because we don’t have any help and no one else can do the job.
And so you start interviewing just hoping to fill holes so you can take a break and I’ve just learned it only gets worse. And when you hire out of desperation, it takes longer to find the right person because you’re trying to train and coach somebody that’s never going to be what you need. And it’s not fair to them, because you’re setting somebody else up to fail and they could be going on in their career doing something that’s more fitting. But I still do it, you know? And I think one of the hardest things is also when you have to let someone go that you’ve built a relationship, you’re attached to them.
And we recently had a really hard situation just before the holidays. Basically out of our four full-time people, we lost all of them within two weeks. Two were expected, one was, just with COVID, she was a little nervous to be in front of people. One was moving and then the other two were unexpected.
And, that for us was extremely hard. It put a damper on our family of just having time with the kids. We really thought about this holiday season, because we are reduced hours and reduced days, we were excited just to have more time with our kids. And it was the opposite. It was really hard. But when we sat down and talked about the long-term effects, if we didn’t do what we knew we had to do and that’s 80 hours a week extra that we were losing and the only two people to do it were Dennis and I. And so we made the decision and it was very hard. We sat down with the team members that were still there and explained, and we just wanted them to understand. Our decision and that it didn’t mean that they were all replaceable. It just meant that, no matter what, we were going to stand up for what was right in our company.
DENNIS: Yeah. I know you say it’s harsh and it is a harsh statement, hire slow fire fast, but that’s not to say that you don’t, like she said, build the relationship with your employees. So it’s not like this heartless thing that you’re doing, but it’s controlling an element of your staff that you don’t want to spread around.
And next thing you know, Everyone in the staff. So now you’re getting rid of the entire team. So you have to watch out and it’s delicate because it could be someone having a bad day. But when it adds up, when days become weeks and weeks become potential months, you have to do something about it. You don’t want to get to that month standpoint.
You want to figure out what’s going on. And you’ve got to attack it. And there was a lot of long nights. I mean, we couldn’t sleep. There was going back and forth. What do we do? Because again, these are people that have been around us for a very long time. People who, honestly, when we were busy before COVID, we saw more than our family. So it’s not an easy decision. But it is a decision that has to be made.
EMILY: That’s so tough, having to let go of two employees. I’m so sorry. It’s been a couple months since then. Any thoughts in hindsight, or any learning from that experience?
MISTY: Yeah. I think it’s you trust your gut, but most importantly, I think going back to what I said earlier is not getting desperate and letting something slide, especially if trust is broken. They may be your best employee. They may be your most loyal, but when something happens and you have to be truthful to yourself because it is hard to make that decision, but in the long run, it’s better. And quite frankly, what we had to do on several days was we just closed our business down and we made that decision. We were going into the holidays. Prior to COVID, that was our busiest time of year. And I would say, as far as our sales, it was about 60 to 70% of our sales for the whole year. So in just a couple months. When we did that, we knew we were going to lose. Our expectations change as far as sales. But in the long term, we knew what we were doing was beneficial for the company.
EMILY: Yeah, and I think that takes us right back to how this comes full circle. Whether it’s a great employee or an employee causing problems, it’s reflected onto the consumer, right? And that’s why the employee quality is so important. I think what you just said is it was better for your business, your brand, your reputation to have shortened hours or be closed on days than to have the wrong employee in there representing your business.
MISTY: A hundred percent. We made the decision to have no business at all, than an experience for somebody that would be off. Whether it be our employees or customers, we didn’t want that to continue and made the decision that we were better off with nothing than with the wrong people.
EMILY: Let’s bring it back real quick to the conversation about the good employees and how you manage retention, or just create that relationship with your employees, where they’re bought into your mission and they feel a part of your business. How do you make that happen?
DENNIS: Well, for us, I think it starts, since we are a small business, kind of putting in the hours and putting in the energy that they feed off of. So if we’re not doing everything and we’re not there and we’re not providing feedback to what they’re doing, then I can see how people can feel like they’re not part of it.
My take on it is I’m always thanking them for X, Y, and Z, and just trying to make sure that they feel appreciated because when we gained back that time, cause we’ve hired a bunch of people since what we were just talking about. For me I am thankful that I’m not working 9 to 2 a.m. for three months straight. So for me, I just let them know I’m thankful for what they’re doing. And then again, since training has changed, we just stay on top of them, let them know they’re progressing, they’re working towards something, and they’re working towards our growth. Our last meeting, we talked a lot about growth and as we grow and there’s opportunities. So if they feel there’s opportunities, and they’re cared for, and we’re going to work with them, and the communication is there if they ever need anything or if they need help on their schedule, because school’s all weird now, I think that’s what keeps people around. But it’s when you disappear and you don’t have the conversations and you just come in for a firing situation or for when things are bad, I think they lose a little bit of respect for what’s going on. So I think we were blessed to be able to be at the shop and I know that’ll change. It’s probably as soon as we start to grow, but we’re blessed to have that instant connection and you can feel it when you walk in, you can feel if something’s off and I think we’re both pretty good at determining that.
MISTY: Yeah. And appreciation is huge. We recently brought on a couple of people and within a couple of weeks, one of our new employees was by far, one of the top employees I’ve ever worked with. She just has a great attitude. As far as this business, she’s everything that we were looking for. And I was just thinking, how would someone let her go? She came from somewhere and I know that this isn’t just a new front she’s putting on, and this is her. And my thoughts are that somebody really missed the boat on her and appreciating her. Recently another one, kind of the same situation. And I think that it just means that the manager, owner, whoever’s in charge is just not paying attention to the goods and the assets that people bring.
Everybody’s not going to be the same, but everybody brings something special and I’ll happily take those people on and watch them. And they’re doing such great things for our business. And it just makes me sad because one of them actually, and I was telling Dennis, she said every time I was telling her we were having a team meeting, and she said every time my other boss said that we were having a meeting, I always thought I was going to be fired.
And my thoughts are like, why? I just couldn’t believe that she was even thinking that, and my first thought was like, what a poor manager for somebody to have that, and not be clear on how proud of them that they are, and where she stands. And I’m sure it happens a lot in business and again, we’ll gladly take those people on
DENNIS: Yeah, send them our way.
EMILY: I love that. Okay is there anything that you can share about the search process or the hiring process that can help anyone be successful when hiring new employees?
MISTY: I don’t like to waste people’s time, to interview and get their hopes up when I know generally, by the time we’ve communicated, I know it’s not a fit. So I will do an initial questionnaire, just some general questions, even just what are your hours that you’re available?
So if that’s not a match, it’s easy to let them know. I also have them answer some questions, just customer service related. The company right now, we’re going through a lot of COVID questions. What are you currently doing with COVID at the workplace and your personal life? Because we’ve committed to our employees to be a safe place to work, and we don’t want people coming in that don’t share those same values as well.
I’ll do that. And then a phone screen. So usually it’s about 20 to 30 minutes and just talk through so I can usually get if they’re excited for the job, sometimes people don’t even know what the Candle Pour is. They just send off a resume or they signed up on Indeed, and they’ll ask me, ‘so what is this company?’ And I’m like, okay, that’s not a good sign. So from there, if I feel like it’s a match, then we’ll meet in person. And I do usually about an hour of just sitting down. Now with a mask on. So a lot of our employees, we haven’t seen their faces.
So we’ll do about an hour and then just go from there. Or sometimes if I’m up in the air on someone or I’m not quite sure, I’ll have somebody else just sit down with them and just have a conversation. And really, we just want to make sure that it’s a fit for both sides.
DENNIS: So she’ll have the pre screenings and get through everything. And then I feel like if she wants to sit down with me, have someone talk to me, it’s like a good test to see if they can keep up with my brain because it’s all over the place.
And it’s actually a good test to keep up with a customer, because customers are all over the place. So I’ll sit down, it’s not a very formatted thing, and I’ll start talking about what they do and what they like, because that’s the type of question you ask our customers and how they respond to that, if they can, is a good indication how they’re going to be day to day, but 99.9% of the screening is done with her first. I’m like, just in case, like let me know what you think.
A couple of blessings is having our employees recommend people like the good employees. That’s been nice. It kind of cuts a lot of the Indeed out of it so to speak,
EMILY: Oh absolutely. I remember when I was in a hiring role as a hotel manager, I would much rather have one of my employees recommend someone to me, than for me to do all the legwork to find a new employee. I think your point about screening is really smart too Misty. No matter what industry you’re in or what kind of role you’re hiring for, there can also be some layer of screening that essentially helps both sides.
Alright, to close us out, anything else you want to share about the importance or value of employees when it comes to your small business?
MISTY: I don’t think so. I think really just the feedback that we tend to get is, and we’re a candle company that’s what we do a custom candle, but typically, if it’s a review, if somebody is just telling us about the last time they were in, it’s always about the person.
It is very rarely that they’re talking about their candle and they may, and usually at the end, it’s and my candle smells great, but they’ve said this whole thing about how they were greeted, how they were treated, the whole process. And so that’s really what we want our employees to understand as well as, yes, we’re a candle company, but we are an experience and they are the experience.
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